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Originally published 5 September 2007
Declaration of Independence
Within this article, I will occasionally refer to products and use screenshot examples of various products as an aid to communicating specific points. These examples are chosen at random and in no way represent any endorsement on behalf of the author of any product in the marketplace.
End of Declaration
Amid the hype surrounding Web 2.0 that has been around for over a year now, it seems sensible that the excitement around this technology should be looked at in a little more detail to see if we can make sense of it in relation to business intelligence (BI) and performance management (PM). In this multi-part article, I will look at what Web 2.0 is and how it can benefit business in getting more out of business intelligence and performance management investments.
Before we get into what Web 2.0 can do for business intelligence, it seems only right that we first attempt to define Web 2.0. Rather than re-invent the wheel here, I would rather refer readers to Tim O’Reilly’s September 2005 article, “What Is Web 2.0?” where he formulated a Web 1.0/2.0 comparison by use of examples. Essentially, Web 2.0 is an umbrella term for a group of technologies that have advanced web usage and turned the web into a development platform for the enterprise. These technologies include:
Note that this is not an exhaustive list. However, all of the listed technologies are very relevant to the BI and PM marketplace, and we are already seeing them being incorporated into business intelligence and performance management products. There is no doubt that this adoption will only increase over the next few years as new releases of products make their way into the marketplace. The following table show how these relatively young and rapidly advancing technologies can be applied to business intelligence and performance management.
I will look at these technologies in more detail in a short series of articles, showing how Web 2.0 technologies can be exploited in a business intelligence and performance management environment.
Really simple syndication (RSS) and ATOM are two standard forms of web feeds that have rapidly spread across the Internet. Even if you have not heard of these terms, you will probably recognise the little orange boxes ( ) you see on thousands of websites every day. Essentially, these feeds are forms of XML that provide users with up-to-date information on any content that is syndicated via such a feed. For those of you who are interested in what one of these feeds looks like in raw form, an example of an RSS feed is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: An Example RSS Feed
Most modern-day browsers already have built-in support for these feeds. In addition, new releases of Office applications, such as Microsoft Office Outlook 2007, support RSS feeds as a folder much in the same way as you have e-mail boxes. The difference here is that when you subscribe to an RSS or ATOM feed, your browser or Office application (or indeed any other application you care to write) requests from the server any new items of content in order to keep the user up to date. This, of course, applies to any web content. Note also that modern day search engines can also crawl RSS and ATOM feeds so that users can search on any items that have been published in this way. While this point could easily be dismissed, I would encourage you to think about what I have just said here when it comes to business intelligence. If, for example, BI was available in RSS or ATOM form, then it could easily also become known to search engines, thereby opening up BI to users via search in a very simple easy manner. This, in my opinion, could have a dramatic impact on breaking down the fear barrier that faces many users when it comes to using BI tools. If you don’t have to use BI tools and can just use a search engine, then there is no doubt that the number of users that have confidence in gaining access to business intelligence will dramatically increase.
Applying RSS technology to business intelligence and performance management systems opens a whole new world of leveraging information. Access to BI becomes considerably easier. Consider the example provided in Figure 2, a screenshot of Microsoft Office Outlook 2007. Here you can see RSS feeds supported.
Figure 2: Screenshot Showing Support for RSS Feeds
As you can see in Figure 2, access to RSS feeds are right there on the screen. All you do is simply open an RSS folder and Outlook requests any new information automatically from the appropriate servers associated with each RSS feed.
Now imagine what that means if you have business intelligence and performance management metrics being made available straight off a BI server in RSS or ATOM format. An insurance company, for example, could have five different classes of business. These might be Shipping, Property, Motor, Casualty and Aviation. If you had five different business intelligence RSS feeds (one for each class of business), then these could be targeted at the appropriate users (e.g., underwriters) in each of these business areas. The convenience is staggering. After all, what application do most people use first thing in the morning when they walk into the office? E-mail, of course. Well, here you get your e-mail – and while you are at it, you can pick up your BI and key performance indicators (KPIs) too. Therefore, RSS and ATOM are set to redefine ease of use when it comes to business intelligence and performance management. Also, if a user subscribes to business intelligence and performance management feeds, they will always be kept up to date.
The second use of RSS and ATOM is as a data source to data integration and ETL processing associated with data warehouses and data marts. These feeds, after all, are simply XML; and today many different data integration products already support XML as both a data source and as a target. Note the latter point – that is, XML as a target. This means that modern day data integration tools can consume RSS and ATOM feeds as well as potentially produce them.
Let’s take consumption first. Here, data provided in RSS and ATOM web feeds can be integrated with other operational data as part of a data integration job in order to enrich the data in a data warehouse and/or data mart. ETL tools can consume multiple RSS feeds very easily as part of any ETL data workflow. This is illustrated in Figure 3, which shows a Microsoft SQL Server Integration Services ETL workflow consuming RSS feeds.
Figure 3: ETL Workflow Consuming RSS Feeds
Note that it is also possible to create data integration services whereby data integration jobs are published as web services that take data from multiple data sources and integrate it on demand to be served up to other processes, applications and portals. While this may not seem such a big deal, there is nothing to stop you from using EII or ETL tools to combine data FROM a data warehouse or data mart with web feeds to provide enriched data to a report or an application or a portal. Different parts of a report might include a BI cross-tab, a chart and an aggregated set of relevant RSS/ATOM feeds from which the user can obtain additional intelligence. An example of this is shown in Figure 4.
Figure 5 also shows that data integration services that take web feeds as a data source could also be provided by ETL tools that can publish ETL workflows as web services.
As I said earlier, it is also possible for data integration services to produce web feeds since many data integration tools also support XML as a target (as shown in Figure 4). Given that RSS and ATOM are just standard forms of XML, this enables data integration services to be a very powerful mechanism for serving up information.
These are just some of the ways in which Web 2.0 RSS and ATOM feeds can be used. In the next part of this mini-series on Web 2.0 and business intelligence, I will examine other Web 2.0 technologies mentioned in this article and show how they apply to business intelligence and performance management.
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