New routes with enterprise mashups

Application mashups enable the creation of new content and services. So how do they work and how can your organisation profit by them?

Application mashups have spearheaded the drive of Web 2.0 technologies in the enterprise. Mashups are nothing to do with potatoes; rather they are the integration of data from different sources to create new - and often visual - content, most commonly on the internet.

Gartner has positioned mashups as a key medium-term trend for IT in the enterprise, and a number of heavyweight suppliers are throwing their weight behind them - IBM, Microsoft and Oracle included - while organisations such as BT, Ordnance Survey and Salesforce.com are also advocates.

So what are mashups and what benefits do they offer business? What are the key technologies involved and what issues arise when implementing them?

Mashups gain their name from the music DJ practice of taking two or more tunes and merging them to make a new mix. Similarly, mashup developers take data from two or more sources and combine them to provide a new way of rendering the information.

Currently, most mashups are based on adding data to mapping information. An example of this type of mashup is flickrmap.com, which combines Google Maps with galleries of photos from flickr.com taken at specific locations.

Similarly, Housingmaps.com takes real-estate listings from Craigslist.com and merges it with Google Maps to show houses for sale in North America in a graphical format.

Product search mashups are another prominent application of the technology. Launched last year in the US, Cooqy.com uses free eBay application programming interfaces (APIs) to deliver auction information in new ways, such as listing items by shipping cost and allowing 48 items to be viewed on a page.

In other examples business listings are combined with Skype's voice over IP services to allow calls to be placed from your browser, while the availability of Fedex tracking codes has enabled businesses to allow customers to click through to delivery information on goods ordered. Elsewhere, news feeds such as RSS and Atom have allowed users to combine sources according to their interests.

These mashups are relatively simple web-based examples, and there are a number of approaches to generating a business model around them.

You can develop a mashup to present information in a way that helps your business to combine other people's data and provide a service while gaining advertising revenue. Or, like Amazon and eBay, you can allow access to your APIs for a fee or simply as a method of driving business your way.

So far the bulk of examples are from across the Atlantic, but Ordnance Survey has begun beta testing APIs with developers so they can build mapping-based mashups.

It recently completed a trial named Project OpenSpace, in which 12 volunteer software developers were granted access to APIs to create Google Maps-style mashups. The organisation is set to make a final decision on releasing the code later this year following evaluation of the trial.

The aim of Project OpenSpace is to encourage new and innovative mashup-style uses of Ordnance Survey's data in the hope of finding revenue-generating commercial applications, such as combining extremely detailed rural mapping with other data to provide a resource for outdoors enthusiasts.

John Abbott, a technical consultant at Ordnance Survey, says, "For businesses that want to mashup-enable their data there are three rules. Make your API as easy to use as possible, get it out there as soon as possible - this is a fast changing, market and if you do not get your data out there, your competitors will - and listen to your users.

"Build a community around the developers using your APIs and listen to them. Add the features they request and drop those they do not."

Another model is typified by Salesforce.com. It provides web-based business software and is a keen advocate of mashups. It offers users the ability to customise its applications to develop new features. Late last year it launched a beta of Apex, a Java-like programming language and server infrastructure that lets users build extensions to Salesforce.com's applications or entire free-standing programmes.

Mashups are used extensively by the supplier in its core customer relationship management applications and in applications that third parties create and share via its Appexchange directory. These mashups come from a variety of sources including Google and Yahoo Maps, Skype conferencing and analytical services from software supplier Business Objects.

Adam Gross, vice-president of developer marketing at Salesforce.com, says, "By using mashups business users can easily enhance their productivity. Services like Skype can be incorporated into their work day and integrated directly into the data and applications they already use. In the case of Salesforce.com and Skype the mashup lets users create conference calls with contacts and customers."

In theory it is possible for any business to start using mashups to merge internal data in new ways, says Ian Moulster, product manager for Microsoft's .net platform. "While many mashups use public APIs and public information sources, it is perfectly possible to build and deliver mashups based on information and APIs that are internal to an enterprise," he says.

"Many enterprises have for years been aggregating content from across their business and delivering it to users via portals or similar front-ends. Typically the focus of these efforts has been on the technical integration-related issues rather than actual delivery to the end-user. However, as the technology improves we are likely to see an increasing focus on the value to the user and the user experience."

Web-based mashups are based on an architecture that comprises content generated via APIs, or in some cases by screen scrapes that are delivered to the mashup site. Delivery can be via server-side or client-side scripting, or a combination of the two.

Javascript is commonly used, especially in conjunction with a family of technologies that minimise traffic between client and server, namely Ajax (Asynchronous Java­script and XML).

Fundamentally, mashups are a form of data integration, and in that there is a clue as to the direction the technology will head. Analysts are talking about combining data in user interfaces using web services technologies such as Simple Object Access Protocol (Soap) and the service oriented architecture framework. Here the web-based mashup is transformed into a different beast, and merges into the sphere of enterprise application integration and the "enterprise mashup".

Michael Azoff, senior research analyst at Butler Group, says, "For enterprises there are tremendous opportunities when you can expose processes from different parts of the business as a web service and combine them in the browser or written applications.

"You need to look at business processes and determine where you could create efficiencies and business possibilities by exposing and combining web services, all of which depends on how far you are down the SOA route."

Currently, however, most people are getting to grips with the HTML/Javascript incarnation of mashups. If that includes you, what should you be doing with mashups and what are the key concerns when ­implementing them?

Most analysts recommend businesses begin to understand the concept now, not least because of the expectation that they will at some point merge into wider service-oriented concepts of application development.

Clive Longbottom, service director at analyst firm Quocirca, recommends IT departments start with easy wins. "At this stage I would recommend using mashups in a small way - trying them out, rather than using them as full-blown solutions," he says.

"I would also recommend only using internal functions wherever possible and only using public ones where the source is well known and is nominally trusted.

"The key thing here is to understand the technology and its opportunities, while getting to understand the pitfalls. Once you fully understand the individual mashups being trialled, roll them out further, but with control mechanisms in place."

Key issues in developing mashups are the availability and reliability of information. If you expect someone to pay for the information you are providing, you need to be certain that the data you source from third-party sources is reliable.

In some cases, such as with Microsoft's Virtual Earth service, it is possible to stipulate service levels if you pay for APIs.

"Any business that relies on external data sources or APIs needs to consider the implications of the reliability of the service and of the information being provided. You need to ask, do you trust the source, is there a service level agreement in place and what are the implications to your business if the service becomes unavailable?" says Moulster.

So, where is mashup technology heading? It seems we are still at the early stages and that the future direction will be towards enterprise and more sophisticated approaches.

Gene Phifer, vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, says, "We will see more of the web approach, but we are moving towards more complex mashups with the use of things like Soap.

"Mashups started out on the internet outside the enterprise, using relatively simple web technologies. Now it is moving towards the enterprise and high-end web services."

In fact, it is possible to imagine that today's mashup and its relatively simple form of combining data will one day be subsumed into a landscape of development where the creation of applications from many data sources is the norm.

Wise up to mashups, says Gartner >>

Microsoft and BT mashup competition >>

Salesforce.com mashup customisation >>

Cliff Saran's fear, uncertainty and doubt blog >>
Computer Weekly's managing technology editor Cliff Saran writes on the highs and lows of the IT industry, looking at the technology trends that matter to corporate IT, and those that don't.

Comment on this article: computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk


 




This was last published in May 2007

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