Mondrian is generally very smart in how it chooses to implement queries. Over the last month or so, I have learned some lessons about how hard can be to make Mondrian smarter.

As a ROLAP engine (I prefer to call it ‘ROLAP with caching’), Mondrian’s evaluation strategy has always been a blend of in-memory processing, caching, and native SQL execution. Naturally there is always SQL involved, because Mondrian doesn’t store any of its own data, but the question is how much of the processing Mondrian pushes down to the DBMS and how much it does itself, based on data in its cache.

The trends are towards native SQL execution. Data volumes are growing across the board, Mondrian is being deployed to larger enterprises with large data sets (in some cases displacing more established, and expensive, engines). Mondrian cannot keep up with the growth by simply pulling more data into memory and throwing one or two more CPU cores at the problem.

Luckily a new breed of database engines, including Aster Data, Greenplum, Infobright, Kickfire, LucidDB, Netezza and Vertica, are helping to solve the data problem with innovative architectures and algorithms. To exploit the power of the database engine, Mondrian’s ability to generate native SQL is more important than ever.

I have spent the last few weeks struggling to make Mondrian handle a particular case more efficiently. It was ultimately unsuccessful, but it was a case where defeat teaches you more than victory.

Here is the actual MDX query:

    'CROSSJOIN({[Store Size in SQFT].[Store Sqft].MEMBERS},[COG_OQP_INT_s8])'
    'CROSSJOIN({[Yearly Income].[Yearly Income].MEMBERS},[COG_OQP_INT_s7])'
    'CROSSJOIN({[Time].[Time].MEMBERS}, [COG_OQP_INT_s6])'
    'CROSSJOIN({[Store].[Store Country].MEMBERS},[COG_OQP_INT_s5])'
    'CROSSJOIN({[Promotions].[Promotions].MEMBERS}, [COG_OQP_INT_s4])'
    'CROSSJOIN({[Promotion Media].[Promotion Media].MEMBERS},[COG_OQP_INT_s3])'
    'CROSSJOIN({[Store Type].[Store Type].MEMBERS}, [COG_OQP_INT_s2])'
    'CROSSJOIN({[Marital Status].[Marital Status].MEMBERS}, [COG_OQP_INT_s1])'
               {[Education Level].[Education Level].MEMBERS})'
SELECT {[Measures].[Unit Sales]} ON AXIS(0),
FROM [Sales]
WHERE ([Customers].[All Customers].[USA].[CA].[San Francisco].[Karen Moreland])

The query looks a bit fearsome, but is quite likely to occur in practice as a business user slices and dices on several attributes simultaneously. The rows axis is a CrossJoin of ten dimensions, but because of the filtering effect of the slicer (combined with NON EMPTY) the query evaluates to a single row. The goal is to make Mondrian generate a SQL statement to evaluate the axis.

Each way that I tried to write the logic, I ended up making decisions that made other optimizations invalid. It was difficult to make Mondrian see the big picture: that, although named sets are not supposed to inherit the context where they evaluated, in this case it was OK; and to recognize a complex expression (many nested CrossJoin operators, slicer, and implicit non-empty context), and convert the whole thing into a single SQL statement. For instance, in one attempt I succeeded in generating a SQL statement which evaluates very efficiently, but in so doing I had to let the non-empty context of the evaluator leak into places that it shouldn’t… which broke quite a few existing queries, in particular queries involving calculated sets.

There are several conclusions for Mondrian’s architecture. One conclusion is that we need to deal with filtering non-empty tuples as part of the expression, not as a flag in the evaluator (the data structure that contains, among other things, the set of members that form the context for evaluating an expression).

MDX has an operator, EXISTS, that specifies that empty tuples should be removed from a set. Then we can reason about queries by applying logic-preserving transformations (just the way that an RDBMS query optimizer works), which should be safer than today’s ad hoc reasoning. For example, if I am a developer implementing an MDX function and the evaluator has nonEmpty=true, am I required to eliminate non-empty tuples or am I merely allowed to eliminate them? (In other words, will my caller return the wrong result if I forget to check the evaluator flag?) I often forget, so I suspect that filtering of empty tuples is performed inconsistently throughout the Mondrian code base; which is a shame, because eliminating empty tuples early can do a lot for performance.

I’d also like to use the same model for native SQL generation as for other forms of expression compilation. Native SQL generation currently happens at query execution time: when the function is evaluated, it figures out whether it can possibly translate the logic (and the constraints inherited from the evaluation context) into SQL. That is currently unavoidable, because the nonEmpty flag is only available in the evaluator, at query execution time. And we need to do some work at query execution time, if only to plug in the keys of the members in the current context as predicates in the SQL statement. But I’ve seen several cases where we need to be smarter.

One example is NON EMPTY [Level].Members that always gets translated into SQL even though the level only has two members and they are in cache. Cost-based optimization would help there.

Another example is where there are many layers of MDX functions – say Filter on top of CrossJoin on top of Filter – and these could be rolled into a single SQL statement. The right approach is to build a SQL statement by accretion, but it is too expensive to do every time the expression is evaluated.

Further, as we add more rules for recognizing MDX constructs that can turn into SQL, we will reach decision points where we choose to have to choose whether to apply rule A or rule B. Solutions are (a) using costing to decide which rule to apply, and (b) applying both rules and seeing which ultimately generates a better outcome. Neither of these solutions are suitable for query execution time: they need an optimization stage, as part of query preparation.

It’s ironic, considering I’ve been building SQL optimizers for years (the first at Broadbase, and the second the optimizer for the Eigenbase project, which is used by both LucidDB and SQLstream) that I have avoided giving Mondrian a true query optimizer for so long. I know it’s a lot of work to build an optimizer, and it’s foolish to start before you know what problem you need to solve.

Don’t expect to see any changes in the short term; this kind of architectural change doesn’t happen fast. My struggle over the past few weeks has been a big step in seeing the big picture, and realize that the considerable pain and effort of unifying Mondrian’s query planning system is justified by the potential benefits in performance.