The Rise of the Semantic Layer: Metrics On-The-Fly | 7wData

The Rise of the Semantic Layer: Metrics On-The-Fly | 7wData

A semantic layer is something we use every day. We build dashboards with yearly and monthly aggregations. We design dimensions for drilling down reports by region, product, or whatever metrics we are interested in. What has changed is that we no longer use a singular business intelligence tool; different teams use different visualizations (BI, notebooks, and embedded analytics).

Instead of re-creating siloed metrics in each app, we want to define them once, open in a version-controlled way and sync them into each visualization tool. That’s what the semantic layer does, primarily defined as YAML . Additionally, the semantic layer adds powerful layers such as APIs, caching, access control, data modeling, and metrics layer.

The metrics layer is one component of a semantic layer. A limited metrics layer is usually built into a BI tool, translating its metrics to only that BI tool. The metrics and semantic layers we’ll talk about in this article support multiple BI tools, notebooks, and data apps.

The semantic layer, metrics layer, headless BI, and sometimes even metrics store are similar. Although the metrics layer is a part of the semantic layer, I will use them as synonyms and refer to all of them as a semantic layer, as the differences are minor and will lead to better understanding. If you like to dig more into the details, check out the glossary definitions of a Semantic Layer , Metrics Layer , and Headless BI .

A semantic layer is a translation layer that sits between your data and your business users. The semantic layer converts complex data into understandable business concepts. For example, your database may store millions of sales receipts which contain information such as sale amount, sale location, time of sale, etc. However, your business users may not have the technical capabilities to convert such raw data into actionable insights such as revenue per store, which brand is most popular, etc. By translating business terms into a format that is understood by the underlying database, the Semantic Layer allows business users to access data using terms that they are familiar with.

You can think of a semantic layer as a translation layer between any data presentation layer (BI, notebooks, data apps) and the data sources. A translation layer includes many features, such as integrating data sources, modeling the metrics, and integrating with the data consumers by translating metrics into SQL, REST, or GraphQL.

Because everyone has different definitions of “active” users or “paying” customers, the semantic layer allows you to define these discrepancies once company-wide. Describing each of them earlier in the semantic layer, instead of three different versions in each BI tool, avoids having contrasting numbers in various tools. And what if the metric changes to a new definition? With a semantic layer, you change only once. This powerful feature empowers domain experts and data practitioners to get a common understanding of business metrics.

The 101 on Metrics, Measure, and Dimension

Metric, KPI , and (calculated) measure are terms that serve as the building blocks for how business performance is both measured and defined, as knowledge of how to define an organization's KPIs. It is fundamental to have a common understanding of them. Metrics usually surface as business reports and dashboards with direct access to the entire organization.

For example, think of operational metrics that represent your company's performance and service level or financial metrics that describe its financial health. Today these metrics are primarily defined in a lengthy SQL statement inside the BI tools. Calculated measures are part of metrics and apply to specific dimensions traditionally mapped inside a Bus Matrix .

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