Is your business intelligence (BI) environment ready for safe, reliable, scalable accessibility via the Internet? How are you addressing this challenge?

This is the third and final column of a three-part series on evaluating business intelligence (BI) applications for Internet-facing deployment. The first two installments examined some of the issues around infrastructure, database connectivity, application integration, client-browser requirements and security that need to be considered when deploying BI applications in an Internet-facing environment. This segment will examine some of the issues around disaster recovery, performance and scalability that need to be considered in a BI application assessment.

  1. How does the BI access application support failover if an application server for the application goes down? This question is optional depending on whether your business requirements dictate high availability due to criticality of the information, client business needs or to meet other service level agreements. This question assumes your infrastructure is supporting redundant Web servers, application servers, DBMS servers and possibly load balancers to support high availability (see Figure 1). The vendor's response to this question will give you a fairly good indication of how well the application was designed for Internet deployment of mission-critical information.
    Figure 1: Example Infrastructure

    Some considerations you should be looking for in the vendor's response include the method for session re-establishment after failover to another application server. Can failover be configured to be automatic or does it require some type of manual intervention? Do the users need to re-authenticate and restart their sessions from the beginning? How is session information (customizations, file saving, views, etc.) shared between the BI access application's application servers? In some companies' installations, the administrator for network security may not accept the method of information sharing between application servers due to perceived risk in security. For example, UNIX application servers sometimes use a file sharing method called network file system/remote procedure call (NFS/RPC) to synchronize files/directories between servers. Many network administrators consider RPC a security risk in an Internet environment due to its perceived vulnerability to hacking. If the vendor's solution for file sharing between application servers includes use of RPC and your company's polices restrict its use, alternative file sharing methods may need to be explored in order to deploy the application in your environment.

    Finally, the BI access application may require installation of software on each of the Web servers in order to facilitate failover. The functionality of the software installed on each of the Web servers needs to be looked at from a security perspective to ensure it meets your company's polices. Also, review what, if any, persistent data is populated on the Web servers for security or confidentiality risk. Any data that is stored on the Web servers should be considered compromised due to its close proximity to the Internet.

  2. How does the BI access application support load balancing in an Internet environment? This question is also optional depending on whether your business needs require support of high scalability and performance. Considerations include how the application supports balancing of requests across multiple application servers during periods of increased traffic. The methods used for load balancing need to be reviewed for compatibility with your environment's security, communication, middleware, Web server and application server standards. Requirements by the BI access application for a particular Web server's applications (e.g., Apache, iPlanet, MS IIS) or application servers (e.g., BEA Weblogic, IBM WebSphere, ATG Dynamo) may make the application incompatible for your environment. The BI access application may require installation of software on each of the Web servers in order to facilitate load balancing. The functionality of the software installed on each of the Web servers needs to be looked at from a security perspective to ensure it meets your company's network security polices.

  3. What single points of failure exist with the BI access application when deployed for failover? In this question, look for potential points of failure in deployment of the application that may not be covered under a failover implementation or may require a hardware solution such as clustering. Look at each component in the implementation to make sure it is covered during a failover operation (e.g., proprietary DBMS, file system sharing, content directory, user personalization setting, etc.). The objective would be to have an automatic failover that is as seamless and nondisruptive to the user as possible.
  4. What data encryption methods are available through the application offering for authentication and component communication? Response to this question will indicate whether or not the BI access application was designed with the intention of being deployed on the Internet. Typically, BI access applications support Secure Socket Layer (SSL) which is a common encryption protocol for transmitting confidential information across the Internet. Considerations for this question include whether the BI access application supports encryption to user entitlement stores (such as LDAP, NDS, ODBC, ADSI and NT). Beyond authentication, the application support encryption of information between its components should also be determined to review any potential risks or information leakage.

Use of these twelve questions when evaluating BI access applications can help you avoid many costly pitfalls and issues commonly encountered when deploying to the Internet.

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