The consumer Web has changed the way people interact with information. One example of this trend can be found in mashups, which bring distributed information together in a personalized way. Mashups are a good example of the direction our IT development and information delivery platforms will take in the near future.
Today's BI environments deliver constrained data via constrained user interfaces, and people are demanding more. I've seen an incredible increase in the rate of new data and delivery requests during my career as a BI manager, and it's only accelerated over time.
IT really is "all about the data." This has been true for years, though data was once less appreciated and harder to get to. A decade of infrastructure building has changed that. With a universal client and technologies to stitch together data and applications, usable information and the point of use are coming together.
A mashup brings together data, content or functionality from more than one source and delivers the result via a Web interface, typically without the source owner's participation. Mashups bridge information contexts to create something more useful than their original parts. Sometimes they're made to re-envision the user interface.
Mashups also show us that the future of data access is largely real-time views of what's happening right now, something that BI tools and data warehouses aren't good at today. Web services and rich Internet applications are proving to be great ways to augment the data warehouse.
There are three key characteristics of a mashup:
- Combination - integrating multiple data sources, subjects or functions.
- Visualization - providing more context for the user by adding better visual display and interactivity to the information.
- Integration - joining, aggregating or creating new context to uncover hidden aspects to the data that is being brought together.
You can develop a mashup in an afternoon if you know what you're doing. To achieve the same result in the BI environment can take weeks.
BI experts complain, "Mashups aren't good enough." This is what domain experts often say about new technologies that grow into usefulness. We went through a similar sea change in IT during the early '90s client/server revolution. We had PCs on every desk, affordable databases, interoperable SQL standards and connectivity that (mostly) worked. Development tasks were made so easy that previously unattainable applications could be built on a departmental budget.
Sadly, this was short-lived due to architectural constraints that included lack of scalability. For the next decade or so, we fiddled around with multitier architectures that would effectively separate display, application logic and storage and still work.
Web 1.0 was software built like the previous generation of LAN-based client/server and timeshare systems. Web 2.0 was built by younger people unimpaired by the memory of old design models, people who understood what the new technology could do and how it could be put together.
The typical Web site was simply a Web interface sitting on top of a database rendering displays. Today's Web services provide a standard way to expose applications or data on a network using HTTP. Mashups can tap into these services to repurpose data or functions in a new context.
Web development is leading to the consumerization of IT. People spend much more time online than they did a few years ago. Being more comfortable with technology, they are more adept at making it do what they want it to do (rather than what the designer intended). Web 2.0 is already leaking into your organization from the edges, brought by the users, and mashups are a part of that.
Today's technology adoption path leads from "geeks" to teens to us. Online dating evolved from chat, first among geeks, then teens, then everyone. Blogging started with geeks, became a teen tool and now your CEO has a blog. Blogs evolved into social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook; now your company is likely to have a Facebook page.
What drives these technologies into IT is user demand for simpler tools to consume information. The frustration of BI often begins with a "simple request" to add functions or data from another system, work that can take months to deliver. Users don't want to be shown more logical data models or complex analytical tools.
We focus too much on metadata layers locked inside BI tools and reports when it belongs in data access services available to all. What mashups tell us is that we should treat the data warehouse as a platform: manage the data, but make it available like Web companies do so users can remix and display what they really seek.
Opening up the platform encourages experimentation, enabling creative uses of the data. Other people will think of all sorts of things you never dreamed of. Mashups are showing us the new face of IT. Think of them like the old client/server tools - faster, easier Web development that will enable a whole new range of possibilities.
With all the other BI activity going on now, one question is, "Should we be thinking about this now?" If you aren't retiring in the next three years, then I think the answer is yes.
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