Metadata on B2B Radar

MetaMatrix, IBM, others enlarge metadata's role in B2B Web services.

While technologies that enable metadata integration within databases have been available for several years, MetaMatrix Inc., IBM and others are rolling out products to make metadata more useful in business-to-business transactions via Web services.

Version 3.0 of MetaMatrixs namesake metadata integration software, due this fall, will feature XML modeling and data integration technology, along with a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) interface to MetaMatrix Server to make integrated information available as Web services.

MetaMatrix abstracts data sources into a virtual database of integrated information—without moving data from its source—while acting as the data delivery system for any application.

The upgrade will provide support in the MetaMatrix repository for XML sources and an XML document model that allow users to create XML documents for any information source, including relational databases, flat files, Web sites, e-mail and application data.

Web services communicate with the MetaMatrix server through the SOAP interface and receive data in schema-compliant XML documents, which can then be sent outside the firewall to partners or suppliers for B2B transactions.

Customer relationship management, supply chain management and other applications that can reach outside the enterprise communicate through a Java Database Connectivity/ Open Database Connectivity interface as if it were a relational database, according to MetaMatrix officials in New York.

With the upgrade, MetaMatrix will introduce a metadata global dictionary that describes the relationships among data. The dictionary defines an attribute—customer, for example—and discovers how many times that attribute called across systems.

Infinity Pharmaceuticals Inc. uses MetaMatrix 3.0 for large-scale data integrations, said CIO Andy Palmer. "We do loosely what is called chemical genomics, where we have ... to integrate a large amount of chemical and biology databases," said Palmer in Boston. "[MetaMatrix] Web services support was the primary driver in our purchasing the system and in their commitment in 3.1 to provide ... support for writing back through to multiple data sources."

Palmer said that while Web services work well for his company to publish and consume application services—Infinity is a young company with few legacy systems—some of his partners are not ready to respond in kind. "They are Web-enabled but not Web services-enabled," he said. "Most of our partners can consume Web services, but very few can publish Web services back to us. The way we designed [our Web services] we assumed they would be [ready], that we would have to do some additional work to convert [data]. Its going to be another year or two before large companies make Web services mainstream in their business. But they are doing so aggressively. It makes so much sense and makes things so much easier."

MetaMatrix isnt alone in working to provide this type of metadata integration for B2B activities. As part of a project code-named Xperanto, IBM is moving away from data stored in a physical database to managing data that is stored in a virtual database. From a technical standpoint, this will encompass a combination of federated technology, replication data and XML that will let database managers easily search, integrate and use metadata for Web services, said officials in Armonk, N.Y.

In a future version of its DB2 database (a delivery date has not been set but will likely be next year), IBM will provide an integration layer on top of DB2 that combines Web services and XML technology so that customers can gather, search and integrate information in a variety of physical databases as well as from outside sources, much as EAI (enterprise application integration) software allows for the aggregation and integration of application information.

Others, such as Sybase Inc., of Dublin, Calif., and Oracle Corp., of Redwood Shores, Calif., have added Web services interfaces to information integration offerings. Sybase this year added a Web services interface and XML to its Enterprise Connect Data Access and Mainframe Connect integration software. In December, Oracle added XML and a Web services interface for Web services to its 9i Application Server Release 2.

While the functionality inherent with metadata integration—or EII (enterprise information integration), as dubbed by industry analysts—appears to be similar to EAI, there are key differences. While EAI enables two or more applications to share data and creates new relationships among that data, EII sits on top of a database and provides a common look and feel for disparate sources of data, using metadata information to determine the relationships among data. The result is that multiple data sources resemble "one big database," according to Wayne Kernochan, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc., in Boston. This is an important distinction as companies begin to use Web services for B2B interactions.

"Web services software that is sprouting across the computer industry typically does not contain a single back-end interface that can access and aggregate multiple back-end applications and databases," said Kernochan. There is a reason. Providing a common enterprise data store that partners, suppliers and customers can access is a tough nut to crack, Kernochan said.