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A Consistently Better View

A Consistently Better View

When someone calls the help desk at Sony Pictures Entertainment in Culver City, California, to report a computer problem, a technician in the IT department asks for the person's name, opens a help ticket and dispatches a repair person.

But if the employee in need of help has just moved, and her new location hasn't been updated in the company's directory, the field technician wastes valuable time going to the wrong location. Laments Systems Manager Marc-Alan Dahle, "We are doing massive reconstruction of movie lots and people are relocating once a week. We have IS people dedicated just to moving people." And even if the human resources department was able to instantaneously update the employee directory, which holds all full-time employee data, there are still 3,000 contractors who don't have computers but do have security cards to access the studio. Sony still needs to track information about them-addresses, salaries, superiors, you name it. Sony Pictures Entertainment is not unique.

Market analysts estimate that the typical Fortune 1000 company has more than 100 directories, each containing crucial, unconnected administrative information scattered about the enterprise: e-mail addresses, telephone extensions, physical locations and computer assets. In addition to basic personnel data, directories reveal asset and security data (for internal employees and external suppliers) as well as information on who is connected to what network operating system and who can access which databases. Off-the-shelf groupware and ERP software contain their own directories, and each has its own unique formats and field structures. To help make sense of this dizzying array of company data, a handful of organisations have implemented a new technology known as metadirectories-consolidated information about directories (meta is the Greek word for with or among).

The problem is information changes constantly. Employees move to new buildings, get married and change their last names, have their security clearances upgraded, or they get fired and need to be removed from multiple company directories. These common occurrences can wreak havoc on a large company's directory infrastructure because this personal information is stored in a variety of formats in more than one directory. Metadirectories can synchronize this disparate information.

To keep his directories accurate and to consolidate information about people and their locations, Dahle uses a metadirectory as a central data repository.

He gathered information from numerous sources: the company telephone and security system directories (both Microsoft Access databases), a Novell Novell Directory Services directory, a Lotus Notes address book and the company's recently implemented PeopleSoft HR database. He compiled personnel attributes from these directories and can now centrally manage it all using MetaConnect, a metadirectory product from Santa Monica, Calif.-based Isocor.

Where Standards Rule

Until recently, without a standard way to link directories, IT shops were forced to create their own tools. The appearance of the lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP), a slimmed-down version of the directory access protocol in the International Telecommunication Union's X.500 global directory-structure standard, has given directory product vendors a fundamental underpinning for connecting many applications and enterprise resources over the Internet or corporate intranet.

Among the new shrink-wrapped metadirectory software products are Isocor's MetaConnect, Via from Toronto-based Zoomit (which was recently acquired by Microsoft), and DirXmetahub from Unisphere Solutions , a Siemens AG spinoff in Burlington, Mass. These products can connect to applications such as Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and PeopleSoft, or to databases through ODBC as well as to other directory resources to let users view information uniformly. One directory is usually designated a "master directory," and changes made there automatically disseminate to other connected directories and applications.

Netscape Communications , IBM and Microsoft plan to incorporate metadirectory features into their own directory server products as well.

Currently, though, no more than 5 per cent of Fortune 1000 companies have implemented one, according to Neil MacDonald, vice president and research director at GartnerGroup in Stamford, Conn. This is partly because although out-of-the-box metadirectories reduce directory-management headaches, setting them up is not exactly pain-free. Some vendors and analysts recommend starting small by making directory connections between two applications to flatten the learning curve, and expanding the number of connected directories for full-fledged deployment over a one-year time frame.

Promising Payback

IT staffers considering metadirectories readily recognise the money-saving possibilities. In the Government of Canada, Jane Marie Obst, business manager for the Government Electronic Directory Services department in Hull, Quebec, is evaluating whether to upgrade to Unisphere Solution's DirXmetahub to help keep the government's directory of 200,000 federal employees up-to-date (her organisation currently uses an earlier Siemens product called DirX as a data repository). "Every two weeks, we have to manually update e-mail addresses from our government departments across the country. If we could automatically connect each internal mail program and have people access one hub, we could probably save $40,000 every two weeks." Other companies further along in their installations also expect quick returns.

Like many enterprises, Visa International initially built its own directory management tools. That home-grown solution worked temporarily for Waleed Nammari, director for Windows NT systems engineering at the San Mateo, Calif., processing services division of the credit card company. But growth made it impossible for him to keep up with his users. His custom tools let Nammari's group synchronise Visa's human resources directory with its Microsoft Exchange directory, using a Microsoft SQL database as a repository, but he had to do this daily, and some operations still had to be done manually. "I was getting user requests for more detailed fields and more information, and it became cumbersome to deal with the complexity," says Nammari. "We're growing, and more users create problems with the back-end database. This alerted us that we need an off-the-shelf directory-management solution." Nammari anticipates a tremendous savings on cost of administration, support and maintenance of Visa's directories. "Here in the central office, it costs about $450,000 per year to maintain 10 directories. Administering the metadirectory and maintaining it in the long term will definitely be much cheaper. Currently I have several people in-house who need to look at the data every day. They go through the process lists to see that everything is synchronised. Those people are overwhelmed with work, and the metadirectory will eliminate this." Wayne Alston, lead technical design authority at ICL PLC, an IT systems and services company based in London, faces similar problems. He uses Zoomit's Via to synchronise a Microsoft Exchange e-mail directory with a centralised X.500 corporate directory. With 22,500 employees in 40 countries, this is no small task. "We want to let people located anywhere in the organisation look each other up. The actual target system is the X.500 directory, which holds information about people's locations, telephone numbers and mail addresses," says Alston. He explains that Via can synchronise "alien" directories that have their own proprietary data formats and do not have a direct means of trading data with each other.

Cultural Issues

If you decide to establish a metadirectory, be prepared to grapple with data ownership issues that can generate office politics. Users in marketing might prefer their e-mail addresses in a first-name, last-initial format. But human resources wants to use full names. Someone has to relinquish ownership of name conventions for the common good, says Sony Pictures Entertainment's Dahle.

"Most companies I've talked to that want to implement metadirectories say that 80 per cent of the task is political-resolving the question about ownership of data. For so many years, we've had these fiefdoms in HR and IT and everywhere else in the company. Getting everyone to agree and relinquish control and trust each other is a big thing." On the other hand, at large companies with offices located worldwide, directory management can become an easier task when users can update their own profile and contact information, and that information propagates to every directory in the company. "The metadirectory must first be populated with the right data, and the users themselves can provide that information," says Dorian Cougias, CIO at True North Communications in Chicago, a global advertising and public relations company with 483 locations in 89 countries. The company uses Oblix 's Corporate Services Automation software to let users update directory data.

"Here, we have 12 people managing our messaging services, but there are 20,000 people in the company. If the user profile information is not self-service, the 12 administrators couldn't handle it all. We're an acquisitions company that buys a new company every few weeks, adding more names." Visa's Nammari agrees. "For a large company, it is easier, faster and more efficient to have users update certain important information themselves than to have this done by IS staff. But at some companies, this may require training and a change in corporate culture."

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