02:40 PM

Many Pieces, One View

Information integration promises a less costly, more flexible way to access data from multiple, disparate sources

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.

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