Will Microsoft Dallas make integrating third-party data and BI easier?

A new data exchange from Microsoft, code-named Dallas, could make it easier for companies to integrate third-party data with internal BI and other analytic applications.

Dealer Services doesn't rely on just its own internal customer and sales data to make lending decisions.

The Carmel, Ind.-based company, which lends money to used car dealerships for inventory management, integrates outside data on the auto auction market with its internal data for "a nice big, overall picture," according to CIO Chris Brady.

Both internal and external data are integrated into Dealer Services' business intelligence (BI) application, Information Builders' WebFOCUS, so the company can compare how its customers -- used car dealers -- are performing against local and national trends, Brady said.

Integrating third-party data with internal BI and other analytic applications can have significant benefits, according to industry experts. But, until recently, companies like Dealer Services had to navigate the world of third-party data providers on their own, with no central marketplace to help.

That is about to change. At its MIX conference in Las Vegas in March, Microsoft is scheduled to debut a new third-party data exchange marketplace, code-named Dallas, where data providers can sell their wares. It is intended to be a one-stop shop where companies can evaluate and purchase third-party data feeds that are designed to be easily integrated with internal applications, Microsoft or otherwise.

The new marketplace, which was released as a community technology preview in November, already offers data from around a dozen third-party suppliers, including crime data from Data.gov, news from the Associated Press, demographic data from ArcGIS Online, and health-related data from the World Health Organization.

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 Microsoft is hosting the marketplace in its Azure cloud platform and has created a consistent set of APIs so developers can easily integrate the data into existing applications and create new ones, according to Moe Khosravy, group manager for Dallas.

In some cases, even business users will be able to purchase data feeds to create mashups with internal applications with little or no coding required, Khosravy said.

"We started really thinking about the whole data discovery and exploration process," he said. "We basically built a data marketplace."

In order for Dallas to be a success, however, more third-party data providers are going to have to join the marketplace. Whether that will happen is very much an open question. Third-party data providers -- Dun & Bradstreet, for example -- could be reluctant to allow Microsoft to serve as a middleman between them and their customers.

On the other hand, participating in Dallas could potentially expose third-party data providers to a new segment of customers. Still, most of the data providers currently participating in Dallas are government agencies and nonprofit groups.

Khosravy said many third-party data providers are unable to scale to large numbers of users and instead focus on the integrity and usefulness of their data. "Something like Dallas can really bring data to the masses," he said.

More straightforward could be the benefits to customers. Users will be able to test the service free of charge for an undetermined length of time, then purchase specific data feeds on a monthly subscription basis.

Dallas will also take the confusion out of licensing agreements that customers have to navigate now when dealing directly with third-party data providers, Khosravy said. Dallas uses "the power of Microsoft in the cloud to take the friction out of getting this data to business intelligence workers, to developers."

In addition to selling data directly to end users and developers, corporate IT departments can manage subscriptions, he said, keeping control over the data available to workers.

As for the timeliness of the data feeds, some, like stock prices, will be updated in near real-time, Khosravy said. Other feeds, such as census data, will be updated less frequently.

Whether or not Dallas ultimately proves a success for Microsoft, the benefits of integrating third-party data with internal analytic applications are here to stay, according to Boris Evelson, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

From credit data that helps financial institutions when evaluating loan applications to demographic data that helps retail chains select the optimal site for a new store, third-party data "just gives you better analytics," Evelson said.

It remains to be seen, however, whether most companies want to buy data feeds through Microsoft Dallas or directly from third-party data providers.

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