Conquering the Mountain of Data
Hospitals, government agencies, retail chains and other industry sectors are being buried by data. As the piles of digital files, X-rays and scanned-in paper records grow higher and higher, data-management applications are coming to the rescue, creating new opportunities for solutions providers. Applications showing the most promise include business intelligence, PDA-based mobile databases and content management, the last of which allows searches across both relational databases and "flat-file" data like video clips and Lotus Notes.
In this complicated and quickly evolving space, statistics tell only part of the story. International Data Corp. projects that the worldwide document and content technologies market will soar from $1.1 billion in 1999 to almost $4.4 billion by 2004. More telling is the fact that top vendors such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Sybase are pouring resources into partnership programs for this emerging market.
Meanwhile, database products keep improving and are less costly and easier to use, thus opening the doors to more solutions providers and customers.
On the down side, however, despite these product enhancements, some business-intelligence implementations are too complex to handle without specialized knowledge, while solutions providers pursuing the mobile database market must quickly climb the wireless learning curve. Also, the newness of integrated content-management products require heavy customization.
BI-Directions In business intelligence (BI) implementations, data warehousing typically goes hand-in-hand with data mining, for analyzing or "drilling down" into the stored information.
Many of the top BI solutions providers have been doing this type of high-end work for years, much of it in the medical and scientific community. Back in 1996, for example, solutions provider Artificial Intelligence in Medicine Inc. (AIM) began to build a data warehouse for an organization called Cancer Care Ontario. The ultimate goal? To reduce cervical cancer rates in the province by 50 percent. By now, the repository contains 5 million records on 3 million women, supplied by various medical labs throughout Canada.
Better Intelligence AIM has since built a similar implementation for the Cardiac Care Network of Saskatchewan, and next plans an Oracle-based BI system for the Krones and Colitis Foundation.
"A medical facility can look up all of the patients test results, right while the patient is there," explains Victor Brunka, an account executive at AIM. Moreover, researchers can use tools from Oracle or other vendors to reveal statistical patterns in the aggregated data, he says.
But lately, BI has branched out into new markets. "CFOs were once the only ones that actually used data warehouses. Now, however, there is a growing trend for decision makers at all levels of the organization to want access to stored information," asserts Microsofts John Eng, lead product manager of SQL Server.
"Were turning customers away," says Mark Chaffin, principal architect at Encore Development, a Microsoft solutions provider specializing in BI applications in the retail, consumer packaged goods and automotive supply verticals. Chaffin says lower prices is one major factor fueling customer demand in all of these areas.
"Five years ago, it cost the customer a minimum of $250,000 to build a BI system. Now, the barrier to entry is much lower. As a result, we can sell into the midmarket," says Chaffin.
Encore has used Microsofts SQL Server 2000 to create BI systems for companies like Publix Supermarkets and Napa Auto Parts. Napa is using its inventory management at 7,500 stores throughout North America, saving $15 million annually, according to Chaffin.
On the product side, one big trend among most vendors is toward integrating tools for data transformation and data mining directly into the core database, for simplified application development, integration and data access.
"Microsoft made great strides in SQL Server 7, and again in SQL Server 2000. Its now much easier to bring an application to market, either custom or out-of-the box," insists Dan Bulos, president of Symmetry. Founded in 1996, Symmetry is "the oldest independent BI firm," according to Bulos. It established a Microsoft practice with the release of SQL Server 7.
Goin Mobile Like other database vendors, Microsofts partner network includes small vertical-market specialists and database-management "boutiques," as well as the Big Five consultancies.
"The main requirement [to be a solutions provider] is to understand both the customers business problem, and the data thats available to solve that problem," says Bulos.
Vendors add, however, that partners wishing to move into BI work need training in database administration to build complex, custom solutions.
The mobile database market, for its part, is taking longer to mature. Still, a number of applications are up and running, some of them in full production. Over the past couple of years, IBM and Microsoft have joined mobile database pioneers Oracle and Sybase in this market. All four now sell minidatabases for PocketPCs or Palms, capable of synchronizing information with large databases in remote locations.
Unlike browser-based mobile applications, in which all or most relational data is stored on the server, mobile database solutions allow for "disconnected," or off-line use.
Microsoft partner Rubicon Technologies already has a number of these custom solutions in full-fledged use. In one application, called Traffic Stop, police in Montgomery County, Md., are using the Pocket Access database embedded in Windows CE to track demographics and criminal records of citizens stopped for traffic violations. "The information is then sent to the U.S. Justice Department to prove the police arent doing racial profiling," says Tim Bassett, Rubicons mobile-solutions group manager.
In another solution from Rubicon, Johnson & Johnson warehouses in Puerto Rico are using Pocket Access for inventory management. A third-party tool known as Via XML provides a communications link between Pocket Access and a mainframe database.
Rubicon also has built solutions using Microsofts new SQL Server 2000 CE Edition. An application called Mobile Workforce is designed to help roving workers track time schedules and collaborate on projects. A security firm has already signed on as a customer, Bassett says, although he wouldnt identify that company.
Meanwhile, IBM partners have been using DB2 Everyplace to adapt DBA database apps to PDAs. MobiComp, for example, recently rolled out PocketSFAs, a mobile extension to an existing SFA application offering back-end hooks to ERP and CRM systems.
Still, mobile applications are fraught with unique technological challenges. "If we lived in a world with reliable wireless access, a mobile database might not be necessary," says Imran Hafue, VP of technology at LogonHealth, a health-care technology-solutions company. "Unfortunately, though, end users can lose connectivity for any number of reasonsif Palm.Net suddenly goes out, or even if it gets cloudy out."
After developing a wireless medical application that didnt include a mobile database, LogonHealth decided to add Sybases iAnywhere to the second version. Now, the solutions provider is in the final stages of beta testing the application with some major HMOs and the Duane Reade pharmacy chain as participants.
The application is designed to save time for pharmacists and doctors by automatically "rectifying" prescriptionsmaking sure that an HMOs plan covers a prescribed medication, and that there are no conflicts between multiple medications.
In the test, some doctors are choosing to input data on Palm devices. "That way, they can send in prescriptions from a golf course, a restaurant or wherever else they happen to be," Hafue says. Physicians who prefer a more traditional method can get the prescription typed into a PC by an administrative assistant.
Robo Soldiers Mobile database solutions also come with bandwidth and security concerns. Obviously, security is a major issue for military customers. But solutions provider Geodyn has developed a mobile database application currently piloted by the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps.
Geodyn CEO Henry Ballard emphasizes that PDAs are not yet a part of actual combat plans "by any infantry, anywhere in the world." Right now, infantry soldiers are still being outfitted with just paper-based maps and a radio.
"But the military is now looking at the soldier of the future," Ballard says. Geodyns solution for military "situa-tion awareness" operates on Microsofts Windows CE, running Sybases iAnywhere mobile database. Known as FxViews (Soldiers Framework Extensional Views), the app gives soldiers access to "common, relevant operational pictures of the battlefield, showing friendly and unfriendly forces."
The PocketPCs being deployed in the pilot come with integrated GPS. "But you also can point out where you are by sketching in your location," Ballard notes.
For the future, the U.S. military is thinking about increasing security by adding either password protection or biometric identifiers for the PocketPC, says Ballard.
Shirley Macbeth, director of marketing for Sybases iAnywhere Solution, says many partners find the wireless world a daunting one.
To promote greater understanding of the technology, last month Sybase launched a partner training program called "Jump Start for Wireless." For $10,000, partners get consulting and technical support services; a development copy of iAnywhere Wireless Studio; and three-month access to the iAnywhere Solution Wireless Gateway, a hosted service bringing connectivity to wireless networks that include CDPD, CDMA, GSM, GPRS, Mobitex and DataTac.
Out of the Crib The market for content-management solutions, compared with the BI and mobile areas, is still in its infancy. But research firms such as Gartner Group see a huge opportunity there, as a new category of software known as "enterprise content-management systems" (ECMS) integrates components ranging from document imaging systems to middleware, workflow, CRM and ERP applications, along with relational databases and "flat file" data.
On April 30, Microsoft gave the markets future a thumbs-up with its announcement of an agreement to buy Ncompass Labs for $35 million.
Some Oracle and IBM solutions providers also have begun taking advantage of the abilities of these databases to store multimedia information. Oracle has now launched separate content-management initiatives with customers in the education market, and with content-management providers.
Its Visual Oracle partner cMore Medical Solutions has built a health documentation data warehouse that stores, among other things, endoscopic and ultrasound images and videos. CMores solution has supported images ever since 1997. Video storage, though, only became possible with Oracle 8i. Dan Steinberger, cMores CEO, anticipates better multimedia performance in the upcoming Oracle 9i, which will add MPEG-4 support.
New Media Solutions, an Oracle partner in the "video assets" space, specializes in building video warehouses that are searchable through text-based meta data. Despite the current economic climate, New Media CTO Sal Guido characterizes the video assets market as "quite good." New Media is now focusing on sports videos, but Guido says that at the recent NAB conference, his company uncovered interest from potential customers in the advertising, distance learning and military markets.
IBM, meanwhile, makes the case for the "federated database," which consists of multivendor data stores, all managed through IBMs own DB2 database. The "federated database gives customers the ability to access information and do an integrated search without moving the data. The data could reside in a FileNet document-management system, DB2 or Oracle, for instance," says Janet Perna, general manager for IBM Data Management Software.
IBM solutions provider Blue Wave has built Wellness Connection, a multimedia electronic medical record system revolving around DB2 and IBMs Content Manager framework. Together with medical records and X-ray and CT scan images, the system accommodates audio files such as "the sound of a heart murmur," notes Blue Wave CEO Rose Odette.
Some solutions providers are producing custom implementations to give other databases the ability to search across both relational and unstructured data. Reams Document Imaging, for example, has used Visual Basic for a custom application that lets police officers search across both SQL Server 2000 information and the Btrieve flat-file database that comes with LaserFiches document-management system. 7.
Crunching the Numbers In fact, research from Gartner shows that integrators are providing more of the software used in content-management systems than ISVs, says Alan Weintraub, Gartners research director.
But in this brand new market, ISVs are beginning to challenge the top database vendors, unveiling their own content-management frameworks.
In April, for example, a new software company named CeyonIQ launched a product that seems to fit Gartners notion of ECMS almost perfectly.
The new CeyonIQ Portal is an XML-based framework for personalized access to content that includes scanned-in documents, images and video, along with shrink-wrapped and legacy enterprise applications.
In all three of these emerging database markets, say industry observers, training programs are readily available. Hiring talent is also an option, along with ASP and outsourcing services.
For the average solutions provider, it boils down to a fundamental decision: Are the growing pains associated with emerging markets worth the potential of a large new revenue stream?