Web Services, BI Tools Speed Path to Data

With SOA, users get operational data straight from the source, say IT execs

Next month, Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. will for the first time marry Web services with business intelligence tools in a project designed to boost its housing sales and win new listings.

The Fairfax, Va.-based real estate firm plans to launch a new application in June that will use a service-oriented architecture to provide its real estate agents with near-real-time BI reports showing the likelihood that a home will sell based on the interest it generates on the company's Web site.

Long & Foster is one of a growing number of companies that are starting to use SOAs to speed the flow of operational data to BI tools for end users.

At Valero Energy Corp., the nightly data warehouse loading process requires 1,000 separate jobs to move data to its SAP Business Information Warehouse and 500 jobs to get data into its Oracle warehouse, said Kirk Hewitt, director of reporting and financial systems at the San Antonio-based oil refiner.

In September, Valero plans to begin using Web services to populate BI reports with data gleaned directly from its back-end SAP R/3 ERP system, Hewitt said. "With SOA, we would just go directly against the data source," he said. "You eliminate the process of the extra database and the [extract, transform and load]. All you would have to do is refresh your report to get real-time data."

Long & Foster is building an application that will use an SOA to feed data compiled by its Web monitoring vendor, Omniture Inc., into its SQL Server 2005 database. There, the data will be analyzed by Microsoft Corp.'s Analysis Services online analytical processing and data mining tool to determine the likelihood of a house selling in 30, 60 or 90 days, said Mayur Raichura, director of information services at The Long & Foster Cos.

The system will let agents access BI reports generated hourly by Microsoft's Reporting Services tool.

"The information would be dated without the Web services," Raichura said. "Without this information being available almost instantaneously, the reaction time would be too slow."

Beyond the Chosen Few

Coty Inc., a cosmetics company in New York, plans to purchase BI tools within the next six months to provide customer information reports to users in 25 countries, said David Berry, senior vice president and CIO.

Berry said that Coty will be able to expand the use of BI after installing iWay Software Inc.'s SOA Middleware product. The iWay software -- which is being used to build an SOA to integrate a recent acquisition -- also will be used to send and manage services needed to embed BI in business processes. The system will be in production within a year, Berry said.

BI at Coty is now limited to the "chosen few" employees, such as controllers and analysts, he said. Without the addition of an SOA, moving BI to front-line workers would require significant -- and expensive -- custom coding, Berry said. "The SOA infrastructure is already there," Berry said. "It is a major piece of work and architecture you don't have to deal with when you go to BI."

Cross Country Healthcare Inc., a staffing firm for the health care industry, is planning to use Web services to integrate data from operational systems with BI analytic applications, said Kipp Vann, CIO at the Boca Raton, Fla.-based firm. The data will be sent to dashboards that managers can use to measure the performance of the company's recruiters, he said.

The application, scheduled to go live in the fourth quarter, will replace a manual spreadsheet-based process used to measure worker performance. "The main reason we are looking at a Web service model is the real-time aspect of the data," Vann said. "It merges the concepts of what would be in a data warehouse and combines that with core operating systems."

Vann did note that there are drawbacks to using Web services rather than building integration interfaces. For example, as the project proceeds, developers are finding that services may require some customization as they are consumed by various back-end systems, such as ERP and financial applications. he said.

Wayne Eckerson, director of research and services at The Data Warehousing Institute, said embedding BI into operational applications that support multiple business processes is the "wave of the future" because it will make BI easier to use and more pervasive.

He added that most organizations that are interested in "operational BI" are looking to SOA to speed access to operational applications and the information they contain.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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