January 17, 2012

Historical notes on analytics — terminology

This post is part of a short series on the history of analytics, covering:

Discussions of the history of analytic technology are complicated by the broad variety of product category names that have been used over the decades. So let me collect here in one place some notes on how (and when) various terms have been used, specifically:

Obviously, I can’t cover everything in this post. Omissions include but are not limited to:

The first prevalent term I recall for “information technology” was management information systems (MIS). I mention that mainly to note that it actually sounded a bit analytics-oriented, and hence to point out that in the old days — 1960s and so on — it didn’t seem necessary to name a separate category that amounted to “analytics”.

Meanwhile, the first prevalent term I recall that covered much of what we’d now call “analytics” was decision support, or decision support systems (DSS). I think DSS was always ill-defined, with multiple subcategories, just as analytics is today. The heyday of this term was in the 1970s/1980s.

Report writers were around in various forms for decades; consider for example the early 1970s history of Cullinane/Cullinet. By the time I became an analyst in the early 1980s, these were mainframe tools that let you specify paper reports, and the market leaders were probably Pansophic’s EASYTRIEVE and Informatics’ Mark IV. According to marketing, they could be used by non-programmers; in reality, they were a much easier way for programmers to do what end users asked. They were used both for one-shot queries and, as their main design point, repetitive reporting.

The report writer category then survived into the era of business intelligence (BI). (Indeed, Cognos’ big integrated BI tool early this century was called ReportNet.) More on that in the BI discussion below.

The term fourth-generation language (4GL) was widely used from the 1970s through the first part of the 1990s. Usually, a 4GL was:

In particular, the original 4GLs:

Classic examples of such 4GLs included FOCUS (the core product of Information Builders), RAMIS, and NOMAD; SAS arguably started out as a product of that kind too. Starting in the 1980s, however, 4GLs were used more generally, and indeed survived as an OLTP (OnLine Transaction Processing) technology long after they were supplanted by BI tools for most analytic purposes.

The last pre-BI term I want to mention is executive information system (EIS). EIS was in essence the 1980s term for “dashboard”, although the technology was much more primitive than it is today.

The term business intelligence was coined in the 1950s and then reinvented in the 1980s; however, it has described a major category only from the 1990s onward, specifically starting when GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) became prevalent.. “Business intelligence” is sometimes used to comprise all of analytics; more commonly, however, it refers to tools focused on data selection and presentation.

These days, most of what we’d call BI comes in a single integrated package, focused on a dashboard; most of the exceptions are somewhat old-fashioned report writers. In the 1990s and early 2000s, however, business intelligence had several distinct subcategories …

… one of which was called OLAP (OnLine Analytic Processing). Actually,  the term “OLAP” has been confusingly been used to mean several different things, including:

I hate the term “OLAP” with a passion, in part due to that confusion, and in part due to the specific way the confusion came about: Ted Codd introduced the term, allegedly objectively, but actually as a marketing shill for Arbor Software, which had an obvious business incentive to pretend that its specific technologies solved a broader class of problems than they actually did.

OK. With that too cleared away, I feel ready to write about the actual history of analytic technology.


14 Responses to “Historical notes on analytics — terminology”

  1. Historical notes on analytics — pre-computer era | Software Memories on January 17th, 2012 3:03 am

    […] Historical notes on analytic terminology […]

  2. Historical notes on the departmental adoption of analytics | Software Memories on January 21st, 2012 9:01 pm

    […] Historical notes on analytic terminology (in which many terms used in this post are defined) […]

  3. Ken North on March 9th, 2012 4:47 pm

    Good description of the technologies that are ancestors of today’s analytics. But I’d add that IBM made a push in the 1960s for the adoption of the Report Program Generator (RPG) language and Generalized Information System (GIS). Both were intended to make information accessible without programming. In fact ‘generalized’ and ‘general-purpose’ were important ’60s buzzwords for those promoting a movement away from ad hoc (custom-coded) application software.

  4. Ken North on March 9th, 2012 5:17 pm

    Your post about “Prerelational DBMS vendors” is closed to comments so I’ll comment here.

    In 1968 the CODASYL Systems Committee did a survey of existing DBMSs as a precursor to work on defining a database standard. That survey is available at the link below. You can see the committee surveyed several dozen products:


    Your earlier post mentioned Charles Bachmann, Honeywell and the network model DBMS. Bachmann was a member of the task group that published the CODASYL (network model) database standard in the ’70s.

    Bachmann had developed Integrated Data Store (IDS) at GE. It was released in the mid-60s and – no surprise – provided the departure point for creating the CODASYL database standard. The CODASYL task group did look at alternatives; for example, the IBM rep circulated documents about a graph model for data.

    After Honeywell acquired GE’s computer business, IDS morphed into IDS II. It was an integral part of the WWMCCS systems sold to the US military, a 1971 acquisition that kept Honeywell from shutting down its computer business.

  5. Curt Monash on March 9th, 2012 5:43 pm

    WWMCCS — was that the logistics system that was replaced by an EDS contract in the 1980s (which included a huge sale of ADR’s Datacom/DB)?

  6. Juggling analytic databases : DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on March 16th, 2012 5:09 am

    […] The DBMS aspects of 4GLs such as Focus. […]

  7. The future of dashboards, if any | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on November 13th, 2012 10:11 pm

    […] frequently bashed. I slammed them back in 2006 and 2007. Mark Smith dropped the hammer last August. EIS, the most dashboard-like pre-1990s analytic technology, was also the most reviled. There are […]

  8. It’s hard to make data easy to analyze | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on February 13th, 2013 11:05 pm

    […] MOLAP (Multidimensional OnLine Analytic Processing), also according to RDBMS inventor E. F. Codd. […]

  9. Wants vs. needs | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on March 23rd, 2014 6:51 am

    […] 1981, Gerry Chichester and Vaughan Merlyn did a user-survey-based report about transaction-oriented fourth-generation languages, the leading application development technology of their day. The report included top-ten lists of […]

  10. Sam Elstob on January 7th, 2015 2:28 pm

    “I think DSS was always ill-defined, with multiple subcategories, just as analytics is today. The heyday of this term was in the 1970s/1980s.”

    I particularly enjoy finding the term “DSS” in the Oracle 12 documentation! For example ->

    “For DSS systems running large, memory-intensive queries, PGA memory can typically use up to 70% of the available memory.”


    Not sure what I would recommend to the Oracle documentation team in it’s place though…

  11. Ken North on March 8th, 2015 7:48 pm

    Pardon the delayed response but I didn’t see you question about WWMCCS until today.

    WWMCCS was a DoD initiative to standardize command-and-control systems. not logistics systems. There were disparate command-and-control systems in the 1960s, but the Defense Department issued a 1971 directive to use a common configuration for the next generation of the World-Wide Military Command and Control System. At the time it was the largest computer procurement in history (mainframes for dozens of command centers). Honeywell was chosen and a former Honeywell exec told me the company would have closed its computer division if not for the WWMCCS award.

  12. Multi-model database managers | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on August 24th, 2015 3:07 am

    […] write data as a lightly-structured document or log, but read it from a Ted-Codd-approved RDBMS or MOLAP system. And if you don’t have the time to move data among multiple stores, then you want one […]

  13. Notes on the technology supporting packaged application software | Software Memories on December 6th, 2015 1:26 am

    […] Same, but without the 4GL. Eventually, 4GLs started seeming outmoded. […]

  14. How Hyperion will change Oracle | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on December 9th, 2015 6:07 pm

    […] meanwhile, is the definitive MOLAP product. Quite literally “definitive”; Ted Codd’s white paper establishing the OLAP category was commissioned by Arbor. Oracle some years ago acquired the other classic MOLAP product, Express, and painfully integrated […]

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