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Natural Language Query: Old Answer for 'New' BI Opportunity

As combinations of business intelligence and search technology are emerging, Progress Software is reviving a simpler approach: turning natural language queries into SQL code.
Nedbank saw EasyAsk as a possible way to enable users untrained in SQL to do ad hoc query without IT support, so last fall it piloted two applications. In the first app, Nedbank put EasyAsk on top of a 20 GB customer database so bank users could explore customer profiles, spending patterns and other information used in marketing campaigns. "Within four days, we had a solution that could query the entire database quite seamlessly," says Oliver. "The knee-jerk reaction from the technical guys was, 'I didn't write the code, so I don't trust it,' but we inspected the SQL that EasyAsk generated to make sure that the queries were correct."

In a second project, which subsequently went into production, Nedbank developed a simple query application needed by the Homelands (mortgage) Department. Without any formal training on the product, developers simply followed the installation procedures to customize the query dictionary and created and store the desired queries (in English), and the project was completed within one day, says Oliver. "Once we proved that it was generating valid SQL and that the queries were coming out right, we started letting users loose in a controlled fashion," he says. "The users quickly figured out that the tool is quite easy to use, so they started typing in their own questions." The application has since been in use by ten employees for nearly six months, and Oliver says that in only a handful of occasions has his department had to tune the dictionary to ensure that new English-language queries were turning up valid results.

EasyAsk now faces its biggest test at Nedbank, as it has been embedded in an existing application used my more than 9,000 bank branch employees and managers to benchmark which employees, products and branches are doing well in terms of sales and service and which ones are falling short. "There's a growing amount of data sitting under that application, and we simply can't develop fast enough to satisfy the need for queries," says Oliver. "The EasyAsk functionality has been tested and looks good, but we're trying to test workload and servers and make sure it won't kill performance." Oliver notes that the software can be tuned to limit the size of the queries at certain times of the day, so he's expecting the application to roll out to all branches in mid April.

Harris of Progress says EasyAsk "stands on the shoulders" of existing data warehouse, data mart and information management infrastructures, providing a broadly available, Web-based query environment for with per-CPU, rather than per-seat, licensing. Typical deployments roll out to hundreds or thousands of users with costs in the $200,000 to $300,000 range, says Harris.

NLQ technology does have its limits, says Dresner, so he predicts it will shine in focused applications. "The query environment is only as good as the dictionary, but Progress seems to have put some effort into developing those dictionaries," Dresner explains. "I like that fact that they've come up with functional solutions for areas such as sales and marketing so they can build all those concepts into the dictionary out of the box."