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Integrating information at the desktop

by Phil Wainewright
October 27th, 2003

An assortment of pioneering software companies are finally bringing substance to Microsoft's 1990s rallying cry of 'Information at your fingertips'.

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New services-based approaches are empowering business users with real-time access to enterprise information resources:
  • XML capabilities in Office 2003 ease custom integrations
  • Business users want to link Excel spreadsheets to corporate data
  • Enterprise information integration (EII) provides data integration infrastructure
  • Service views can be stored and combined into composite applications
  • With visual tools, users can control process automation for themselves

Glossary terms: XML, SOA, EII, composite application, services management, lookup tool

They're showing that web services and a service oriented architecture (SOA) can ease access to information, not only by sending it from one application to another, but also by delivering it to users' desktops.

They're also showing that achieving that degree of information integration takes a lot more than was on display at Microsoft's Office 2003 launch last week — and that much of what's needed is going to come from sources other than Microsoft.

Last week's launch was full of demonstrations showing back-end data being brought into Office documents, using the power of XML web services to unlock those enterprise data sources. The promise was of enormous productivity gains through, for example, making sure that salespeople always include up-to-date, accurate product pricing and customer discounts in quotation letters, or of bringing real-time business data into management spreadsheets.

But those demonstrations largely relied on Office 2003 acting as a front-end to an individual vendor's application, using a carefully pre-engineered XML interface.

Business users have their sights set on a larger prize. They don't want easier access to prepackaged portions of their data. They want easier access to all of it. And they want it on demand, in a format they can control.

Securing that larger prize requires a lot more effort and technology than was on show last week. But various vendors are offering pieces of the puzzle, overcoming obstacles of interoperability, security and usability in the quest to bring together information from multiple application data sources and presenting them in documents, spreadsheets and application frameworks that users themselves can manipulate and modify.

Plugged into Excel
"In Deutsche Bank," says Kerry Champion, founder of Westbridge Technology, which provides web services management software to the bank, "it's very common for new applications to appear first as Excel spreadsheets." These power users are already trusted to model and create financial products using their desktop software, even though they're not programmers and never want to learn how to program.

In other companies, spreadsheets are a repository for data collected from various sources. "What we have found is, people have a lot of data in Excel they want to link into using XML," says Champion.

Westbridge has introduced a plug-in for Excel that provides access to that data by linking into its web services infrastructure products. "Our approach is based on service views — the ability to define a specific view into one or more web services — and [to define] a different view for each of the types of consumer," explains Champion.

Set up by systems administrators, service views not only define which web services make up each view, but also which user groups are authorized to access it and what level of access they have. This separation of policy from presentation means that the web services management infrastructure takes care of finding the services and keeping them secure. All the user has to do to include the resulting data in their spreadsheet is select options from an on-screen dialog box.

"[Users] want all these benefits of connecting to XML web services without having to upgrade [to Office 2003]," adds Champion, so Westbridge has made its Excel plug-in compatible with previous versions of Office too — currently Office XP and, subject to further product testing, Office 2000. Over time, the company plans to add support for other desktop applications such as InfoPath, Lotus, PowerBuilder and so on.

Data on demand
Organizations that don't want to wait for Westbridge to extend its range of plug-ins may choose instead to investigate the products of Composite Software, which last week announced availability of its flagship product, Composite Information Server.

Founded by Jim Green — the former CTO of webMethods, previously founder of Active Software and an early pioneer at Sun of the CORBA integration architecture, — Composite Software targets information integration on an enterprise-wide scale: "We view what we do as enterprise-enabling the desktop — so your desktop becomes much more powerful now," says Green.

Able to deliver information to desktop applications either as a SOAP web service or using database-compatible interfaces such as ODBC, the company's Information Server tackles the challenge of aggregating real-time information from diverse sources and delivering it to the desktop on demand.

"The problem is that the data are in different locations, shapes and schemas," says Green. Some of it will be in table rows in a relational database; other elements stored in XML will probably be in a document file; if it's coming from an application system, it may be in some kind of delimited flat file format. "So now all the shapes have to be reconciled. It actually gets pretty complicated, which is why this hasn't been done before."

Building blocks
Information Server uses various algorithms to ensure the data can be extracted and delivered in the quickest way possible, so that, for example, a CEO taking an unexpected call from a customer can still have the relevant information on his or her screen within moments.

Because the product uses the concept of views, the data that it fetches is always the latest information. "Information Server doesn't create a duplicate image," explains Green. "It simply knows where all the data is, and it retrieves it from its various locations."

The views are created by staff with database administrator skills. Once a view has been created — for example combining sales data and returns information to create a net sales view — it is stored in a repository and can be used as a building block towards other views. "Once anyone, anywhere figures out how to get information out of PeopleSoft, that work never has to be done again," says Green. "The view becomes a building block to the extent that you can build views upon views."

Composite Software has deliberately chosen to specialize in information infrastructure, concentrating on providing flexible, real-time access to data from disparate sources without concerning itself with how users then manipulate that data. "We're effectively doing data integration rather than process integration," says Green.

Service repositories
Other newcomers are pitching the notion of composite applications alongside information integration, aiming to give users even more choice in how they view and manipulate information. One company that's homing in on this area is Above All Software, led by Informix founder Roger Sippl. Its product creates a repository of web services descriptions by translating WSDL code into a more accessible format, which business developers can then map and remodel into more convenient composite service views.

Once added to the repository, users can build services into views and combine them in different ways. "Very 'raw' software services that weren't intended to be used with our product can be added to the repository and used as-is, but also be refined into more useful abstractions incrementally," says Above All's Craig Priess. "Also, as people establish, for example, a new relationship between two services, that relationship is persisted and can be reused by others."

Whereas Composite Software's product is designed to be used by database administrators, and Westbridge is set up by systems administrators, Above All targets business developers. British company Decisionality has gone one step further, with a toolkit that it says allows business decision-makers to combine web services within the familiar environment of an Office document or Excel spreadsheet.

Decisionality's product is designed to be used by the people in an organization who develop and change procedures. "All the best practices that people use, the owners of those can develop and deploy them," says CEO and co-founder Freddie McMahon.

Instant response
Instead of baking procedures into training courses and manuals that are then routinely ignored, Decisionality users create processes as web services components using a visual design tool. "So long as you can work with flow chart symbols and drag-and-drop, that's it," says McMahon. "[Users] can create and change the rules very quickly and then deploy them quickly."

The components are then embedded into Office documents as interactive forms and dialog boxes that steer information users or customers through decision processes such as applying for a loan, a long-term absence or a product demonstration. Whenever the process needs to change, whether because of regulatory changes or a change in business tactics, the process owner can make that change immediately. "Our benchmark is, can you change the web services faster than filling out an IT request form?" boasts McMahon.

That level of responsiveness is the holy grail of service-oriented architecture, the ultimate fulfilment of Microsoft's 'Information at your fingertips' vision. No one has yet managed to combine Decisionality's usability with Above All's composite functionality, Composite Software's powerful information integration and Westbridge's service infrastructure into a single proposition, but it can only be a matter of time.

Next year, Composite Software plans an upgrade to its product that will enable multiple Integration Servers to link up into a seamless composite information infrastructure. When that happens, says Green, "People no longer need to go to the data source to view the data. They just go to the network."

Put that together with the ability to manage the information processes at the desktop, and the economics will start to be compelling. Decisionality routinely analyzes the effect that user productivity gains are likely to have on its clients' profitability. McMahon concludes: "If you start to empower people with knowledge of how to do their work, you then have a staggering impact on the bottom line."

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