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Emerging Technologies:
Search as the User Interface for the Rest of Us

online columnist Guy Creese     Column published in DMReview.com
May 18, 2006
  By Guy Creese

Google's announcement of Google OneBox on April 19, 2006, is one more tremor signaling a tectonic plate shift that will have an impact on the market landscape for years to come.

In a sentence, OneBox lets employees use the same familiar Google interface that they use to search the Web to access information within business applications. For example, they can pull up a purchase order stored in an Oracle application via Google, rather than using the typical Oracle application interface. This ability is going to have a far-reaching impact on business intelligence (BI) applications and interfaces, and is, therefore, worth talking about in detail.

OneBox: What It Does

The Google OneBox search appliance is a physical box that enterprises install behind their firewall. The appliance indexes information by crawling corporate repositories, and then lets users search for it via the Google search box. Users log on to the system like they do any other business application and, therefore, can see only that information that they're allowed to see. (OneBox does this by supporting native LDAP authentication as well as the Google Search Authorization Service Provider Interface.) The system can support up to 3 million documents on a single server, and up to 25 queries per second.

Users narrow their search via keywords. For example, if they interested in purchase order number 060875, they type in the string "po 060875." This will retrieve that PO's information (e.g., PO total, supplier name, buyer name, payment terms, carrier, freight terms) from an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and display it in the Google interface. If users are looking for a person's contact information stored in Microsoft Exchange, they prefix the person's name with the string "contact." To look up Guy Creese, you would type in "contact creese."

Google OneBox can retrieve information from systems such as Oracle Financials, Cisco Call Manager, Cognos, SAS, salesforce.com, Employease and NetSuite. OneBox uses a REST-based application programming interface (API) to make a call to the application; the application needs to reply via XML. Therefore, the work to connect an application to the OneBox appliance is not very onerous.

Google Isn't the Only Game in Town

Although Google gets a lot of market attention, other search companies - for example, Verity (now owned by Autonomy) and FAST Search - have been integrating search with operational and BI applications for years. Microsoft, via its Duet partnership with SAP (formerly called Mendocino), will search SAP's applications from within Office. Therefore, Google's announcement is not especially novel; however, it does signal that search as an interface for retrieving corporate information is a trend, not an aberration.

Why This is Important

Most corporate employees don't live in a BI system. They live in Outlook, SAP, Salesforce.com, or some other production application. Because they only rarely need to find the appropriate statistic - maybe several times a month - they are unwilling to go through the rigmarole of sitting through a several hour training class on Business Objects, Cognos, SAS or other BI platform of the company.

Therefore, although the company may have spent millions of dollars creating a data warehouse and a corresponding enterprise reporting system, these non-BI users are not leveraging that information. A search interface into the BI infrastructure suddenly alters that dynamic. Infrequent users can access the information they need, when they need it, with no training overhead whatsoever.

All of a sudden, 100 percent of a company's workers can access the BI system, rather than just 20 percent. Furthermore, IT didn't need to build a specialized interface for a specific set of users. Instead, the company uses Google's simple interface for simple requests.

Ponder the Possibilities

Your company may not be interested in buying a Google Search Appliance. Maybe your company has other priorities, or perhaps it already uses another search vendor's technology. Nevertheless, file away the lesson that access to a BI system does not need to be through the main BI application or through an executive dashboard.

Sophisticated BI user interfaces are appropriate when the user wants to dynamically interact with the information. In contrast, simple interfaces are appropriate for a quick question. Therefore, talk to your peer that handles search technology within your company. He or she might have just what you need.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI) and Query & Reporting.

Guy Creese is an analyst with the Burton Group, covering content management and search. Creese has worked in the high tech industry for 25 years, at both Fortune 500 companies and small startups, in positions ranging from programmer to product manager to customer support engineer.  He can be reached at gcreese@burtongroup.com.

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