Business activity monitoring takes center stage
BAM enhances time-critical decision-making
Like many IT administrators, Wayne Leishman, a technical architect and integration team lead with Canada Life Financial Corp., was probably doing business activity monitoring (BAM) before the concept registered on anyone’s radar screen as a distinct discipline.
For some time, Canada Life exploited a makeshift solution—an interim table in an Oracle database—to bridge its enterprise application integration (EAI) software from webMethods Inc. and its data integration and business intelligence (BI) tools from Informatica Corp.
The objective, Leishman says, was to expose time-critical VSAM information located on a mainframe host to business users in client-server and Web-based application environments. “We had other [business units] that were interested in that data. They would subscribe to the data and store it in their systems as it was made available to them.”
The solution was not a clean one, however. “There was no real connection between the two,” Leishman explains. “Informatica would feed data to the table and then webMethods would pull it out of the table.”
As a result, when webMethods and Informatica announced the expansion of an existing partnership to promote a new platform for BAM—dubbed the Business Activity Platform—Leishman signed up for the beta program.
After all, the Business Activity Platform—which combines webMethods’ Integration platform with Informatica’s PowerCenter and PowerAnalyzer tools—would enable Canada Life to leverage its existing investments in webMethods and Informatica to do BAM. “Instead of using this table in between, we could actually use the capabilities [of the Business Activity Platform] to publish the data directly [from Informatica] to a WebMethods broker, and then these [client-server and Web-based] application could subscribe to the solution.”
This integration is enabled by means of an adapter that features functionality previously found in Informatica’s PowerConnect adapters. The new adapter allows Informatica’s PowerCenter to subscribe to transactional information running through a webMethods business flow or integration server. The upshot is that real-time business process information can be displayed and stored without complex real-time database queries or extractions.
Observes Leishman: “[The Business Activity Platform] really allows [Informatica and webMethods] to connect to each other in a nice architecture. Before, we had to come up with this strange way to tie them together.”
Getting a Handle on BAM
BAM is a still emerging discipline, and although some vendors and analysts disagree about what exactly comprises a BAM solution, a good general description is of an architecture that combines real-time transactional data with historical data, and which provides a context of some kind—usually a digital dashboard—to organize and present this data.
The goal of BAM is to facilitate access to information that cuts across multiple applications, systems and data sources, with the idea that a business manager, for example, can anticipate time-sensitive issues and make better business decisions more quickly. Depending on how you look at it, BAM is either an offshoot or a refinement of business performance management (BPM), but in addition to connecting and managing business processes between disparate systems, BAM also involves real-time and historical analysis of data.
“Business activity monitoring drives customers toward the idea of actually seeing the operational aspects and metrics of their companies in real time. It’s somewhat the convergence of technologies—integration from the enterprise side, data integration, and BI—as a way to convey that information,” explains Jim Ivers, director of product marketing with webMethods.
Research firm Gartner Inc. has defined five distinct components of a BAM solution: enterprise application integration (EAI); extraction, transformation and loading (ETL); data warehousing; business process modeling; and network systems management.
Not surprisingly, BI vendors have been quick to embrace BAM as the Next Big Thing. Cognos Inc., for example, has launched an initiative—dubbed Corporate Performance Management—that encompasses BAM. Other big players, such as SAS Institute Inc. and Business Objects Inc., also have BAM strategies.
BAM isn’t the exclusive provenance of BI players, however. Packaged software vendors such as SAP America Inc., and even Invensys PLC subsidiary Baan, have introduced BAM solutions.
BAM also provides an opportunity for enterprise application integration specialists such as webMethods, Tibco Software Inc., and others. These companies have traditionally connected the heterogeneous applications and data sources that a BAM architecture proposes to link together in real time. WebMethods has of course partnered with Informatica, but Tibco markets BusinessFactor, a BAM software package.
No clear BAM market leader has yet emerged, however. Although partnerships such as that between webMethods and Informatica theoretically address the requirements of end-to-end BAM, niche vendors—with no coherent end-to-end integration story—abound.
BAM Makes Sense
These concerns notwithstanding, Mike Schiff, a principal with data warehousing consultancy MAS Strategies, suggests that the idea of doing BAM makes a great deal of sense. “Your typical organization has data all over the place,” he points out, citing applications, databases, and transactional systems. “Right now, there isn’t a way of combining all of this in a meaningful [context] … of combining historical data and [real-time] data from different business processes.”
For example, suggests Dan Nieman, director of product marketing with Informatica, consider the order management process of a typical pharmaceutical company, in which customer orders are evaluated to determine if they’re above or below the mean average for a specific customer. “When they’re above or below, they want to flag, because they want to know why the customer is ordering that particular drug in that particular quantity. But that needs to be put into the context of the historical ordering pattern of that particular customer—i.e., the data warehouse.”
Because BAM purports to quickly facilitate access to transactional and other business critical information that cuts across business processes, it is dependent upon another emerging IT trend—the so-called real time enterprise (RTE). The problems associated with transforming an organization’s information systems, business processes. and end user behaviors to suit the requirements of the RTE are well-documented (http://www.tdwi.org/research/display.asp?id=6634).
Some industry-watchers are skeptical that this is even possible—or that it represents a significantly large cultural shift in the first place. “One of the things that this maybe doesn’t address is something like data quality,” observes Schiff. When you give business decision makers access to data in real time, Schiff asks, how do you deal with the integration of cleansed versus uncleansed data? “There’s really no process there that ensures that the data is cleansed or integrated, so they often have to decide between sacrificing the integrity of the data or processing the data so fast.”
Wayne Eckerson, director of research for the Data Warehousing Institute, suggests that much of the ground-work for the RTE—and, by extension, for BAM—has already been laid by a long-time practice in many IT organizations. “I view the real basis of this real-time hype as nothing other than good old-fashioned operational reporting. People have always wanted to real time data—we've called it operational reporting,” he observes.
Eckerson concedes that RTE describes a different model, of course, because users want access to data in context. With standard operational reporting solutions, he acknowledges, “just getting operational data from one source doesn't provide enough insight, and getting and correlating data from multiple sources takes too long, if it's possible at all.”
For Leischman and Canada Life, real-time access to information wasn’t necessarily an overriding issue—although it would certainly open up new possibilities for business decision makers. After all, the interim data source that the company used in its proto-BAM architecture already introduced some degree of latency. More than anything else, Canada Life required a cleaner architecture that eliminated its interim data source and offered some real-time capabilities to users. “We saw the capabilities where we could use the new product instead of having to go through the [interim database] table]. This allowed us to have a cleaner architecture,” he explains. “It also now has the capability that if we need to go off and send a message to another application in real time, we can do that.”
The best part about the new Business Activity Platform, Leishman suggests, is that Canada Life was able to do a proof-of-concept of it with minimal disruption to its systems, largely as a result of its existing investments in webMethods and Informatica. “We just needed [the adapter]. With it, we were able to replace the existing piece fairly quickly with this new piece.”