As technologists, we've been focused on providing end users with easier-to- use tools for accessing corporate data. Unfortunately, users don't want tools, they want information!

Most end users find it terribly annoying when they have to learn how to use a new tool to access information. This explains why Excel and formatted reports are still prevalent in our organizations and why so many end users can't fathom "OLAP." Users just want to do their jobs, not become pseudo-technologists.

We're beginning to see the emergence of new type of business intelligence architecture that supersedes individual tools and provides a content-rich interface to all types of corporate information. The Patricia Seybold Group calls this emerging architecture an "Information Marketplace."

The key to an information marketplace is an active information

repository--or catalog--which contains or points to a variety of "information objects" both inside and external to the organization. Users can browse through the catalog, shopping for objects that interest them and publishing objects that they've created or modified for others to consume.

The information objects may consist of structured data found in a data warehouse or unstructured content (such as text, audio, image or video). The objects might be stored in a local or remote file server, Web server or application (such as a document management system, Lotus Notes or a custom application).

Like a Shopping Mall?

For a knowledge worker, an information marketplace is the equivalent of a shopping mall (see Figure 1). Most people prefer shopping at a large mall because it is convenient. A mall contains many stores under one roof. People can go to one place and get all their shopping done instead of driving all over town.

In addition, a shopping mall provides a common look and feel (architecture, storefront design, lighting), navigation aids (escalators, elevators, information booths) and shared services (parking, bathrooms, eateries, security) for dozens or hundreds of stores. Although each store sells different products and has different ways of packaging, pricing and displaying goods, the mall binds all the stores together, making it easier and more convenient for today's time-constrained consumers to shop there.

Figure 1--An Information Marketplace serves the majority of your knowledge workers who prefer one-stop shopping to any information content they might need, including reports generated by various business intelligence and desktop tools, as well as unstructured data such as video and images, and external data found on the Web.

In the same way, an information marketplace can make life easier for today's knowledge workers who need convenient access to various types of information.

For example, an information marketplace provides users with a single, Web-based interface for browsing, launching, publishing and subscribing to any type of information object. The repository--or meta data catalog--provides users with a plain-English description of the object, the currency and origins of the data and other relevant information. It functions like an electronic card catalog in a library that can display information about a book as well as deliver the text and pictures of the book itself.

To subscribe to information objects, users specify a delivery schedule (i.e., real-time, predefined interval or calendar schedule), a presentation format (i.e., ASCII, HTML, rich text, native application format, etc.) and a delivery channel (i.e., e-mail, Web, Lotus Notes, file server, etc.). The information marketplace then takes care of delivering the information objects to the right person at the right time in the right format over the right channel.

Like a shopping mall, an information marketplace provides common services, such as query execution, directory, security, load balancing, network and management services. These services enable organizations to give end users customized views of objects in the repository and ensure the scalability and performance of the system (see Figure 2).

Perhaps most importantly, the information marketplace maintains interfaces to business intelligence applications that generate or maintain information objects. Rather than presenting users with a static collection of objects, the information marketplace gives users dynamic access to data, which they can refresh, filter and manipulate in real time. The upshot is that end users don't have to know where data is located, what format it's stored in or the program required to access it.

The information marketplace enables companies to distribute information easily, inexpensively and securely to a much larger population of users, both inside and outside the organization (i.e., customers and suppliers). It provides transparent access to information, allowing users to focus on content, not technology. In many ways, the information marketplace is the holy grail of business intelligence.

Vendor Support

Several vendors are delivering products that support the information marketplace concept, including reporting vendor SQRIBE Technologies and two relatively new start-ups, VIT and Influence Software. Other potential information marketplace vendors are data mart vendor D2K and repository vendor LogicWorks.

Actually, most business intelligence vendors support elements of an information marketplace. Most haven't extended the scope of their meta data catalogs to encompass dynamic links to third-party applications or engineered a scalable publish-and-subscribe mechanism. Thus, the barriers to entry to this new arena are not high, and we expect a wave of comparable products by early 1999.

If your users would like one-stop shopping to all types of information without having to worry about the tools and technologies required to access that information, then think about deploying an information marketplace. It's clear that the information marketplace will become a dominant architecture for providing users access to information as we move into the new millennium.

Figure 2--An Information Marketplace consists of an active repository that contains or points to a variety of information objects and describes them in plain English. Surrounding the repository are: 1) a Web-based application for browsing the information repository; 2) a publish-and-subscribe mechanism; 3) a scheduling and delivery vehicle for distributing or pushing objects to users at predefined times or intervals; 4) a query execution engine that provides dynamic access to information objects; 5) a security and management utility for filtering access to objects and managing the environment; and 6) application and network interfaces to applications, file servers and databases.

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