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The Fun Begins With Structure

Will master data management open new doors for BI?

The lords of technology have given us XML, and it is good. So can we all rest now? Something tells me that the considerable charms of XML, which Bruce Silver describes in our cover story, aren't going to lead to more sleep and time for hobbies. Information managers comforted by XML's data structuring potential shouldn't swear off caffeine just yet.

The word "structured" has always implied a solved problem, like my 10-year-old son's room when it's all cleaned up. Within a day, he's got everything back out where he really wants things, which is all over his floor. Ask him to keep his room clean for some extended period and he'll just spread his toys, books and clay creations elsewhere in the house.

I should borrow XML's selling points to convince my son that a structured approach to his "content" will help him find things faster, reuse stuff more easily and comply with future parental requests. The advances McDonald's has made with content access and reuse, as told by Michael Voelker in his companion article, would convince anyone of the value of structure — perhaps even my son if I offered to tell him about it over a Big Mac and fries.

The key to success at McDonald's has been the establishment of a repository that "contains the single point of truth," in the words of Steve Wilson, the company's senior director of global Web communications. The structured data world is also pointing dollars and development toward hubs where users and applications can gain single views of customers, products and other objects of interest. Data administrators have actually been after a "single view" for decades. It's a tough problem that grows more complex as users depend not only on data but also the views, dimensions and aggregations derived from the data.

The latest permutation is master data management (MDM), which Voelker discusses with respect to content. Business intelligence and data integration vendors have entered this fray. Their major aim is to help customers keep their data architecture stable amid constant business change. Kalido, for example, emerged out of Royal Dutch/Shell Group in large part because the founders saw an opportunity to do some business fixing MDM issues at companies with similarly huge numbers of product instances that weren't matching up. The data quality problems are expensive and eventually eat away at the "structure" so hard won through adherence to SQL and the relational model.

MDM demand was a motivator in IBM's acquisition of Ascential Software. Oracle is active, and SAP's MDM is integrated with SAP Business Intelligence. But perhaps the most interesting entry is from a BI vendor: Hyperion MDM Server, the acquired product of Razza Solutions. Customers are applying MDM Server to a rather unheralded BI problem: reporting hierarchies. "Verizon has 30,000 cost centers; MDM is critical to making sure that managers up and down the line have access to the right data, views and dimensions in their reports," according to VP of marketing Rich Clayton. Many large organizations have entire departments dedicated to managing such hierarchies. They'd love to automate them out of existence.

Performance management objectives and regulatory compliance demands put pressure on companies to reduce the cost and complexity of producing and managing all the byproducts of structured data. This is a major impediment to BI growth. MDM success could open doors for companies to apply BI tools to lines of business that are now lost to data confusion.

XML is an exciting advance for content management. But, judging from what's evolved on the "structured" data side, I wouldn't relax. The real excitement may be just beginning.

David Stodder is the Editorial Director and Editor in Chief of Intelligent Enterprise. Write to him at [email protected].