Web services drive BI evolution

Faced with growing enterprise demand for seamless, real-time access to transactional data, BI (business intelligence) vendors are increasingly turning to Web services technologies.

Accenture Ltd. and Information Builders Inc. are two players making the first leaps to aid enterprises in reaching the real-time goal by using Web services to integrate BI into applications and systems. For enterprises, this means more flexibility and more available options when it comes to spreading BI throughout an enterprise.

"What used to be a batch-oriented process ... now we're listening for a particular event," said Henry Morris, an analyst at IDC. "Part of the real-time thing is being able to monitor real-time data ... databases listening for events we have flagged. Web services makes it more possible to do this."

Conventional BI boundaries -- applying analytical tools to data warehouses and data marts -- are being cast aside in favor of real-time intelligence that would allow a manufacturer to forecast demand for materials and use Web services to expose that demand to a supplier or expose performance metrics to its institutional investors via a Web service for risk management.

Embracing these boundary changes, Accenture has developed a new active BI prototype designed to allow users to aggregate, view, and manipulate real-time data from multiple sources, including enterprise systems and trusted third parties. The Live Information Models prototype, based on Microsoft Corp. .Net technology and Juice Software Inc.'s enterprise software platform, provides a continuous connection between Excel spreadsheets and multiple data sources.

The models can go to any SOAP-enabled back-end system, and pull and expose data, said Alan Warren, CTO and co-founder of New York City-based Juice. Users can build simple and flexible analytical models to be shared with other users via live data streams embedded in desktop applications.

"We aren't trying to replace the traditional BI stack,"Warrensaid. "There's a lot of value in this traditional view where you go through [extraction, transformation, and loading] to a warehouse, and spin off cubes and data marts, and apply BI tools against that. What we're letting you do is expose access to your end-users anywhere up and down that stack.

"We had been looking at building solutions that leverage the desktop applications like Word and Excel, and let them connect into information assets in the enterprise or mainframe and legacy sources,"Warrensaid. "Live Information Models are geared toward information access and delivery at the desktop so end users can interact from a variety of systems and can maintain a link to it."

Juice's server manages the connection to the information systems; runs alongside existing .Net or J2EE application servers; and leverages existing user definitions, and roles and capabilities, Warren added. The model also features a toolkit to build adaptors for connections to systems lacking standards-based interfaces.

Reliant Pharmaceuticals LLC, a Liberty Corner, N.J.-based startup company that markets three drugs to general practitioners and cardiologists, is using the new Live Information Models to pull data from multiple sources and push to multiple applications.

"Juice is acting as the data broker to pull data ... that helps in making the decisions as data on any of those ends changes ... or as inventory levels change on the distributor side, that gets immediately added to the spreadsheet," said Ron Calderone, Reliant CTO. "It enables real-time enterprise computing."

Support for Web services also takes a leading role in the latest release of New York-based Information Builders' flagship enterprise BI and real-time reporting solution. In WebFocus 5, built-in support for Web services means any report can be created and published as a Web service callable from J2EE or .Net environments so that robust BI can be seamlessly integrated into any application, regardless of the architecture, said Jake Freivald, director of marketing at Information Builders subsidiary iWay Software.

Although enterprises need the ability to produce reports, and output and analyze information, they also need to be able to integrate data coming from multiple sources to produce these reports, he added.

"Any functionally for the tools themselves ... should be available through a Web service," he said "There's also a need to be able to take a particular set of data and plug it into a wide variety of applications. The same report that you get through WebFocus can be returned ... as assets of data within a Web service. It can now be plugged into a portal that doesn't accept HTML or a Java application that needs the data, or shipped into a data warehouse."

Traditional BI vendors such as SAS Institute Inc., Business Objects SA, and Information Builders are also moving quickly to build support for Web services into their product offerings as enterprises seek to leverage Web services for real-time analytics. Noel-Levitz, an Iowa City, Iowa-based consulting firm that provides colleges and universities enrollment management solutions, uses Web services support from SAS to provide clients with "on the fly" scores to predict which students are most likely to enroll in a particular university. Before the introduction of Web services, clients would have to wait three to five days to receive this information, which is used to fire off marketing materials to potential recruits before other colleges can capture their attention, said Tim Thein, senior vice president of Noel-Levitz.

"We've created a .Net Web service interface that takes client data, writes it to a SQL table, [and] then fires up integration technologies and the proper scoring engine for that institution," Thein said. "Our scoring engine scores the data [and] writes it back out to the SQL table, and the Web service returns the data to the client or FTP site."

Noel-Levitz leverages SAS' Enterprise Miner to build its models and SAS/Access and SAS Integration Technologies to offer access to clients in real-time via Web services.

Web services are key to this "on the fly" integration of multiple sources for BI that traditionally would take a much more lengthy transformation, IDC's Morris said.

However, Morris noted that each company's definition of and need for real-time data may differ depending upon their particular applications. For example, some manufacturers may need access to instantaneous changes in supply chain data to adapt to order or inventory changes while call centers may only need to update several times a day.

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