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10/13/2006
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Analysis: IBM Moves Beyond Data Management

Big Blue's 'Information Server' delivers high-level abstraction for data, content and metadata. Will it unseat app servers and DBMSs as the keystone of IT?

It's the kind of announcement only IBM could make. The question is, are customers ready for a new era of all-encompassing information management?

At the first-ever IBM Information On Demand global conference, which kicked today in Anaheim, Calif., IBM declared its success in helping companies to manage all forms of information on an abstracted layer above the heretofore separate worlds of data management, content management and even metadata management. That layer helps companies reconcile disparate data and get to a single version of the truth.

Information integration is about giving users complete information, regardless of the data type or location. The integration software does the work of supplying the right Information in the context of the business need, regardless of the source location. "The people answering calls in the call center are not experts who understand query analysis, reporting or OLAP, but when customers call in, they need to be able to offer cross-sell or upsell opportunities or better service in the context of that particular call," explains Ambuj Goyal, general manager, IBM Information Management Software.

At the center of IBM's announcement is the IBM Information Server, a new product that IBM says it expects to be the prototype for a new breed of IT platform. "The world has been talking about application servers and database servers for years, but over the next decade, the Information Server will be the next-generation industry trend," Goyal says. "Every company needs this Information Server to deliver reconciled information, in context, to any analytics solution, dashboard or application."

The path toward this new platform, and IBM's larger Information On Demand initiative, has been paved by more than half a dozen acquisitions over the past 18 months (see "IBM Deals Fuel Info Management" table, below right). Data reconciliation, for example, encompasses existing master data management (MDM) offerings-for customer, product, order, account, location and other types of data-as well as identity-resolution capabilities gained through the January 2005 acquisition of SRD, an entity-analytics firm. Real-time access and two-way transactional capabilities are supported by WebSphere Customer Center 7.0, which employs technology from DWL, a data-integration company purchased in August 2005.

IBM Acquisitions Fuel Information Management
Acquisition Technology Date Price
FileNet Content Management Oct. 06 $1.6 billion
Unicorn Metadata management May 06 undisclosed
iPhrase Natural language search Nov. 05 undisclosed
DataPower Performance and security appliances Oct. 05 undisclosed
DWL Customer data integration Aug. 05 undisclosed
Ascential Data warehousing/integration Mar. 05 $1.1 billion
SRD Identity resolution Jan. 05 undisclosed

"Typical analytics solutions are one-way," Goyal says. "They can determine 'this is a good cross-sell opportunity,' but they can't implement it because they can't execute a transaction across four separate systems."

The Information Server is to be bundled with DB2 9 as the default database for the metadata repository, but being intended for heterogeneous environments, the product is not dependent upon IBM database, content, search, integration and MDM offerings. These products will, however, be designed to leverage the Information Server to gain reliable, consistent and integrated information, IBM says. The company's MDM products, for instance, can use the Information Server to assemble and load a complete view of master data from heterogeneous systems. IBM's Content and Discovery products can use the Information Server as a delivery vehicle that aligns content and associated data, as in the example of accident reports and auto policy-holder data.

IBM's vision is ambitious. "They're bringing together information up and down the stack," says Connie Moore, a vice president at Forrester Research. "Whether it's metadata management or information quality, I don't think any vendor has the depth and breadth that IBM has in information infrastructure."

Demand for MDM solutions is building, but Moore says only the most advanced firms are prepared to tap the full extent of IBM's offerings. Goyal insists it's not just a vision: "In the second quarter we nearly doubled our software business in this area to more than $100 million, and at least 5,000 of our customers are already using products in this domain."

One such customer is CheckFree, which provides bill-presentment and payment services to more than 2,000 financial institutions. "A lot of organizations, including ours, are looking at abstracting the data-management layer from the applications that consume the data," says Robert Catterall, director of IT strategy, planning and architecture. "That would cover differences among our RDBMSs, and at a higher level, it would give us a standard way in which applications would interact with the data-management layer." That would free developers to make changes in schema, move data between platforms and add data from outside the DBMS without changing application code, Catterall says.

Information abstraction also supports the move toward SOA (service-oriented architecture), as companies seek to separate rules, process execution and information from applications. Oracle is pursuing information integration with, among other things, federation, streams replication and data-pump data-sharing capabilities on the 10g database. It also has MDM and identity resolution initiatives, but IBM seems to be pulling together a more complete set of capabilities and a cohesive strategy for a higher level of abstraction. One wonders, too, whether Oracle's $10.4 billion investment in PeopleSoft and $5.8 billion investment in Siebel will keep the company preoccupied with its applications battle with SAP (another heavyweight pursuing MDM).

IBM executives still insist the company is not in the apps business (see "Q&A: Ambuj Goyal Looks Inside Information Management"), but the changes inherent in information management and SOA will inevitably draw IBM into the apps domain.

"If you look toward the applications of the future, where so much is abstracted out and components are being managed as services, the application becomes stripped down," Moore observes. In moving toward abstracted information management and SOA, "IBM is amassing the building blocks to assemble those applications of the future."

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