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Information as a Service

  • July 20 2006, 1:00am EDT

For years, business intelligence (BI) information has been viewed as something that is tightly coupled with the BI application that generates or displays it. This affinity with a BI application, whether it be Business Objects, Cognos, Informatica, SAS, Teradata or some other software package, seems to be a hard bond to break. Nevertheless, this bond will grow weaker over time, because information is increasingly becoming a service. That is, non-BI applications are requesting a snippet of information - nothing more - that they can display in context to help a user accomplish a task.

The day that information as a service is ubiquitous is still years away. Nevertheless, it's worth discussing this shift now, as it will become increasingly common and will create new uses for business intelligence.

The Drivers for Information as a Service

In its early days, business intelligence was part and parcel of the infrastructure that created it: ETL (extract, transform and load) processing, data warehouses and data marts, and reporting systems. You couldn't get BI data from any other place, and that was that. This is now changing, for a variety of reasons.

First, the Web. More than a decade ago, the Web browser became a place where people expected to find all kinds of information: text, charts, maps and reports. Portals offered portlets, where a BI application could insert its snippet of information alongside a list of news stories. The portal made end users realize that they didn't need to log into a BI application to get the latest information; it could come to them.

Second, service-oriented architectures (SOA). A number of years ago, the development community began to talk about Web services and the developers' abilities to cobble systems together by aggregating a set of services. SOA made developers realize that they didn't need to code everything themselves; in a sense, the code could come to them.

Third, increased connectivity. Boxes running code, rather than services, make a lot of sense when there is low connectivity - you need to generate the information yourself because you cannot link up with someone who can supply it. The ubiquitous Web, pervasive networks and broadband access are removing that restriction. Now, it is just as easy to pull information from a server in the UK as it is from the file system on your PC.

To a certain extent, this move toward information as a service is a replay of what happened with the electric power grid more than a century ago. In the early days of electricity, companies generated it themselves. Over time, as the world decided to standardize on alternating current (AC) as opposed to direct current (DC) and countries chose a voltage (120 or 240) and plug configuration, companies moved towards consuming electricity as a service.

The Nuts and Bolts of Information as a Service

Information as a service accepts the idea that data resides within many systems and repositories. The new paradigm's trick is to enable standardized access to the data. By applying a standard set of transformations to the various sources of data (for example, ensuring that gender fields containing different notation styles [e.g., M/F, Mr./Ms., 1/2] are all translated into male/female) and then enabling applications to access the data via open standards such as SQL, XQuery and XML, service requestors can access the data regardless of vendor or system.

An example of this approach is JSR 170, a Java platform API that enables software applications to easily store documents in and retrieve documents from content repositories. JSR 170 decreases development time by using only one API to interact with a wide variety of content repositories.

Another example is IBM's June announcement of DB2 Viper, now officially known as DB2 9. DB2 9 stores both structured data and unstructured data in their native formats, rather than storing unstructured data as a pseudo-structured record (a character large object, or CLOB). The resulting hybrid data server stores structured data in rows and columns, and unstructured data in a hierarchical, XML format. IBM's hope is that enterprises will view DB2 9 as a major, simplifying step toward information as a Service.

Both IBM and Microsoft Get It

Both IBM and Microsoft understand this new model. Of the two, IBM is much more aggressive, using "Information as a Service" as a marketing tagline. Although it hasn't compressed the thought into a single phrase, based on my discussions with Microsoft management and product managers, it is clear that Microsoft has the same ultimate vision. Both companies have large installed bases, have customers that harvest and consume large amounts of both structured and unstructured data, and have heard their customers' desire to move away from the stovepiping of data in various systems. Standalone BI or content management vendors have not always heard the same requests or with the same urgency, due to their focus on a specific technology silo. For example, a customer rarely asks a database vendor for unstructured data functionality because the customer figures such a capability is outside the vendor's area of expertise - and it often is.

So What Does this Mean to You?

Information as a service means that you can deliver BI snippets to a wide variety of applications and users, when they need it. In other words, it will increase the reach of BI. Rather than 10 or 20 percent of your company's employees accessing your BI repositories, all of your employees can gain access to it — but within their daily work and applications, rather than through a query and reporting tool. All of sudden, BI data has a place within Microsoft Outlook (e.g., a Contact Address Card with a field showing total sales to that customer), within an RSS feed (e.g., today's KPIs in journal format), or within a sales rep's map (e.g., posting pipeline and sales information next to a client's office location).

Therefore, begin thinking through how your different operational systems could leverage snippets of BI information sprinkled throughout them. You will eventually have the technological capability to offer such "spicing up." You might as well start looking for the system "dishes" that could use it most.

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