Many Pieces, One View

Feb 23, 2003 (07:02 PM EST)

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Merrill Lynch's business runs on the information stored in four separate databases, which contain details about clients, trades, investment products such as stocks and bonds, and the prices of those products. Trouble is, the company's operational systems need to see the data as though it were all stored in one place. "This is all the data used throughout the company for trade execution, settlement, risk management, and financing," says Michael Cole, enterprise data-standards initiative director at the financial-services company.

So the company uses enterprise information-integration software from MetaMatrix Inc. to give transactional systems a single view of the information located in all four of its databases. "It's like having a virtual data warehouse," Cole says.

Enterprise information integration is designed to give managers and frontline workers real-time access to operational data they need to make day-to-day decisions. Enterprise information integration isn't about business analysts scrutinizing historical information for long-range marketing plans. It's about the call-center worker who needs current account information from several sources when a customer calls. It's about the factory manager who needs up-to-date details on orders and inventories to make production decisions. And it's about the executive who needs a companywide view of his business' performance.

The concept isn't new, of course. Complete data integration has been the dream of business managers since databases first arrived on the IT scene. But pulling together all that information has never been easy. It's often located in databases from different vendors, generated by various applications, or organized in incompatible formats. Often, multiple data types are involved, including relational and XML data, images, documents, and E-mail. The problem has gotten worse as the number of databases within companies, and the volume of information they contain, has grown.

Enterprise information integration brings the dream closer to reality -- more easily and cheaply than anything before, including executive information systems, dashboards, and portals. The technology uses metadata to create a "virtual database" that provides a single view of information residing in multiple data sources.

To be sure, there is some overlap between emerging information-integration tools and existing technologies. Information Builders Inc. has offered its Enterprise Data Access information-integration software for years, recently adding the IWay XML Transformation Engine. Informatica Corp. execs say their PowerAnalyzer business-intelligence tool can perform EII tasks. Oracle notes that long-available features within its database software, including Materialized Views, deliver single views of data in multiple databases. Even IBM considers DB2 Information Integrator, which it unveiled earlier this month, to be the third generation of its data-integration products, which include Data Joiner (released in 1995), for linking relational data, and Enterprise Information Portal (released in 1998), which gives users access to data and unstructured content.

But IBM focused a spotlight on the new market when it unveiled DB2 Information Integrator, making "a very big splash in a very small pond," says Philip Russom, a Giga Information Group analyst. BEA Systems Inc.'s Liquid Data, which debuted last fall, is arguably IBM's biggest competitor in the market. Also this month, Sagent Technology Inc. debuted its OpenLink software for EII. And on the same day that IBM debuted DB2 II, SAP revealed a deal to embed MetaMatrix's EII technology within its SAP NetWeaver enterprise services architecture, so companies can integrate in real time information from SAP software with data from other operational systems.

AxCell Biosciences Corp. is using DB2 Information Integrator to access drug-discovery research stored in IBM DB2, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle databases. DB2 II creates a single virtual database that an AxCell scientist can access with one query, speeding up efforts to identify the pathways through which human cells communicate. Although AxCell is using DB2 II to access only a few databases, bioinformatics manager Lubing Lian says the software will create significant advantages for companies that have data scattered all over the world.

The biggest benefits of information integration come from the ability to get operating data from multiple sources to support immediate decisions. Employees at Reliant Pharmaceuticals LLC are using EII tools from Juice Software Inc. to get a consolidated, real-time view of order-entry, customer-account, and inventory data stored in different tables in the databases that underlie the company's enterprise resource planning applications. Customer-service reps use the information to run credit checks and decide whether to approve orders.

The Juice software even pulls shipment information from distributors' intranets, which, when combined with order data, can tip off order-takers to distributors that may be buying excessive amounts of certain drugs on speculation that prices are about to rise. Before Reliant installed Juice last fall, that process was handled with paper, telephone calls, and many, many spreadsheets. "There was a lot of manual effort," says chief technology officer Ron Calderone. The EII technology "manages all the data brokering, and the information is up to date. It doesn't matter what the source is."

Ron Calderone, chief technology officer of Juice Software. Photo by Anna Curtis.

Juice's software cuts manual work, Reliant's Calderone says.
Information-integration software is different from data extraction, transformation, and loading tools, which are generally used to aggregate huge volumes of data into data warehouses in batch mode. That contrasts with the immediate access to operational data EII provides.

Enterprise information integration is also different from enterprise application integration, which links the applications and transactions related to a business process. For example, EAI can connect an invoicing system with a warehouse-shipping application, so a customer is automatically sent a bill as soon as his or her order leaves the loading dock.

But by providing a single, virtual model of multiple data sources, EII might help reduce the cost and complexity of large-scale EAI projects by 50% to 70%, says MetaMatrix CEO Philippe Chambadal, adding that EII can cut integration costs by as much as $100,000 per application per year. That could help drive the nascent market, which was about $500 million in 2002, Giga's Russom says.

USCO Logistics, part of Kuehne & Nagle International AG of Switzerland, is one of the software's early adopters. The transportation-planning and warehouse-management services company has been testing EII software from Nimble Technology Inc. to give clients an aggregated view of inventory and shipment information stored in about a dozen databases. "Every one is an operational data store," says Rod Franklin, solutions engineering VP at USCO.

The company considered building a centralized data warehouse but concluded that such a system couldn't deliver the up-to-date information customers need. USCO is considering using Nimble's software in conjunction with business-intelligence tools from Business Objects SA to give facilities managers operational-performance information.

The software also will make it easier to connect customers to USCO's IT systems to provide logistics information, a chore that until now has required manual programming. "This is a great productivity tool for our IT people," Franklin says.

Better information and better productivity? Sounds like a concept custom-made for these economic times.

Illustration by Istvan Orosz
Photo of Calderone by Anna Curtis

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