IBM's BI Middleware Play: It's All About Integration, Partnerships

IBM has quietly stitched together a data-access portfolio that helps position it as a prominent player in the burgeoning EII and BPM segments

Over the last two years, IBM Corp. has quietly stitched together a data access portfolio that helps position it as a prominent player in the burgeoning enterprise information integration (EII) and business performance management (BPM) market segments.

What’s more, IBM has been able to pull this off while at the same time notching partnerships with many of the leading players in the BI space, including Ascential Software Corp., Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., and Informatica Corp., largely because of what some call its overly broad emphasis on “middleware” solutions. Of course, in IBM-speak, “middleware” encompasses everything from Web application servers, message queuing software, and EII technologies to the database itself—in this case, Big Blue’s DB2.

In the last 12 months alone, IBM has made several important moves on the data-access and data-integration fronts. First, last October, Big Blue acquired the former CrossAccess Corp., which marketed ODBC- and JDBC-compliant gateway software that helps integrate relational databases with non-relational data stores residing on mainframe systems. By December, Big Blue was marketing a rebranded offering based on this technology, dubbed DB2 Information Integrator Classic Federation.

Then, this August, IBM snapped up Venetica, a privately held company that specializes in unstructured content management. At the time, Big Blue disclosed plans to integrate Venetica’s Venice Bridge technology into its DB2 Information Integrator EII tool, giving it canned access to data stored in FileNet, Documentum, Open Text, Interwoven, and other unstructured content formats.

Although IBM had previously shipped a version of its Information Integrator product for unstructured content, Jeff Jones, director of strategy for Big Blue’s data management solutions, says the Venetica acquisition helped kick things up a few more notches. “It expands the universe here quite dramatically to places like Documentum and FileNet. With Venetica’s capabilities, the Venice Bridge Project and how that will be woven into DB2 Information Integrator, we’ve greatly expanded it to integrate non-structured information, too,” he comments.

The truth, Jones says, is that IBM’s DB2 Information Integrator for Content actually evolved from a previous solution, called Enterprise Information Portal. “It wasn’t an end user-ish portal, though. It was a programming layer that you would program to if you were a developer,” he explains. “It evolved and stayed pretty much on the unstructured side into DB2 Information Integrator for Content.”

Additional pieces of IBM’s data integration and access puzzle fell into place when Big Blue delivered a new version 8.2 release of its DB2 Universal Database (UDB)—formerly code-named “Stinger”—in September, followed early last month by a revamped version of Information Integrator (formerly code-named “Masala”). The revamped DB2 8.2 is designed to function as the lynchpin of IBM’s data and application integration strategy, facilitating greater interoperability between DB2 Information Integrator offering and its WebSphere Business Integration (WBI) application integration product. Masala, for its part, is closely tied to the new version of DB2, and also introduces a revamped search facility that can query structured and unstructured data.

Long-term, Jones says, IBM expects to integrate the fruits of its disparate acquisitions into a single Information Integrator offering that’s able to facilitate transparent access to either structured or unstructured data. In this respect, he says, Venetica’s technology has effectively dropped right into the Information Integrator portfolio. “Things have greatly accelerated with Venetica’s help, because their plumbing for integrating those sort of unstructured technologies very quickly fell into the portfolio, so we’re in pretty good shape right now from looking at information in general,” he comments. “Going forward, it’s less of a two-sided picture. It’s really DB2 Information Integrator and a variety of options, depending on whether you’re going to classic mainframe sources or these unstructured sources that are not from IBM. We also added some new capabilities like enterprise search, the Omni-Find Edition, we added event-publishing, using message queuing.”

Walking the Tight Rope

Whenever a vendor that’s as big as IBM is tries to expand into markets that are already populated with competitors, it almost always runs the risk of competing with many of its long-time partners. What’s interesting is that IBM has apparently hit upon just the right positioning with its middleware-only strategy, such that many long-time BI players have partnered with it or otherwise agreed to license its data access solutions.

Consider IBM and Ascential, for example, which have a special relationship: When Big Blue purchased the database technology assets of the former Informix Corp. in 2001, the latter company was spun off as Ascential—a data integration specialist—and enjoined to compete with the likes of Informatica, Sagent, Acta, Data Junction, and other ETL specialists. Not surprisingly, IBM also tapped Ascential as its preferred provider of ETL solutions.

EII tools such as DB2 Information Integrator and ODBC/JDBC gateway technology such as Classic Federation aren’t ETL software offerings, per se, but they do perform tasks for which customers might otherwise tap ETL solutions. In light of the commoditization of ETL—both Oracle Corp. and Microsoft Corp. ship integrated ETL technology in their relational database offerings—you couldn’t blame some ETL vendors for viewing IBM’s expansion into EII and mainframe data access as the prelude to a full-scale data integration play.

But that’s not what’s happened. In the ETL space, market-leaders Ascential and Informatica Corp. have fought a kind of proxy war by partnering with IBM, the latter in an effort to disrupt a solid partnership, the former to demonstrate that a long-time partnership is still solid.

Ascential, for example, last week notched an agreement to resell Big Blue’s Classic Federation mainframe data access software. Peter Inzana, IBM group project manager with Ascential, says that IBM’s Class Federation technology complements his company’s own DataStage ETL offering. “Some customers are very mainframe-centric, so they want to do as much processing as possible, straight from their mainframes. For these customers, we offer an MVS version of our ETL technology,” Inzana explains. “But some [customers] don’t want or don’t need to do ETL on the mainframe, because all they’re doing is look at the data, viewing it from the relational world.”

Or consider IBM and Informatica, which became de facto competitors late last year when Big Blue acquired CrossAccess. Prior to that, IBM had licensed technology from the former Striva Corp. to address its mainframe data access needs. And when Informatica purchased Striva in September of 2003, it undoubtedly hoped to keep Big Blue and several other prominent Striva customers (including Business Objects) in the licensing fold. IBM obviously wasn’t happy with that arrangement, however, because it went out and bought its own mainframe data-access technology.

From that moment on, IBM and Informatica were competitors. But this year alone, the two companies have announced two prominent partnerships, first around ETL, and secondly, to promote mid-market BI. In March, for example, IBM signed an agreement to use Informatica’s ETL technology to help new customers migrate from Oracle, SQL Server, or other databases to DB2. Then, in August, IBM and Informatica announced a pre-packaged hardware, software, and services bundle—dubbed the Informatica and IBM Dashboard Engine Appliance (IIDEA)—designed for small- and mid-sized enterprise (SME) customers.

In both cases, Informatica representatives have tried to emphasize the company’s tight relationship with Big Blue. “The IBM relationship obviously is strategic to us, so we’ve been putting a lot more attention on IBM recently,” said Ron Papas, vice-president of business development with Informatica, in an interview earlier this year. Papas said that joint IBM and Informatica customers should “stay tuned” for future announcements from the two companies.

What’s surprising about this is that Informatica has reason to be wary of Big Blue. For starters, there’s the fact that IBM jilted it by acquiring CrossAccess. But secondly, Informatica’s acquisition of Striva caused Business Objects, which licensed the Striva technology for use with its Data Integrator ETL tool, to jump ship as well—right into the arms of Big Blue. If that wasn’t enough, Informatica’s move also to a large extent served as the impetus for Ascential to license IBM’s Classic Federation product. After all, Striva gave Informatica a competitive leg-up on Ascential, which—in spite of its native mainframe ETL technology—lacked a mainframe data access gateway. But by reselling Classic Federation, analysts say, Ascential is actually able to go Informatica one better.

“By acquiring reseller rights to the IBM mainframe data integration technology and integrating it with its own, Ascential has further enhanced its credibility in IBM accounts, and it appears, once again, trumped Informatica,” notes Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis.

Schiff, for his part, applauds IBM’s tightrope walking in the BI space. “IBM’s strategy is fairly simple. IBM doesn’t want to develop applications, because then they put themselves in competition with other parties. What they want to do is provide a platform that their partners can use to develop applications,” he explained in an interview earlier this year. “Middleware to IBM includes the database, and the strategy is to make the middleware the development platform of choice and attract lots of third-party applications. The idea is that you don’t have to look over your shoulder and question if IBM is going to release something that competes with you.”

IBM’s Jones, for his part, tries to downplay his company’s forays into data access and integration, stressing, instead, that Big Blue wants to provide the middleware plumbing to manage and orchestrate the connections between applications and data sources. “[Connectivity is] less than half the problem of getting an application to talk to a variety of data sources. Getting there and reaching them and understanding how they communicate is the beginning, but understanding how they behave so you can write SQL for different sources, understanding the behavior of the sources you’re connecting to on the DB2 Information Integrator side so that you can make adjustments and make better decisions about how to get the answers more quickly, is really the rest of the puzzle,” he asserts.