Drill Down: Are EIPs the Next BIG THING?

Start with some Internet stock market hype driven by a seductive buzzword. Throw in a bullish market research report from Merrill Lynch and the realization that Y2K will eventually come and pass, freeing up corporate IT dollars to be spent elsewhere as it does. Add the awareness that many of the corporate information projects, particularly the drive to enterprise resource planning systems, serve primarily to generate yet more information. Finish with the availability of the TCP/IP protocols in most organizations. What do you get? The enterprise information portal, also known as EIP.

The applicability of the portal idea (a single point of access to information from a wide array of sources) to the enterprise seems obvious. Companies have invested heavily into back office ERP and front office customer relationship management systems.

These systems generate a lot of information. Companies have invested heavily into data warehouses, data marts and data stores, aggregating information generated throughout the organization, and creating databases optimized for analysis. And companies have invested heavily into content management systems to store, track and manipulate unstructured data and documents.

At the same time, TCP/IP protocols have become ubiquitous. Large organizations often have multiple intranets supporting different departments and activities. Many corporate intranets are not unlike the Internet itself, with Web sites coming on- and offline in a haphazard and random fashion. If you know your computer’s IP address, you too can run a Web site.

All of this activity has raised two questions. First, how can people find the information they want when they want it, by themselves from the comfort of their own desktop? And second, why should people start their Web access with a commercial page like Yahoo or Netscape’s Netcenter, or with a company’s public Web site, when they could start with something more tailored to their needs?

That is the promise of EIP technology. In the most idealized form, EIPs will provide users with a Web browser-based interface tuned to providing them access to the key information they need regularly. The information could be accessed anywhere from a data warehouse, to e-mail, to document servers, to the Internet. The next generation of EIPs is envisioned as providing the interface to integrated back-end and front-end information infrastructures linking customers, vendors and suppliers.

The attention to the potential of EIPs was sparked last fall when Merrill Lynch issued a report describing them as the most promising development in the corporate information arena since enterprise resource planning was introduced. Merrill analysts estimate that sales of the technology that will be used to create EIPs could grow as much as 36 percent annually for the next three years, reaching a figure of $14.8 billion by 2002.

Moreover, with the investment of Year 2000 remediation coming to an end, IT departments will be able to reprioritize their spending budgets. According to a survey of 250 IT executives taken last year, the top spending priorities for the next millennium are data warehousing, corporate Web sites, high availability of information and resources, intranet-to-legacy applications and e-commerce transactions. EIPs touch on all those activities.

Although the term may be new, many companies are already implementing EIP-like applications. For example, PCS Health Systems of Scottsdale, Ariz., the nation’s largest pharmaceutical benefit management company, has developed a new application with SQRIBE and IBM Global Services that allows users to access enterprise information, including documents, reports and legacy data via the Web. The application utilizes a 750-gigabyte data warehouse that stores 570 million claims transactions. A subset of that data feeds to a sales automation application.

The main prescription data consists of 25 months of claim data and resides in an IBM DB2 Universal Database Enterprise-Extended Edition on a 48-node RS/6000 SP server. SQRIBE’s Java-based ReportMart Enterprise Portal software serves as the repository for information that PCS clinical specialists need as they interact with physicians.

Other large companies are experimenting with EIPs as well. General Motors is using DataChannel’s Rio server to build a portal that will allow GM engineers to check CAD/CAM drawings against parts and billing records. And Charles Schwab & Co. is using Viador’s E-Portal suite to deliver timely reports on mutual fund trading volumes to its supplier extranet.

Despite financial analysts’ enthusiasm, the implementation of EIPs may prove more challenging than expected. First, as with all new terminology, the concept has different meanings for different people. Projects could require significant business reengineering. Second, the interest in portals is coming from many different sources. The world looks somewhat different to vendors of business intelligence software than it does to document-management companies. Ambitious EIP projects will require integrating separate technologies seamlessly. That task is complicated because the underlying technology is still rapidly developing.