IBM's BI stance shows intelligence

IBM has committed to delivering BI across all of its major software groups

This year is the year IBM has chosen to get more intelligent about business intelligence.
 
While the company has delivered BI-related applications and tools for some time, IBM is now making a commitment across all of its major software groups to deliver core products with a healthy dose of BI baked in.

One of the major goals of this multi-division effort is seamless integration of the massive stores of historical data that corporate users typically have with real-time analytics. Company officials see this as mandatory if corporate users are going to establish a true on-demand environment successfully.

Janet Perna is the IBM executive helping piece this strategy together. As IBM's general manager of data management solutions, Perna has been in charge of IBM's multibillion-dollar DB2 business since the mid-1990s and was a key player in IBM's $1bn acquisition of Informix in 2001 which doubled IBM's distributed database business overnight.

More recently Perna has been helping shape and deliver the company's next generation of database and content management products that will comprise the infrastructure for creating an on-demand environment. Perna discussed some of IBM's latest directions in this market.

IBM has been in the BI market for quite a while, but the company's On Demand initiative appears to have given it renewed purpose. What is the strategic intent of BI for IBM?

Perna:  If you look at what companies are doing as they integrate their systems horizontally, they want to optimise their overall business processes so they can respond to changes quickly. It allows them to quickly maintain their existing business processes based on both internal and external factors. In order to do that you need to have insight as to what is happening, and that really everything to do with intelligence.

Can you give an example of this? 

Perna: Look at Laughing Cow Cheese, which is mentioned in The South Beach Diet, but not by its specific brand name. (Laughing Cow) had no idea that the brand was being referenced in the book; that was something happening external to their business. Imagine if they had known that.

You start thinking about technologies like Web Fountain that allow you to go out into the community of external sources and get insight into what is happening out there that might affect your brand and business, either negatively or positively.

So when you think about this whole notion of On Demand and what companies are trying to do, BI gives you business insight through information on all types On Demand data.

Web Fountain is a technology we have now in (IBM) Research and one of the things it does is crawl many sources on the web to gather data that might be relevant to your business. One of the things Laughing Cow would have been able to realise was their brand was mentioned in a best-selling book, and so if a lot of people were asking for it at the grocery store, they could anticipate that added demand and been ready for it.

What is IBM's strategy for merging the massive amounts of historical data a large company has with real-time analytics? Is it just an extension of your existing integration strategies or something else?

Perna: Analytics are just going to be part of applications like applications for ERP, supply chain, and CRM. We are beginning to see that evolve today, as we see with business process integration. What we will see is events triggered by data. There will be changes to a state in the database that are going to trigger some kind of behaviour.

It is at that point where you integrate the analytics. But part of the requirement for doing that is the database be smart enough to be able to warn the analytic functions that something is coming in.

For instance, when a web-based transaction is coming into the database, you want to be able to score this person I am transacting with in real time using data mining technology. So if this person is a great candidate for a life insurance policy or trying to get a seat on flight, the transaction you are conducting will invoke triggers to call up real-time scoring services, which gives you more information on the profile of this person you are dealing with.

Think of it as a kind of conversation, or taking CRM back 100 years ago. When someone walked into a merchant's store 100 years ago, they knew a lot more about that person than merchants do today. Back then they would know that person's birthday, family background, etc. Well today we try to have that sort of relationship with customers collecting that sort of information through many, many transactions.

This real-time scoring software is Masala?

Perna: Yes. In essence what we are trying to do is interact in real time as if you and I were talking. Well, not so much talking in this instance, but interacting with a system and having that system and data be intelligent enough to figure out what is the next thing you want to do.

How complex a task will it be to get people to upgrade their infrastructure to marry all their historical and real-time analytics?
 
Perna: There is not a big rip and replace strategy needed here. Our approach is really about leveraging infrastructure you already have, wherever it exists. If you look at all the data sources out there, it is in file systems, content sources, a range of web-based information.

And so when you look at what we are doing with the Information Network Integrator, our integration platform for information, we have been extending its reach. Initially, it would go out to just relational data sources. Then, we added e-mail, web services, and XML data sources, and now we are adding text. We have this search paradigm with Masala to do free-form search. So what we are doing is using that layer to search and integrate and bring in information from all these different sources.

How closely do you have to work with Microsoft to make all this work effectively with things on the desktop? And what sort of standards do you both have to agree on to make that happen?

Perna: Most of the standards are in place and would include SQL, XML, and XQuery. So when you look at what we have here, we have the necessary integration layer, the programming interface layer is SQL, and with Masala you have enterprise-level search. These are all different metaphors for accessing information.

So you see the DB2 Information Integrator as the key layer in terms of expediting this strategy?

Perna: Exactly right.

So what is the next step for carrying DB2 Information Integrator forward?

Perna: We put Masala into beta over three months ago. This will give us an enterprise search paradigm. Think about a portal app where you are not dealing with an app but a person, and the metaphor is free-form search.

The other thing we have already integrated is text mining. So if you want to know information about which appliance is calling into your call center, today what people have are records, problem records… .

What will portal technologies play in this context?

Perna: To me portals are one of the ways to get it all out to the masses. So the (Lotus) Workplace environment is fast becoming a personalised portal environment. Portals will be one of the places where you can deliver this information.

There is this term "business performance management," and what that is really about is, we have this end-to-end business process that starts with CRM and goes to supply chain management systems and the optimisation of that whole process. So it is taking this end-to-end view and this business model and applying analytics to that end-to-end process that shows where the bottlenecks are in that process that slow the flow.

Once that is done, companies can figure out where and how to change the process. After a while, the process can change itself to better adapt through real autonomic technologies. So this layer gets more and more automated, which means you can gather information at every step of this business process and the information flows from one business process to the next, you can analyse that along the way.

Microsoft has to play some role in all of this to push data down to the masses, but they are not a big pusher of BI technology at this point.

Perna: Right. Microsoft has the dominant (desktop) applications suite. They use Excel as their BI tool, which is fine. And so the connection we want is Excel sitting out here and being able to access this infrastructure. We have the ability today to gain (desktop) access through Office.

What other changes have you made internally to help accommodate this renewed BI strategy?

Perna: One of the biggest changes we made this year was the restructuring of our sales force to better focus on industries but also to better focus on solutions. Now we have a BI speciality team that spans across IBM. And because we have an open standards-based strategy (with BI), if users want a portal strategy for Linux on the pSeries, we can do that.

Ed Scannell and Tom Sullivan write for InfoWorld

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