Enterprise Information Integration Finally Arrives

IBM's Masala—its follow-up to DB2 Information Integrator—boats over 100 new features, including automation and data access improvements

When IBM Corp. announced its DB2 Information Integrator software last year, Big Blue effectively mainstreamed a technology—enterprise information integration (EII)—that was one of the industry’s best-kept secrets.

Yesterday, IBM announced a preview of the follow-up to DB2 Information Integrator—code-named, Masala—which shows it’s not resting on its laurels, either. Officials claim that Masala boasts at least 100 new features, including automation and data access improvements, as well as enhancements designed to simplify deployment and extend its integration capabilities.

What Masala and other announcements like it really show, analysts say, is that EII has at long last arrived. And it’s high time, too.

What is EII? At its core, EII is a composite technology that does exactly what its name suggests: pulls together information from (structured and unstructured) data sources. Because these data types are very different—“structured” data is the kind of information typically stored in relational databases, such as DB2 and Oracle; “unstructured” data is the stuff of e-mail messages, Word documents, and information portals—EII actually encompasses a variety of different data integration technologies, including extraction, transformation, and loading (ETL), enterprise application integration (EAI), workflow, and collaboration.

Proponents say that EII is the Rx for what ails many enterprise IT organizations, particularly as they attempt to automate processes and tie disparate systems together in service-oriented architectures (SOA) or similar real-time infrastructures.

“As you want to replace manual processes with electronic processes and integrate across your company, you need to meet the challenge of accessing, integrating and sharing a wide variety of data, some of it from inside and some of it outside the organization,” explains Laura Haas, distinguished engineer and senior manager of IBM’s Information Integration Development effort.

The market for EII solutions is still relatively small. In 2002, says consultancy Aberdeen Group, it amounted to about $100 million; last year, Aberdeen says, EII revenues came to around $200 million. But Aberdeen and other researchers speculate that IBM’s foray into EII has given the space as a whole—as well as many EII pure-plays—a much-needed shot in the arm.

The upshot, writes Aberdeen’s Wayne Kernochan, is that the technology effectively turned a corner: “Buyers are beginning to see EII as a strategic infrastructure decision that can improve the agility of IT and enhance IT’s ability to quickly adapt technology to the rapidly changing needs of the business, especially the needs of e-business.”

For her part, IBM’s Haas says that demand for EII solutions is slowly but surely beginning to ramp up. “It’s not for everybody yet, and we’re very careful when we talk to customers to talk about the value of consolidating data where that’s appropriate and finding the right balance point,” she stresses.

At the same time, Haas points out, IBM has notched several impressive customer wins, both with the Chinese Ministry of Railways and with European pharmaceutical giant Aventis. Both companies have deployed DB2 Information Integrator in classic EII use cases: Exposing more information, to more users, more quickly. “We’ve had a really great first quarter. We were really pleased with the number of sales and the pipeline that came out of that,” she comments, noting that the Chinese Ministry of Railways is using DB2 Information Integrator to complement and extend its warehouse of information about train schedules and freight shipments. “They need up-to-the-minute data about sales organizations and trains that are coming in, and [DB2 Information Integrator] is delivering that,” she says.

Similarly, Haas says, Aventis uses DB2 Information Integrator to support pharmaceutical research among its widely distributed users. “They run their research program using DB2 Information Integrator to link together various research labs so their scientists can collaborate and share data more quickly and effectively,” she explains.

IBM is by no means the only prime-time EII player. Oracle, for example, announced its Customer Data Hub in February. The database giant positions Customer Data Hub as, effectively, an EII offering designed to facilitate the consolidation and cleansing of data from a variety of different sources. More recently, application server powerhouse BEA Systems Inc. announced LiquidData for WebLogic, EII technology that can pull together information from many different data sources, including relational (structured) databases, XML files, Web applications, and integration adapters.

Elsewhere, EII pure play Avaki Corp., a grid-computing pioneer, markets an eponymous EII offering that facilitates access to, and integration with, a wide variety of application data sources. Avaki claims that its grid-computing underpinnings give it a unique leg up in an already crowded EII space. “[I]f you look at EII goals or strategies out there, [grid computing is] a good fit, because usually, you’re using an EII layer to connect to all kinds of distributed data,” said Craig Muzilla, vice-president of marketing and strategy with Avaki, in an interview last year. Muzilla claims that most of the integration, performance, and security issues associated with EII are addressed in Avaki’s data grid software.

Surprisingly, business intelligence (BI) vendors haven’t made much of a move into EII—but that could change. Reporting powerhouse Actuate Corp., which markets reporting software for mainframe and other high-throughput applications, is expected to unveil an EII offering of its own in the coming weeks, for example. Actuate officials tout a natural synergy between BI and EII.

“We realize that application server companies like BEA [with LiquidData], IBM [with information integrator], and others have been doing this, but it’s something that hasn’t caught on in business intelligence,” confirms Actuate CEO Pete Cittadini. “We looked at a bunch of EII technologies and they seem to all have been failing when they’re brought to the forefront as a strategic way of redoing data access for the firm across all applications, and we believe that’s why EII really hasn’t taken off to date. But we believe that tightly coupling [EII] with business intelligence—specifically, enterprise reporting—is a nice, bite-sized way to really experience the value of EII.”

In the end, says IBM’s Haas, EII is a compelling technology strategy for many enterprise IT organizations. As a means for fixing what ails most enterprise environments—i.e., the Babel of disparate, disconnected data sources—it’s already delivering value.

EII’s value proposition is only going to get better over time. For example, says Haas, Masala can exploit canned adapters (developed as part of IBM’s WebSphere Business Integration offering) to access data from Siebel, SAP, and Oracle applications, among others. “What we’re trying to do is make it much easier for our customers to really bring together the information and then develop the applications, the information management systems that they need to do their business, and to do it more effectively and efficiently,” she concludes. “The idea is to give them a one-stop shop for information in their businesses.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.