IBM’s Ascential Roadmap Provides Answers, Raises New Questions

IBM’s competitors say some Ascential users could be left in the lurch as Big Blue pursues a much broader information-integration vision.

Last week, IBM Corp. finalized its acquisition of the former Ascential Software Corp. and announced an integration plan for its combined Ascential and WebSphere data integration stack.

IBM’s roadmap highlights the changing nature of the data integration game. Ascential was a spin-off of the former Informix Corp., with a strong data integration pedigree, particularly with respect to data warehousing, but Big Blue’s integration roadmap situates the former Ascential technologies squarely within the context of IBM’s WebSphere Application Server middleware—as the newly christened WebSphere Data Integration Suite.

The implication for customers is unclear, depending on whom you ask. IBM says it will continue to resell the WebSphere-rebranded Ascential technologies on a standalone basis, and will also seek to integrate them with its other information integration offerings where it makes sense to do so. IBM’s competitors, on the other hand, suggest that some of Ascential’s long-time customers could be left in the lurch as Big Blue pursues its broad information-integration-centric vision.

In spite of its WebSphere branding, IBM’s forthcoming WebSphere Data Integration Suite will be based almost entirely on Ascential’s much-anticipated “Hawk” platform release, which has been gestating for several years.

Like the Ascential portfolio it replaces, WebSphere Data Integration Suite includes a data-profiling component (Ascential’s ProfileStage); a data-quality tool (Ascential’s QualityStage); and, of course, an ETL engine—DataStage TX, a version of Ascential’s DataStage ETL tool (that also includes the EAI capabilities) Ascential picked up in its acquisition of the former Mercator Software Inc. in the summer of 2003.

Ascential’s “Hawk” release has been several years in the making, but Eric Sall, program director for information integration with IBM, says his company expects to hew to Ascential’s own schedule and deliver it this year. “Our near-term priority over the next 12 months is to enhance and deliver the planned releases that have already been committed to, so the Ascential Hawk release, we’ve gone through that schedule with a fine-toothed comb and we’re still committed to releasing that in 2005,” he says.

The Changing Face of Data Integration

IBM has a thriving database practice, and competitors Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. both package ETL capabilities with their flagship database offerings, but IBM officials were anxious to shift the focus away from the specific (Big Blue’s DB2 database) and toward the universal—that is, the over-arching theme of what IBM calls information integration.

“We’re not doing this just to serve the IBM database customers. We’re really doing this to help all of our customers with their data integration needs,” Sall says. “This is much more than just [ETL]. We really see the combination of the capabilities as being unmatched by any of our competitors. Not just what Ascential brings, but also our federated capabilities, our WebSphere message broker [MQ], and the WBI stuff.”

Big Blue’s “federated capability,” of course, is its Information Integrator EII that is very much a province of business intelligence, dealing as it does with facilitating access to both structured and unstructured data sources. But IBM’s WebSphere MQ and WebSphere Business Integration (WBI) products—which provide reliable event messaging and connectivity between applications --are more properly enterprise application integration (EAI) technologies.

Nevertheless, all of these technologies (and more) are grouped under IBM’s WebSphere branding. In IBM’s vision, they’re all constitutive pieces, along with the Ascential data-integration technologies, of a much broader information integration puzzle. It wasn’t always that way, of course. Late last year, for example, Big Blue rechristened its EII offering (the former DB2 Information Integrator) WebSphere Information Integrator.

But IBM’s embrace of overall information integration is consistent with the industry-wide transition toward service-oriented architectures (SOA), which shift the integration emphasis away from domain-specific silos (ETL for data integration, EAI for application integration, etc.) and toward orchestration between and among once-siloed domains (ETL working in concert with EAI, EII, and other technologies). “As composite applications based upon service-oriented architecture gain prominence, combined EII/data integration technologies will be likely be a significant enabler for these applications,” writes Eric Rogge, a senior analyst with consultancy Ventana Research.

Ascential’s BI Customers Left in the Lurch?

It’s a trend other data-integration players also say they’re seeing. “We have the interfaces to all of the different EAI interfaces out there, and we are able to push data into any of the different EAI interfaces that customers have,” says Karen Steele, director of corporate communications with Informatica. “We don’t intend to compete with the EAI vendors. We believe we’re complementary to that. They’re two totally different technologies that solve different problems. Whether it’s Tibco, or IBM, or WebMethods, or anyone else.”

Steele’s not-so-subtle dig, of course, is that IBM is an EAI vendor. Certainly, it’s a data integration vendor, and an EII vendor on top of that. The point—made by Informatica and other ETL competitors—is that Big Blue is focused on a very broad information-integration picture. The upshot, Informatica and other competitors claim, is that IBM’s information-integration-centric focus might not be the best fit for customers who are tackling traditional data-integration problems, especially in the data warehousing and business intelligence spaces.

“This [data integration] is all we do. We’re not trying to be all things to all people. We view that as a competitive advantage,” says Informatica’s Steele. “We’re focused just on solving [customers’] data integration problems. We’ll work with IBM, but we’ll also work with Tibco, with WebMethods. We have partnerships with FirstLogic [for data quality] and Composite [for EII], but we also work with whatever [the customer] want[s] to use.”

The obvious implication is that Big Blue can’t—or won’t—be as accommodating. Sall, for his part, disputes this argument. “We’re committed to the partnerships that we had prior to this acquisition, and also the ones that Ascential had prior to this acquisition,” he says, citing Ascential’s partnerships with services giant Accenture, as well as several of Big Blue’s relational database competitors. “And don’t forget, we’ll still be selling [the Ascential technologies] on a standalone basis.

Not surprisingly, Sall spins IBM’s blanket information-integration coverage as an asset, not a hindrance. For starters, he notes, IBM also has hooks into other EAI architectures, not just its WebSphere MQ and WBI technologies. Second, he says, even though the former Ascential technologies will continue to be made available as standalone products—just as Big Blue’s Information Integrator, WebSphere MQ, and WBI are—they’ll also benefit from intelligent integration with the rest of Big Blue’s integration stack.

“It used to be that you had one [vendor] for ETL, another for EAI, and so on,” he says. “But customers don’t want to do that anymore. Customers really want to get all of this [technology] from one vendor.”

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About the Author

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