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Barry Devlin

As one of the founders of data warehousing back in the mid-1980s, a question I increasingly ask myself over 25 years later is: Are our prior architectural and design decisions still relevant in the light of today's business needs and technological advances? I'll pose this and related questions in this blog as I see industry announcements and changes in way businesses make decisions. I'd love to hear your answers and, indeed, questions in the same vein.

About the author >

Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities in the world on business insight and data warehousing. He was responsible for the definition of IBM's data warehouse architecture in the mid '80s and authored the first paper on the topic in the IBM Systems Journal in 1988. He is a widely respected consultant and lecturer on this and related topics, and author of the comprehensive book Data Warehouse: From Architecture to Implementation.

Barry's interest today covers the wider field of a fully integrated business, covering informational, operational and collaborative environments and, in particular, how to present the end user with an holistic experience of the business through IT. These aims, and a growing conviction that the original data warehouse architecture struggles to meet modern business needs for near real-time business intelligence (BI) and support for big data, drove Barry’s latest book, Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics, now available in print and eBook editions.

Barry has worked in the IT industry for more than 30 years, mainly as a Distinguished Engineer for IBM in Dublin, Ireland. He is now founder and principal of 9sight Consulting, specializing in the human, organizational and IT implications and design of deep business insight solutions.

Editor's Note: Find more articles and resources in Barry's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel and blog. Be sure to visit today!

1944_NormandyLST.jpgI believe it was Forrester Research who coined the phrase "Unified Information Access (UIA)" back in a 2008 publication as the convergence of search and BI.  It was picked up by a few of startups, among them Attivio and Coveo, and largely ignored by the bigger players... until recently, that is.  HP's move into the information management space with acquisitions of first Vertica and then Autonomy signaled the first interest by a major player.  Oracle snapping up Endeca marks the opening of the second phase of the campaign: a leader in the hard information (structured data) relational database market takes the plunge.

Am I surprised?  Not at all.  With the hype around big data and the conflation (partially erroneous, in my view) of big data and soft (unstructured) information, it was obvious that the big relational database vendors would need a beachhead.  Oracle has landed.  Further speculation has already begun as to the location of the second front.  IBM targeting Coveo?  Teradata aiming at MarkLogic?  Microsoft and Attivio (the founders of Attivio previously sold FAST to Microsoft in 2008)?  The guessing game is fun, but my concerns about this war run far deeper.

Leaving aside the other aspects of big data for now, let's focus on soft information, and in particular on the textual subset, including information that can be easily converted to text, such as audio and document scans.  While leaving out image and video reduces volumes dramatically, text is a large and highly valuable segment of the overall information market.  In the past, this segment has stood largely separate from database management under the umbrella of enterprise content management.  What Forrester named in 2008 (and it was already becoming evident even then) was that business users neither know nor care about some division between content and data, between search and BI.  They simply want to find and benefit from the burgeoning wealth of digital information that is being stored in computers everywhere.  I wrote in a 2010 white paper that I see "data and content as two ends of a continuum of the same business information asset... [with a] depth of integration required for full business value."

The problem I see in this likely battle for acquisitions by database vendors is as follows:  UIA is a comparatively young technology coming largely from the content management space, with "unstructured" search bridging over into the BI query world.  This direction of innovation flow makes sense; soft information is more complex and extensive than relational data, and for business users more "natural" and easier of understand.  In simple terms, the concept of search must be enhanced with query rather than query extended to search.  Hard data flows from soft information, both conceptually and in its implementation.  Can you imagine converting a relational database in its entirety into an engaging novel?

The risk is that large database vendors will try to shoehorn search into their existing query-centric view of the world; that the innovative solutions we need to gain real value from the explosion of soft information will be stifled.  There are some small startups (such as NeutrinoBI) that come from the hard data space with an understanding of the primacy of search as an entry point into analytics, but in my experience, the larger players either focus solely on hard data or split hard and soft information management into very separate organizational silos.

In the Oracle acquisition, I expect that the likely BI outcome is the positioning of Endeca's Latitude component behind OBIEE.  My challenge to Larry (if he is listening!) is to conceptually put the two components the other way around and see what it offers to business users.


Posted October 19, 2011 2:37 AM
Permalink | 2 Comments |

2 Comments

See our website for a download of the most recent Forrester report. We were "at the top of the class" for unified information access/optimization. We were also not mentioned in your overview.

Thanks for your comment re. Vivisimo and the reference to the Forrester report. It was not my intention to make a full list of vendors in this market in the post. All the best, Barry.

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