Join the Mixer

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-02-19 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

It's easy for customers to fill up on data, but digesting it all is tough. It's up to you to spell relief.

Call it a technology paradox: Most businesses are drowning in data, yet few companies know how to pour all of that information together to get a clear view of their internal businesses and their external supply chains.

Thats where you come in. For the first time ever, combinations of software tools that can truly eliminate most major data and communication roadblocks are seeping into the market. Instead of working just with structured data from within an enterprise—linking internal e-mail with information in corporate databases, for example—these new tools can marry structured and unstructured data, such as XML documents from the Web.

The result is peer-to-peer information retrieval and analysis of all relevant information—even if the data resides outside of a customers corporate borders. In other words, a business can maximize its existing infrastructure by using someone elses processing power.

The trick, however, is finding a way to pull together structured and unstructured data. "Most companies have gotten a handle on structured data in recent years," says Martin Cummings, director of IT business development at integrator GRC International, which was bought by AT&T last March. "Its the unstructured data that offers the challenges."

Integrating those two worlds opens up huge opportunities for managing data and controlling access to that data. Doing business with companies over the Internet requires a clearly defined set of processes and procedures, including a hierarchy to safeguard corporate information and a common lexicon so that everyone inside a company is speaking the same language.

You can serve as the master translator, but be forewarned. Not everyone is going to win at this game. Solutions have to be delivered quickly—sometimes in as little as several weeks—which opens the doors to all sorts of problems. That means youd better know your stuff, or have some top-notch partners who do, or you risk serious liability. And it means youd better have some really good off-the-shelf tools in your bag to expedite things.

Just ask GRCI. When the integrator won a FirstGov.gov contract from the federal government, it was under an incredibly tight deadline to set up the site. "The security had to be unbelievable because of the potential for embarrassment," says Cummings. "We had to make sure that when President Clinton introduced the site, someone didnt post Monica Lewinskys picture. We werent allowed to make any mistakes, but we had to do it all in 26 days."

Stuck in the Middle Before you dive into this market, make sure youre fluent in middleware—à la IBMs MQSeries. The idea of making disparate components and architectures work together through a layer of software has been around for decades. But now its finally living up to the hype, and consultants are designing solutions based on it.

Still, that doesnt mean anyone likes to talk about it. Middleware just isnt sexy stuff. Its plumbing. When Oracle began trying to attract interest in its Glue project way back in 1990, most analysts and customers rolled their eyes. Not much has changed since then. And while most corporations are now willing to accept middleware as part of a solution, it rarely reaches the audible level.

"Middleware is a crucial tool to bring in information from multiple sources and multiple different platforms," says Michael Baum, president of Relavis, a software publisher and consultant that builds customer relationship management (CRM) solutions. "We sell the front end that connects to data from the back office, which includes [enterprise resource planning] or supply-chain applications. The challenge is getting information to portals. We use middleware to pull it out."

Being an IBM partner, Relavis uses MQSeries to make those connections. Companies like BEA Systems also have been providing similar types of middleware for years. Baum says customers have come to expect a middleware component in solutions. "Its kind of discussed during the scope of implementation," he says, but its never an up-front selling point.

Jeroen Tas, president of Mphasis-BFL, views enterprise application integration as the core skill set for his company, which focuses on building customer retention and other apps for financial-services firms. The companys signature service is linking best-in-class applications.

To do that, Mphasis creates a framework for integration. It typically uses BEAs WebLogic or IBMs WebSphere as a production-level platform. In terms of standards, Mphasis uses Java 2 Enterprise Edition and XML. Typical best-in-class applications include those from Interwoven for content management and Art Technology Group or BroadVision for personalization, among others. To link those applications to a customers business partners, Mphasis uses WebMethods or Tibco middleware. The company also develops a meta model of all of the objects in the system it is trying to integrate.

The key value-add, says Tas, is "understanding how to make best-in-class products work in terms of a greater architecture."

Managing Data What you do with a customers data once it all works together is where things get really interesting. At its most basic level, this is all about managing data. Some vendors have tried to put a spin on it by calling it knowledge management (KM), but previous attempts at KM have been limited largely because all types of data werent being combined.

Consider this scenario: A corporate sales rep is on the phone with a customer. When the phone call was placed, the rep automatically pulled up the customers history and buying patterns. But with the new mix of structured and unstructured data, it also pulled up all relevant—and thats a heavy emphasis on relevant—data inside and outside of the company. Included were recent e-mail communication between another rep and the customer, sales figures on how the customers company is performing, and recent news articles about its plans.

This gets to the heart of where peer-to-peer computing has the most potential. Its not about downloading music files for free. The real opportunity is global information sharing.

Its also where companies like Autonomy are winning major attention among integrators. Autonomy started out looking for patterns for government agencies, a skill that is proving increasingly important in the commercial market.

"This is all about automating processes and the underlying information," says David Appelbaum, Autonomys general manager for North American operations. "Were able to provide immediate and relevant information that complements a process. Its all built on middleware. What we do is provide the ability for computers to understand content at the document level. That means that if its unstructured data, the computer can process it in context."

Enterprise Portals But enterprise architectures need more than just a way to process that data. They also need varying levels of access to it in order to protect vital corporate information. You only get access to what youre allowed to know, and every transaction gets recorded.

The solution is whats known as an enterprise portal, which on paper works something like a funnel with scrubbers. All data goes through the portal, and all access is controlled through the same portal. That means you can control who gets what information in an enterprise, usually through a single log-on, and it means you add in such security features as encryption.

"This all came out of the concept of an application server," says John Chen, Sybases CEO. "The application server sits between the back end and the Web. That means everything comes together on the application level. It all comes down to integration."

The enterprise portal differs from consumer portals, such as www.yahoo.com, and corporate portals, which are basically intranets within a company. The goal of the enterprise portal is to conduct business with other businesses, using all of the back-end data a company has to offer.

Sybase, for one, has bought into the concept and has bet the bank on its success. Sybase already has lined up 50 partners for its enterprise portal strategy, and Chen says the emphasis in coming months will be on pushing more and more business through those partners.

That puts Sybase in a radically different position than trying to push shrink-wrapped database software. "Were offering a way to bring this to market by partnering with us," says Sherri Richardson, director of global systems integrators corporate marketing at Sybase. "Weve had a lot of takers."

Bring in a Translator In conjunction with the enterprise portal, other companies are springing up to make various types of data—everything from XML to Word files—work together.

That requires a translation filter, which is where new companies such as NQL fit in. NQLs flagship translation tool is Content Anywhere. "The average time to build a portal is 62 months," says David Pallmann, chief technology officer at NQL. "With this tool, it takes about 62 hours."

NQL currently is working on a usage-based pricing model and building relationships with developers and integrators for bolt-on products. In Pallmanns view, any content can be managed.

All of this relevant data, in turn, can be packaged for the user by the enterprise portal. And it can be sold as a business-process solution, or a solution to a conglomeration of computing architectures that need to be sorted out.

"Most companies know they need it," says Todd Price, COO of Navigator Systems, a consultancy. "Whats different is our engagement happens in iterations. Its more a process of exploration. You provide the tools, they get hungry for more."

But working with it also means your own staff needs to be better trained in a variety of disciplines. When GRCI built the FirstGov.gov site, it had no more than 12 people working on the project at any time. "But in those 12 people, we had a lot of expertise—everything from systems to software," says Joe Brito, GRCIs technology director. "Before, engineers understood languages or routers, and they were experts in those areas. Now they understand technologies."

In this complex world of integration, thats no longer optional.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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