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So, what is the BI Semantic Model?

Reposted from Chris Webb's blog with the author's permission.

Over six years ago now I wrote what proved to be a very popular post here on my blog called “So, what is the UDM?”. It was written in response to the widespread confusion around the time of the release of Analysis Services 2005 about what the term “UDM” actually meant. In a sense “UDM” was just another name for an Analysis Services cube, but it also represented the nebulous concept of Analysis Services being a semantic layer suitable for all your reporting needs; however people often thought it was a new product that somehow replaced Analysis Services cubes and got themselves tied in all sorts of knots as a result. Thankfully, use of the term died out pretty quickly as everyone started referring to Analysis Services as, well, Analysis Services.

Fast forward to the present day and I can see a similar amount of confusion about the term “BI Semantic Model” or BISM for many of the same reasons. What is the BI Semantic Model exactly? It is… Analysis Services 2012 plus PowerPivot. Let’s be clear though: it is not just the new Analysis Services Tabular Model, although the term BISM is all too often used as if it did mean that. It’s not even a specific bit of software. Analysis Services 2012 consists of two parts, the Multidimensional Model which is the Analysis Services of cubes and dimensions that we already had in 2008 R2 and earlier versions, and the new Tabular model which is the Analysis Services of tables, relationships, in-memory storage and column store. BISM refers to both models plus PowerPivot, or rather it refers to the way that Analysis Services and PowerPivot can be used as a semantic layer on top of other data for reporting purposes.

So what’s the point of a term like BISM then if it doesn’t refer to something tangible? Why not just call Analysis Services “Analysis Services” and PowerPivot “PowerPivot”? Well there’s certainly some conceptual stuff going on here (as outlined in the Vision and Roadmap blog post) but just as we had with the term UDM I’d say there’s also some marketing-led obfuscation here as well, for three reasons:

  • A single term like BISM suggests that Analysis Services 2012 and PowerPivot are a single, cohesive product, whereas the Tabular and Multidimensional models are actually very different beasts. If you’re going to be working with Analysis Services 2012 on a project the first decision you’ll have to make is which type of model to use, and if you change your mind later you’ll have to start development again from scratch and learn a lot of new skills. I hope one day that the two models will merge again but it won’t happen soon.
  • Microsoft has correctly identified that many people want to do BI but were put off by the complexity of building Multidimensional models in previous versions of Analysis Services. The simplicity of the Tabular model goes a long way to solving this problem; Tabular also replaces Report Builder models which were really a just a simple semantic layer for people who didn’t like SSAS or had valid reasons to stay with relational reporting. In order not to scare off this market a new name is necessary to avoid the negative connotations that come with “Analysis Services” and “cubes”.
  • Calling something a “semantic model” suggests that it’s a nice, light, thin, easy-to implement layer on top of your relational data warehouse, with no data duplication (which is often seen as a Bad Thing) involved. In actual fact anyone who has used the Multidimensional model will know you almost always use MOLAP storage which involves all the data being copied in Analysis Services; and I suspect when people start using the Tabular model they will be using it in Vertipaq mode (where again all the data gets copied into Analysis Services) rather than in DirectQuery mode (where all queries are translated to SQL which is then run against SQL Server).

Now I’m not going to suggest that there’s anything wrong with these marketing objectives – anything that sells more Analysis Services is good for me – or that the Tabular model is bad, or anything like that. All I want to do is suggest that in the SQL Server technical community we stop using the term BISM and instead refer to Analysis Services Multidimensional, Analysis Services Tabular and PowerPivot so we’re always clear about what we’re talking about in blog posts, articles, books and so on. I don’t think using the term BISM is useful in any technical context, just as the term UDM wasn’t in the past, because it is a blanket term for several different things. I also think that so many people are confused about what the term BISM actually means that it is becoming counter-productive to use it: people will not buy into the MS BI stack if they’re not really sure what it consists of.

What does everyone think about this?


Chris has been working with Microsoft BI tools since he started using beta 3 of OLAP Services back in the late 90s. Since then he has worked with Analysis Services in a number of roles (including three years spent with Microsoft Consulting Services) and he is now an independent consultant specialising in complex MDX, Analysis Services cube design and Analysis Services query performance problems. His company website can be found at and his blog can be found at .

Tags: bism, tabular


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