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Self-Service Information Retrieval

Self-Service Information Retrieval

With enterprise reporting software, reports are cheaply and easily accessible on your intranet.

Fund raising is not a leisure-time activity for the Office of Development at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. It's a full-time job for 160 people who have been enormously successful over the past five years, including raising $US 1.7 billion in the largest single campaign ever conducted by any university in the country. But considering how time-consuming it was to get historical contribution information out of the university's database, it's amazing Yale was that successful.

The personal computers in the Office of Development had no way of directly accessing the Oracle databases that resided on an IBM RS/6000 four-processor server in the university's data center. Fund-raisers had to write detailed requests on slips of paper, which guided administrative assistants in querying the database. Then they often had to wait 24 hours for the reports to be delivered.

Every organization has groups of users like the Yale fund-raisers who could be more productive in their jobs if they had direct access to corporate-blessed information sitting in overstuffed data warehouses and repositories, says Bob Moran, director of decision-support research at Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc. But there haven't been tools available that provide a single desktop view into a data warehouse and allow users to browse HTML screens of standardized reports or even request customized reports. Traditional business intelligence tools have been structured to provide very specific kinds of query, analysis and reporting to serve the needs of the financial, sales and marketing organizations within a company. Their cost and the extensive training they require make them difficult to deploy throughout an enterprise.

However, trends indicate this scenario is changing rapidly. Enterprise reporting tools are coming to the masses, according to International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass. (a sister company to CIO Communications Inc.), whose analysts predict enterprise reporting will be the fastest-growing segment of the information access tools market between 1998 and 2002. During this period the total query and reporting market is expected to grow at an aggregate of 30 per cent per year, from $US 827 million to $US 3.1 billion; while the enterprise reporting segment will grow at the rate of 76 per cent per year, from $US 55 million to $US 933 million.

One can readily understand why enterprise reporting tools are in demand simply by looking at what has taken place at Yale's Office of Development.

After years of patiently waiting for others to deliver reports, fund-raisers will soon begin generating their own reports, thanks to an enterprise reporting suite from Sqribe Technologies Corp. "I have always envisioned placing a software solution in the hands of our nontechnical fund-raisers that was simple to use yet was as powerful as the query and reporting tools used by the IT administrators," says Senior IT Project Manager Marcia Schels.

During last summer, Sqribe consultants assisted the university in linking the reporting system to the IBM database server, which will run Sqribe's SQR Server engine and Sqribe ReportMart, a companion product that provides repository, management and security capabilities for enterprise information delivery.

Enterprise reporting tools are yet another validation of the Web-based development environment. The point of integration for enterprise reporting solutions is the Web server and, more typically, the company intranet. You either bring standard reports from back-end systems to the Web server, which users can browse for their specific information needs, or you set up direct links to those back-end systems for ad hoc queries.

"CIOs are looking for these types of self-service and zero-support applications," says Philip Russom, director of the business intelligence service at the Hurwitz Group Inc. in Framingham, Mass. "Overburdened IT departments are reluctant to deal with the training and support issues when [heavy-duty] business intelligence tools are placed into the hands of hundreds and thousands of nontechnical users." Distributing Knowledge You may balk at buying still more tools, but you need to consider how information access will help the enterprise as a whole, not just the corporate analysts. Enterprise reporting tools are relatively inexpensive. Pricing for several leading products is in the $US 20,000 to $US 35,000 range, and you can actually leverage those past investments. Enterprise reporting software will integrate with existing data warehouses, repositories and business intelligence tools as well as the security policies and access rights that have been defined already. In fact, analysts point out, they will deliver more consistent views of information to everyone, which older, rigidly structured tools don't always do.

Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., has reported that there are several key reasons why companies should consider implementing enterprise reporting. Midlevel managers who are part of the decentralized decision-making process must operate with actual business metrics in the "extended enterprise" of suppliers, vendors and customers. They must also be able to do ad hoc queries and build business context on-the-fly for timely, relevant information.

But useful information isn't just stored in data warehouses, the Forrester report continues. ERP applications from companies such as SAP AG, Baan Co. NV, J.D. Edwards & Co. and PeopleSoft Inc. are a rich source of information that could benefit a wider base of users. However, you don't want users to query a live production system. So it's best to feed selected data into standardized reports on a Web server and let users access only pertinent information. This underscores the importance of separating business information from operational data and decision-support functions from transactional processing.

Eliminating the Paper Chase

Defining what type of information will benefit which groups and the level of detail they will need for their work area is not easy. At PCS Health Systems Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz., David Thompson, vice president of Internet development, says he has begun to phase out the printing of 4 million pages of Cobol-based reports every month.

PCS, the largest organization of its kind, manages the prescription drug benefit programs for health insurers and HMOs serving more than 56 million Americans. Thompson is now faced with the considerable challenge of what he calls "weaning people off the desire to see paper." Work on eliminating paper started 18 months ago, when PCS began moving its reports into an IBM OnDemand repository, which selected users could view on their desktop PCs. These included internal managers as well as major insurance companies and HMOs that are linked into the company's wide area network. PCS is making progress - it has already reduced the amount of paper reports by 25 per cent, to 3 million pages per month, and expects to reduce the amount by another 25 per cent to 40 per cent this year.

The next phase is even more ambitious. The OnDemand repository is being given a Web-based interface so that everyone can access reports through a browser over the Internet. Because distributing confidential information over the Internet poses a number of security risks, PCS is setting up digital certificates for each client. "The user's ID and password restricts access to only the data for that client," says Thompson.

At DHL Airways Inc., based in Redwood City, Calif., a similar paper flood prompted Malcolm Duff, senior IT manager for sales, marketing and logistics, to move its report distribution from the mainframe to a data warehouse, with reports accessible from a self-service intranet with Actuate Software Corp.'s enterprise reporting suite. Since a number of the reports are too large and would take too long to download from the intranet, says Duff, "we'll be distributing the Actuate-based reports on a CD-ROM. It's like giving users a mini-database." Sales offices can search these databases with Actuate's Web plug-in, slice and dice customer, revenue and product information, and even cut and paste information into Excel spreadsheets.

More Timely Information

While some companies view reducing the volume of printed reports as a way to save trees, their real purpose is to make more information available on a self-service basis. When users have access to current information, they can react faster to potential problems and capitalize on market opportunities. The enterprise reporting tools that are making this a reality are being developed by companies such as Actuate, Brio Technology Inc., Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., CorVu Corp., Datawatch Corp. and Sqribe. They have a leg up on the senior players in the query, analysis and reporting market, says Hurwitz's Russom.

But overall, enterprise reporting is coming from other segments of the information access tools market as well. Among the trends IDC has noticed is that OLAP vendors are taking advantage of Web technologies and that enterprise application vendors are partnering with enterprise reporting vendors.

As enterprise reporting tools continue to mature, not only will more user communities like Yale's Office of Development do better prospect tracking on their own, but managers will also be able to track staff productivity in ways they haven't been able to do in the past.

Souped-up silicon

IBM Orders "Silicon on Insulator" to Go

Making chips faster, cooler

It may sound like a computer's idea of a sandwich order, but "silicon on insulator" (SOI) is actually the name of a new technology developed by IBM for high-speed, low-power chips.

Chris King, vice president of marketing in IBM Corp.'s microelectronics unit, describes SOI as a breakthrough that will lead to a new generation of mobile products. "Besides allowing the development of smaller systems with longer operating times, it will permit manufacturers to give their products more capabilities, such as real-time voice recognition." The technology works by placing a chip's transistors on top of an insulating material. The insulation safeguards the transistors from electrical interference, which saps energy and hinders performance.

King says the technology provides two main benefits. "On the one hand, SOI reduces the amount of power necessary to operate chip circuitry, thereby extending the battery life of portable devices." He notes that SOI chips require as little as one-third the power of equivalent devices without SOI. On the flip side, the technology can enhance performance in almost any device by about 25 per cent to 35 per cent. "This will allow a processor designed to operate at about 400MHz to achieve speeds exceeding 500MHz."SOI technology arrives after 15 years of painstaking and often frustrating research. "The researchers were led down a number of different and sometimes misleading paths," says King. "At last, a technique was found that works in the real world." IBM's approach to creating an SOI chip implants doses of oxygen beneath a silicon wafer's surface. The wafer is then cooked at high temperature until a thin film of insulating silicon dioxide forms on top of the wafer; a thin layer of silicon remains on top of that. The transistors placed on this top silicon layer can switch faster because they encounter less electrical friction.

SOI dovetails nicely with IBM's recent copper chip technology breakthrough.

While copper technology improves the wires that link a chip's transistors, SOI enhances the operation of the transistors themselves. "SOI completes the transformation that began with the introduction of copper technology," says King.

IBM plans to incorporate SOI into a wide range of chips, including its PowerPC processor and the custom devices it builds for product manufacturers.

Pricing is not yet available, but IBM claims that the technology's added process boosts manufacturing costs only slightly. The firm has already begun manufacturing SOI chips at a pilot production line in Fishkill, N.Y. IBM is planning to launch full-scale production by the middle of this year.

- John Edwards

Remote Systems Management

If your operations are global, there's no way you or your staff can keep an eye on all the systems all the time; everybody's gotta sleep sometime. Sure, you can have three shifts a day, but what if one of your systems is in a branch office somewhere? It may be important but not enough to warrant a human watchdog. What about a different kind of overseer? Forsythe Solutions Group Inc.'s ITWatch provides 24-hour remote network, systems and desktop management through a Web interface so that you or your staff can track it anytime. By doing so, you can spot performance or capacity problems before they affect production, retrieve status information on a daily, monthly or quarterly basis, and establish consistent service-level agreements throughout the organization.

ITWatch can manage systems running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP-UX or Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris, monitoring disk and CPU utilization and managing file systems, backup and applications. On the network, it can monitor performance and manage router security, events and configuration. On the desktop, it can manage inventory, do software distribution and license metering, and track configurations. Startup fees range from $US 150 to $US 5,000, depending on platform (average is $US 200 per device); maintenance fees range from $US 50 to $US 700 per device per month (depending on platform). For more information, call 847 675-8000 or visit www.forsythesolutions.com.

Documenting Object Development

The least fun of application development is documentation. The hard part's over...who wants to sweep up? Nonetheless, developers are almost always called on to present reports or presentations about their work, and Synergex International Corp.'s Model EyeQ tries to make that preparation as easy as possible. Working with a variety of object-oriented development packages, the software lets developers extract visual and textual information from an object-oriented model easily so that they can create Microsoft Word files for reports, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, HTML files for the Web or just plain text. The ultimate goal is better collaboration between developers and the users of their applications.

The software incorporates templates for generating documentation, and it lets users customize and modify the templates easily. It integrates with Rational Software Corp.'s Rational Rose and Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Studio modeling tools and runs on Microsoft Windows 95, 98 and NT 4.0. The price is $US 995 per seat. For more information, call 916 635-7300 or visit www.modeleyeq.com.

Translate, Please

There's nothing more daunting than coming across a Web site that's been written in another language or trying to communicate with a client or colleague whose first language isn't yours. LanguageForce Inc.'s Instant Language 2000 tries to alleviate that problem with real-time communication, dictation and translation.

The software offers multiple capabilities. With the proper hardware, users can either type words or speak English at their computers and have it translated (and read back) in another language (currently Spanish, French, German and Russian are available). Users can also point to words on a Web site and hear them pronounced in English.

Combined with an Internet chat room, users can translate words spoken by participants in other countries. There's also a vocabulary builder for teaching words and phrases useful in foreign travel.

Priced at $US 90 per user, Instant Language 2000 requires a PC with at least a 100MHz Pentium processor, Windows 95 or 98, 16MB of RAM, 4MB disk space, a sound card, CD-ROM drive and microphone. For more information, call 714 279-9080 or visit www.languageforce.com.

Faster Service in the Field

Field service personnel have plenty of tools to carry without being weighed down by a laptop computer as well (and laptops aren't known for their ability to bounce from service call to service call). Outfitting field service reps with handheld computers may diminish weight concerns, though. FieldCentrix Inc.'s FieldCentrix Enterprise software aims to fill in the gaps between the folks in the field and the data back in the enterprise. The goal: better tracking of who's where and what they're doing.

The software consists of two pieces. FX Mobile runs on a handheld computer running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE and gives technicians automatic time sheets, electronic work orders, equipment inventory by job site, bar coding, street maps, customer history, messaging, additional service opportunities and wireless database access. Technicians can also capture signatures and print out invoices or receipts on the spot. The second piece, FX Service Center, runs on a Microsoft Windows NT server and automates operations, dispatch and management throughout the company.

Pricing ranges from $US 200 to $US 250 per technician per month, based on a three-year contract incorporating hardware, software and wireless charges. For more information, call 949 851-7800 or visit www.fieldcentrix.com.

Peter Ruber is a business technology writer based in Oakdale, N.Y. He can be reached via e-mail at lbsb20a@prodigy.com.

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