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BI vendors search for new meaning

Business intelligence and infrastructure vendors are adding search technology. Companies say they could really use it. Will search offer a shortcut to data integration?

Easy as it is to type in a couple of key words and return thousands of Web pages with relevant information in under a second, finding internal business data is another challenge altogether. It's led vendors such as Cognos Inc., Information Builders Inc., IBM, and Oracle Corp. to make significant investments in adding Web searching to their applications.

"Google is raising expectations for how people access information. People go home and can use Google to search millions of computers all over the world and get some pretty good results in less than a second. Then they go to work and they can't do the same for the data that's in the data center," said Wayne Eckerson, director of research and services for The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI), based in Seattle.

Analyst firms such as Gartner have predicted the "Googlization" of business intelligence (BI). John Hagerty, vice president of research with Boston-based AMR Research Inc., thinks the industry is at the dawn of a whole new era of search.

"People are really indoctrinated into this concept of searching for things," Hagerty said. "The way that people get information will start moving from a query metaphor to a search metaphor."

Queries require people to know which report or database holds the information they seek, whereas search tools enable general searches across data sources.

BI vendors rush to spin search

In the last few months, infrastructure players IBM and Oracle have announced new search initiatives. Pure play vendors, such as Fast Search & Transfer ASA and Autonomy Corp., continue to espouse their enterprise search technology platforms and intellectual property around contextual analysis and unstructured information processing, respectively. BI vendors are now joining the fray.

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Cognos Inc., based in Ottawa, is today releasing a major update to Cognos 8, which includes its new "Cognos Go!" search service. This search technology, developed by Cognos, enables users to search the entire BI system for information. The release also includes tighter integration with Microsoft Excel and Powerpoint, and more support for SAP systems. The search function is a real innovation, Hagerty said. The market will see much more "movement" search over the next six to 12 months, he predicted, but the ultimate test of success will be with users. If the function is widely adopted, search could become a "game-changing business requirement," he concluded.

New York-based Information Builders Inc. (IBI) is also moving into the search market. It recently unveiled WebFocus Intelligent Search, a Google-based tool slated for release in the second quarter of this year. The tool searches both structured and unstructured information within IBI's system as well as many other data sources. IBI said it will leverage its iWay product line of data transaction adapters to reach data midstream and index that information. This makes information searchable minutes after an event, rather than forcing users to wait for a search tool to crawl a data warehouse. For example, when someone enters and submits a new invoice, IBI's search tool would capture and index that information on its way to being stored in a data warehouse.

"Companies have data in databases, data in documents, data everywhere," said Michael Corcoran, IBI vice president of corporate strategy and chief communications officer. "Business people don't want to know where things are located. They say, 'I have a problem, [I] need to know the current status, and I want that answer as simply as possible without having to know where it's coming from.'"

A shortcut to data integration?

TDWI's Eckerson wonders whether the integration required for search functions such as IBI's could seem easier for some companies than actually integrating data.

"In [IBI's] beta example, the company decided on this approach because it was less expensive and less time-consuming than actually doing the heavy lifting of integrating all of these diverse systems that really needed to be integrated," Eckerson said.

Indexing and searching data could help people discover where a certain keyword appears in different systems. Eckerson was quick to point out that this approach has some major drawbacks because searching doesn't address such issues as data quality or discrepancies between systems. But, he said, it could be a shortcut to data integration for certain types of problems, such as locating where a person's name appears across a variety of structured and unstructured data sources.

Desperately seeking search

Neither Cognos nor IBI has officially released its search tool yet, but potential customers have seen demonstrations that have piqued their interest.

Human resources service provider AdminiStaff Inc., based in Kingwood, Tex., currently uses an IBI system. More than 90,000 customer and employee users have access to the BI system for HR-related reports. A search tool could greatly ease the process of finding information for users, according to John Sheridan, manager of business technology and development. He's planning to evaluate and consider the IBI tool initially for use by AdminiStaff's 1,500 internal users. A big benefit for Sheridan's group would be the ease of rolling out the tool to users of varying skill levels.

"What is attractive to us is that [Google] is a technology that a lot of people are familiar with," Sheridan said. "It doesn't require user training, it's simple, and people understand how to use it."

The city of Albuquerque, N. M., frequently deals with information retrieval requests. Today, people submit a "records request" form to the city's records office, which passes the request along to different departments to query the appropriate data source.

Chris Framel, applications group manager for the city, thinks the search tool could enable faster information retrieval from its Cognos systems and plans to test the feature when it is available. He hopes it can help solve internal employee search woes and eventually help citizens who want to get public records from one of the city's 26 departments online.

Ultimately, his goal is that users should be able to search "everything" -- the BI system and other data sources -- with the appropriate privacy and security measures in place. He expects that to be about 10 years out, however, and he's ready to take small steps.

"We're looking at a long-term strategy for knowledge management," Framel said. "One little search bar that would search everything."

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