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The New (Inter)Face of Business Intelligence

  Article published in DM Direct Special Report
June 28, 2005 Issue
 
  By Chuck Piercey

Service-oriented architectures (SOA) have increased in popularity over the last 18 months due to the promise this approach holds for reducing development and maintenance costs and making it easy to integrate disparate information processes. Web services are the first widely available standards that promotes the use of SOA.

Business intelligence (BI) allows organizations to access, analyze and share information. This helps them to track, understand and manage their business in order to improve enterprise performance. With the evolution of Web services, organizations are becoming more sophisticated in their goals for and requirements of this technology as it offers faster and more flexible deployment, customization and easy integration of BI solutions. Those organizations that choose a Web services strategy will be best positioned to deliver BI content across and beyond the enterprise, making BI accessible to everyone, wherever they work, at a lower cost and in more innovative ways.

SOA Today

SOA is an architectural style that promotes loosely coupled interactions between software agents; Web services, as the first commonly used SOA standard, will have a profound impact on solution development by enabling the easy coupling of differing information processes.

Figure 1

An analogy can be drawn between the impact of Web services and that of the hypertext markup language standard HTML. Prior to HTML there were a variety of ways to present text on a computer screen on HTTP/TCP/IP, but HTML was successful because it enabled users to see information in a single computing space (the World Wide Web), regardless of underlying technologies. Web services similarly enable developers to access computing processes in a single computing space, regardless of underlying technologies.

Advantages for Developers

The core value of Web services is that it enables an SOA-style application development paradigm which offers the BI solution developer two key advantages:

  1. Web services are built for standardized interoperability and API evolution.Web services work on every operating system. Their design objective is to deliver APIs that are very simple to use and which evolve over time in such a way as not to break existing applications. This holds the promise of less overall time spent in application development, maintenance, support and upgrade, allowing developers to spend more time on new solutions instead of maintaining old ones.

  2. Web services are built on ubiquitous Internet protocols (i.e., loosely coupled, firewall-immune APIs). Web services are specifically designed around the challenges of remote system functional access over the Internet. They can be deployed using current staff skill sets. Web services-based BI solutions can be deployed across corporate firewalls. They can be used where a BI resource is only occasionally available, and they can be consumed everywhere, by desktop client applications, server applications and mobile devices.

Figure 2

Together these two features give Web services-based solutions a new level of solution agility, adaptability and reuse.

Use the Right Tool for the Right Job

Web services have all too often been pitched as replacing object-oriented designs. In fact, they perform different roles in terms of how they are optimized and should be considered as complementary. Web services are optimized for out-of-process API calls and offer application developers a high degree of technology interoperability, deployment flexibility and ease of application integration. Object-oriented software is optimized for in-process API calls and provides both high-performance and a high degree of customization. Together, both models provide a range of performance and deployment attributes, and developers need to select the model which will work best for the business objectives of the projects they are working on.

  • SOA (service-oriented architecture API designs). Web services API designs are optimized for making out-of-process API calls. With Web services anybody can be connected to a resource whether it is a desktop client, server application or a mobile device. Web services designs provide deployment flexibility for new connected application types that either:
    1) Deliver single or aggregated Web service functionality to client users, and/or
    2) Build new completely server side solutions leveraging other Web services.
  • Object-Oriented (object model API designs). Object model API designs provide rich customization and maximized performance. This model is optimized when the calling application is making API calls in-process (same machine, same network). If object- oriented software were automobiles they would be most like a Formula One racing car (complete of course with slicks).

Obviously, you are better off having the two cars in your garage available for use, depending on what you are going to do that day. In the Formula One race, you want to use a Formula One designed race car in order to win, and in Baja Mexico you want the Land Rover 4x4 to get across the desert (preferably with a surf board on top for catching some waves in the evenings). The Formula One car won't last long in the Baja desert (the dust alone will kill the engine, aside from the problem of zero traction), and you won't win the Formula One race using a Land Rover 4x4 (just try making a turn at 200 miles per hour on those tires).

While major players are making huge investments to converge the benefits of both design methodologies into Web services, at present the differences remain and it pays to follow the old adage: use the right tool for the job at hand.

When to Use Web Services

Here are some key use cases for which Web services technology is ideal:

  • Becoming a BI Service Provider. Converting BI application solutions into a BI service provider allows the departmental staff to customize their BI content, while insulating central staff from the headaches normally associated with such customizations. Long-term support and maintenance costs decrease because technical support is isolated to Web service calls. One example of this is a legal firm which has deployed a single BI service provider that feeds content into two very different departmental applications: a legal portal which presents contract information and a finance application which presents the financial data.

Figure 3

  • Integrating Disparate Application Data into a Corporate Data Warehouse. The reverse of the first use case, Web services makes it very easy to integrate BI content from several departmental, partner or vendor BI solutions into a corporate data warehouse without impacting the individual deployments, whether they reside inside or outside the company's firewall. As one large defense contractor described, "We are essentially using simple BI Web services to integrate very separate operating divisions' data as meaningful information and meta data feeds into the corporate data warehouse."
  • Deploying Rich Clients. Large vendors are creating client tools and platforms to consume and extend Web services for a variety of end-user solutions. Microsoft's vision of "smart clients" offers a rich client user experience and is built on the functional capabilities of remote Web services. The Microsoft Office IBF framework and IBM's Eclipse RPC are both examples of Web services-oriented rich-client frameworks. One leading provider of healthcare information technology has built a proof of concept of exactly this kind of solution. The company wants to use this approach to provide highly customizable, feature-rich solutions to its clients while simplifying its application development tasks.
  • Partner Functional Extensions. Web services allow your partner ISVs or vendors to seamlessly integrate BI content, with a light software footprint, into their value added offerings for specialized functionality. An example of this is third parties providing specialized visualization solutions such as call center dashboards or power management efficiency grids.

Figure 4

Web services will help to revolutionize BI by enabling the conversion of specific BI application deployments into flexible BI service providers that can easily integrate into Web, server and desktop solutions. This will shift the focus of BI solutions from applications to complete networks which provide targeted BI to everyone both inside and outside the organization.

...............................................................................

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI), Enterprise Achitecture, Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web Services.

Chuck Piercey is a senior director of product management at Business Objects.



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