Tag Archives: ragged hierarchies

Flexible Hierarchies Demonstration Project

Business hierarchies are the “crown jewels” of an analytic-driven organization.  They encode the analytic framework for marketing, product and sales management, and competitive benchmarking.  This project will walk you through the steps to create a high-performing EDW model for dynamic, flexible business hierarchies.  The project will provide technical artifacts for a Netezza DW appliance solution, but the modeling concepts are applicable to other EDW platforms.  I will post on this site progress of this project journey, and invite your suggestions and stories from your own experiences.  You can reply using the commenting dialog at the end of each post.

In this project I will layout a modeling approach and a prototype for hierarchies that work the way you want, and they way Chelsea in finance wants, and Joe in marketing wants, and your merchandising director and suppliers want.  The result is a compendium of approaches I have used at various clients in several industries over the last six years, born out of lot of listening and technical experimentation, and tempered with published research from DW gurus like Ralph Kimball and Joe Celko.  I’m certain to have violated some rules along the way, but my view is that things that actually get used leave a trace of broken rules in pursuit of the greater good.

First, the requirements.  Below is a list of “We needs” that come up time again when discussing hierarchy requirements with business folks:

    • We need to report the same sales data by different roll-up hierarchies
    • We need hierarchies that can report summary results consistently across business units.
    • We need hierarchies that support a variable number of levels (aka, “ragged hierarchies”)
    • We need to link related hierarchies–for example, sales organization hierarchy linked to product hierarchy
    • We need to track hierarchy changes so we can report based on the hierarchy structure today, or at any historical date.
    • We need to evaluate the impact of planned hierarchy changes simultaneously with current reporting.
    • We need to integrate external product or customer data with our internal hierarchies.
    • We need to update hierarchies with known changes in advance of the delayed feeds from external data suppliers.
    • We need to navigate the hierarchy in various ways depending on the business question.
    • We need to dynamically aggregate facts by hierarchy level or node.
    • We need to track multiple occurances of attributes such as addresses, industry codes, etc.
    • We need to handle hierarchy nodes with more than one parent (e.g, a store served by two distribution centers).
    • We don’t want to update the fact table(s) when a hierarchy changes.
    • We don’t want to rely on “meaningful identifiers” that become outdated and lead to confusion.
    • We need to build in health checks alert us to inconsistencies in the hierarchies that could distort reporting.
    • We need a standardized approach to building hierarchies that is repeatable and easy to maintain.
    • Importantly, we need to make the user interface simple and intuitive.

Whew!  That is a tall order.  When hierarchies are inflexible or difficult to change, it is nearly impossible to address more than a few these needs.  Many organizations learn to live with inflexible hierarchies.  We must change that paradigm.  The value of business nimbleness that flexible hierarchies enable will far exceed the the investment to create them.


Look for upcoming posts describing a conceptual architecture for flexible hierarchies, and demonstrating an industry use case.  In the meantime, please send me hierarchy challenges you have seen in your own organizations, and I’ll reply and/or incorporate them into the demo.  Use the commenting box below.



Ragged Hierarchy Navigation

Ragged Hierarchies are a common BI reporting structure in which the hierarchy contains a variable number of levels.  Examples are an organization hierarchy, or a financial chart of accounts.  Ragged hierarchies are cumbersome to navigate using standard SQL.  But there are ways to simplify the navigation without compromising performance. 

It is useful to employ a “tree” metaphor to visualize the modeling challenges of dimensional hierarchies.  A “tree” is a collection of reporting hierarchies such as may exist in a product dimension or an organization dimension.  A tree consists of “branches” that represent the levels of a hierarchy.  Each branch contains one or more “nodes”.  A node can be a “leaf” or another branch.  A leaf is the most granular node of a hierarchy, and is referred to as a “leaf node”.  Each leaf node contains the values of the various attributes of the dimension.  The set of all nodes emanating from a given branch node is referred to as a “sub-tree”.  A single “hierarchy” is the set of connected nodes between a given node and the trunk. The “trunk” represents the collection of all hierarchies in the dimensional tree. 


Hierarchy Navigation Tree
Hierarchy Navigation Tree

A “ragged hierarchy” exists when the number of levels varies between hierarchies.  Figure 1 depicts an Account dimension with ragged hierarchies.  Three hierarchies are highlighted including a single, double, and triple level hierarchy.

Recursive Hierarchies

Hierarchies are often modeled using “parent keys” in the dimension table.  A dimension exhibits recursive hierarchies when there can be two or more levels of levels of parent-child relationships in the same table.  Dynamically navigating recursive hierarchies with a BI tool like Cognos or Business Objects is expensive. Each level requires a self-join. There are two basic types of dimension recursive hierarchies. 

Fixed Recursive Hierarchies

If the number of levels in the hierarchy is fixed, then the dimension table contains fixed recursive hierarchies.  An example is a standard product or merchandise hierarchies (e.g. family > class > commodity > category > item).  Because the number of levels is known, the dimensions can be modeled with parent key column for each level of the hierarchy.  However, this does not necessarily eliminate the need for recursive joins at query time.

Dynamic Recursive Hierarchies

If the number of levels in the hierarchy is indeterminate, then you have a ragged recursive hierarchy.  Project and organization hierarchies are typically ragged.  For example, a project may have one or more sub-projects, each of which could have its own sub-projects. 

Left outer joins are required to navigate each level of a recursive hierarchy.  If the dimensions are large and there are many levels in the hierarchy, performance could become an issue.  It is not always possible to optimize recursive joins because the parent-key column functions as both a parent and a child. You cannot co-locate the parent and child rows on the same Netezza SPU.  In databases like Oracle that use indexes,  separately indexing the primary key and the parent key may offer some performance relief, but performance will still degrade as the number of levels (and therefore joins) increases. 

Hierarchy Navigation Tables

A ragged hierarchy is simplified by creating a hierarchy navigation table in the database.  Navigation tables can be directly queried by the BI tool without expensive recursive joins.  Navigation tables can be optimized because the normal table joins are predictable, few in number, can be inner joined, and can be co-located with the main dimension table.  There are two basic types of hierarchy navigation tables.

Vertical Navigation Tables

Vertical navigation tables contain a row for every level of every hierarchy.  Thus, the leaf node is repeated for each level represented in its hierarchy.  If a user wanted to roll-up costs to a mid-level node in the project hierarchy, they would simply select that node, and the navigation table would make a single join to the fact table, regardless of the number of levels in the hierarchy.  Vertical navigation tables are useful when the user does not know the level the hierarchy they are querying.

Horizontal Navigation Tables

Horizontal (i.e., flattened) navigation table contain one row per hierarchy.  The levels of the hierarchy are represented as columns.  Thus, a horizontal navigation table will have fewer rows than a vertical navigation table for the same dimension. Horizontal navigation tables are useful when the user is selecting a specific level, or needs to display the parent path levels in a query or report.

Ragged Hierarchy Special Requirements

There can be variations in requirements within the general theme of ragged hierarchies.  As usual, the devil is in the details.  Specific modeling techniques to achieve optimum performance depend on the customer’s unique requirements.  Examples of special hierarchy scenarios are described below.

Multiple Parent Nodes

This scenario breaks the strict hierarchical relationship of the dimension.  A node can have 2 or more parents.  For example, a project can be a member of two different “programs” at the same time.  This requirement presents unique roll-up challenges.

Facts Attached to Multiple Levels

This scenario often exists in organizational hierarchies.  Each organization has a budget and is responsible for the budgets of the organizations within its span of control. For example, Division A is responsible for the budges of Departments 1, 2 and 3.  Department 1 is responsible for Units 1.a and 1.b.  Thus, expense roll-up queries might include costs of the Division A sub-tree including, or excluding, the Division A’s own expenses.

Versioned Hierarchies

Versioned hierarchies exist when the relationships of a hierarchy changes over time, and there is a requirement to report based on the hierarchy structure in effect as-of a point in time.  For example, customer ownership relationships may change over time as a result of mergers and acquisitions.

Approach to Optimizing Ragged Hierarchies

Optimizing Ragged Hierarchies is a four-step processes as depicted in Figure 2.

Ragged Hierarchy Optimization Approach
Ragged Hierarchy Optimization Approach
  1. Requirements Analysis – The first step to optimizing ragged hierarchies is to identify the business requirements.  What is the general model and what are the special requirements?   The requirements analysis will narrow down the optimization options.
  2. Business Rule Modeling– The second step is to allocate business rule processing between the BI query tool, the database structures, and the ETL application.  The choices will depend on the query use cases, the capabilities of the BI tool, and service level agreements (SLAs) related to query response times and available ETL batch window times.
  3. Data Modeling – The third step involves modeling the dimensions, navigation tables, and the database tables and views required to support the loading and navigation of ragged hierarchies.
  4. Physical Optimization – The fourth step is to optimize the physical database structures based on performance tests.  The results will depend on a variety of factors including data volumes, hierarchy versioning requirements, the distribution of data, the frequency of updating the hierarchies, and the user query profiles.  Physical optimization may lead to adjustments in steps 2 and 3.


In summary, ragged hierarchies are a fact of life in the ragged real world.  Hopefully the techniques in this post will help you smooth things over with your users 🙂   I would love to hear your feedback on these and other approaches for handling ragged hierarchies.