Web Access – Just Browsing, Thanks

Web access to a data warehouse is a tempting innovation, but uncertainties of the Internet dictate caution before opening the store to all comers

By Heath Row, CIO Magazine
1 October 1996
URL: http://www.cio.com/archive/100196_browsing.html 

Leonard Luckless, a road warrior for Illstar Inc. of Erewhon, N.J., carries a laptop but has to call a support team for up-to-the minute data while traveling. Unable to access Illstar’s monster data warehouse himself, Leonard often has to wait several hours — sometimes overnight — to get the information he needs for critical sales calls. Today, a hot prospect is ready to sign, but the data he requires to seal the deal is nestled away in the IT innards of corporate headquarters. Seeing that the data is not quickly forthcoming, the hot prospect balks, and Leonard loses the contract.

If Illstar’s data warehouse had been integrated with the World Wide Web, Leonard might have had the information on his laptop instantly, saving his company the sale and earning himself a substantial bonus.

Too bad for Leonard

During the first half of 1996, many major data warehouse vendors announced or released Web integration products. Smaller companies, some still reeling from their entry into the client/server decision-support systems (DSS) market, are scrambling to keep up.The face of data warehousing is changing, and companies with large data stores are contemplating opening their warehouses to outside customers, business partners and even consumers in an attempt to make corporate data a profit center outside of day-to-day business use. If someone will pay a handful of digital cash to compare pretzel prices before trekking to the store, a company with the right kind of data is sure to rake in the take.

Dipping in a Revenue Stream

Cultivating a company’s data stores as a revenue stream outside IS is still a new concept, but Web warehousing promises benefits that are the givens of the Web itself. By using the Web as a platform for information access, for one example, IS departments can deploy and maintain data warehouse access tools cheaply and easily. For another, companies can decrease customer and client support costs by opening data warehouses to users over the Web. Robert R. Glass, director of MIS for ChemTreat of Richmond, Va., says the water-treatment-formula developer’s customer service department receives over 300 calls a week for warehoused sales information. By making the information available via the Web, ChemTreat hopes to free up the staff person currently fielding those sales requests.

Nevertheless, the full payback potential for Web warehousing is yet to come. Once ChemTreat finishes testing its VMark Software Inc.’s HyperStar-based interface and UVWeb Web interface with 20 users across the United States, the company will wait to see how the technology improves, Glass says.

It’s a promising future, but the Web is not yet a wonder drug for data warehouse access. Steve Cranford, a partner in charge of KPMG Peat Marwick LLP’s data warehousing practice and strategic services consulting, says the industry should hit its stride by the end of next year. Having worked with data warehouse Web tools from Information Advantage, MicroStrategy, SAS, Arbor and Oracle, Cranford says many tools lack the security and functionality because of the HTML interface and bandwidth limitations of the Internet. Solution providers will be able to add needed functionality — such as the drag-and-drop utility of client/server applications — in the future, he adds. “Coming through the Web and through the firewalls, the products just aren’t robust enough to handle more dynamic querying,” he says. “A lot of custom development has to be done to make it worthwhile and not a toy.”

Until then, many companies will work around the lesser functionality inherent in Web integration. Fidelity Investments of Boston designed an information management system modeled on the Web by using hypertext markup language (HTML) but using a browser built with Visual Basic from Microsoft Corp. In spring 1996, Fidelity built a system that draws on a small data mart for a select group of high-level executives who want snapshots reports of the company’s business activity and financial status. Though no existing Web integration tool matched Fidelity’s needs for the reports’ presentation and content, the company used Web conventions so that adjustments would be minimal when the technology improved. “We wanted to use HTML as much as possible,” says Steve Rubinow, vice president of Fidelity’s corporate MIS. “If you’re going to do something on the Web, you might as well do it and not do it halfway as we had to then.”

ACNielsen Co. Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill., hopes to consumerize data — all the way. Daniel Greenberg, vice president of Internet services for ACNielsen’s global marketing group, says the company is looking to the integration of the Web and warehousing for market research and information delivery. ACNielsen’s SalesNet, a subscription-based service for consumer packaged-goods producers and retailers, offers Internet access to thousands of specialized databases containing information from more than 800 retailers as well as information on the buying habits of 40,000 U.S. households representing the grocery-shopping public. Salespeople from ACNielsen’s 600 U.S. clients and more than 9,000 international partners in 93 countries can access the service via the Web.

Greenberg says salespeople use SalesNet to download reports that include analyses of what might otherwise be just data dumps. Although users of remote, thin clients might not be able to access the analyses tools available to desktop users of a client/server DSS setup, a Web interface can make data and analyses available quickly, cheaply and easily. With instant access, salespeople can target sales propositions rather than dig through data. “Sales forces don’t necessarily have very powerful machines,” Greenberg says. “Salespeople are paid to sell, not to do analysis.”

ACNielsen also plans to offer GlobalNet, a service that will provide market data to packaged-goods manufacturers interested in entering foreign markets. Next year, the company will offer the first of many country-specific warehouses, providing global access to national market information. Greenberg says GlobalNet’s local warehouses — maxing out in the United States at about 500GB-will be run by each ACNielsen country office, allowing worldwide access to centralized information but creating decentralized knowledge centers.

Eventually, ACNielsen might open its data warehouse doors to the public. “Weve got an unbelievable opportunity to provide a service to a community that was information starved,” Greenberg says. “[The Web] is a revolutionary way to get rid of obstacles between us and our clients. The obstacles are crashing down.”

Greenberg says the Web also allows users to access structured information such as text documents and unstructured information such as on-the-fly data reports with the same interface, something that can’t be done with client/server warehouse tools. In addition, managers can market information to end users and decision makers by tracking the information people access and how they apply it and by offering alerts of data changes. Those capabilities signal a move out of IT to sales and marketing, he says.

A Note of Caution 

Opening data to a larger base of users raises security concerns. If Jack Average can access a company’s data about pretzel prices, will he also be able to access the company’s secret pretzel recipe?

Rick Tanler, chairman of Information Advantage Inc., a DSS developer in Minneapolis, says security is an issue with Web integration of data warehouses; although warehouses support various levels of security and password protection, security on the Web is unidimensional. At ShopKo Stores Inc. of Green Bay, Wis., Web integrators are setting up the data warehousing connections and user-authentication procedures, creating safeguards against data and system corruption, says Gene Klawikowski, ShopKo’s director of information services.

But even if sufficient security is well within reach, convincing higher-ups that it’s not pie in the sky will be difficult. Cranford says upper-level managers are hesitant to use the Web despite the fact that security options are available. “You can explain that [security is possible] to the CEO of an organization until you’re blue in the face,” he says. “Right now, it’s bleeding edge.”

Because of security concerns of the Internet, many companies , are focusing on internal, intranet-based integration efforts or are stringing secure dedicated lines and T1 connections to business partners to support Web integration as well as proprietary or client/server systems already in place. Instead of worrying about password protection and business rules that constrain information access, companies should plan more on Web integration with data marts, which by positioning data outside a company’s warehouse effectively isolates sensitive data, says Steve Gordon, managing director of global alliances for Austin, Texas-based BSG Corp., which develops client/server applications, new media and data warehouses. By designing small-scale data marts for Web-based clients and business partners, companies can offer users only the data they need and respond to some of the Net’s bandwidth concerns. “[Companies] don’t have to enable all these users,” he says.

Going Slow 

Kelly Dowe, an IT systems analyst at United Services Automobile Association, a San Antonio-based financial and insurance services provider primarily for U.S. military personnel and their families, says he is excited about the potential of data warehousing and the Web but that the company wants to take baby steps before trying to run. “Right now the Internet is just gearing up at USAA,” he says. “It’s definitely something that’s going to grow more and more.” Starting small, Dowe and USAA created a 3GB warehouse that contains only 2.5 years’ worth of data from USAA’s renters insurance line of business. Renters data makes up about 3 percent of USAA’s property and casualty insurance operations. About 30 employees access the warehouse with MicroStrategy Inc.’s DSS Web application, a complement to the company’s client/server-based DSS Agent access tool. Dowe says USAA will eventually move its fire, homeowners and automobile data, which comprises about 80 percent of USAA’s business, to a warehouse accessed by 400 users. “The tools we needed were not out there to do decision support on the Web until [the second] quarter of 1996,” Dowe says. “If we had started on [USAA’s automobile data], we might’ve been here until 1998.”

Dowe and other IT team members, who began testing DSS Agent and DSS Web in early 1995 and rolled out the renters insurance portion in May 1996, says that because of some Web-based limitations — like the inability to do full ad hoc analyses that parallel those of a client/server tool — USAA will use the Web tool along with MicroStrategy’s client/server access application. “What [USAA employees] can do right now is limited just by the data, not by the functionality [of the Web],” Dowe says. “But we expect a little more future value than we see at the moment.”

Bell Canada, a telecommunications provider in Ontario and Quebec, also plans to augment its traditional client/server DSS application with a Web-based warehouse interface so that hundreds of Bell Canada’s business, operational and sales managers can compose their own drill-down queries rather than simply access static data reports. Currently, financial analysts field user queries and prepare reports and presentation material. Tim McCutcheon, director of information management and IT strategy for Bell Canada’s business planning group, says company users will continue to use Arbor Software Corp.’s Essbase client/server application to access the company’s 42GB data mart of financial information. Users with less massive business and data needs will use Arbor’s Essbase Web Gateway, an HTML-based access tool that was still in beta in the summer of 1996. McCutcheon says Bell Canada will wait for a final release before rolling it out businesswide, though. The testing the company has done so far shows Web Gateway will work and work easily, he adds.

ShopKo Stores Inc. also plans to make some of its warehouse data accessible via the Web to store managers, merchandise analysts and vendors who need accurate real-time sales information. Klawikowski says the company’s Web integration will be complete late this year. Using MicroStrategy’s toolset, an Oracle Corp. database and IBM Corp.’s massively parallel SP2 Unix processor, ShopKo is building a warehouse of information to allow companies and HMO clients such as American Medical Security of Howard, Wis., to analyze health-care costs, identify pricing trends and gauge the use of generic and branded pharmaceuticals (see “Charting a Course,” page XX).

In summer 1996, ShopKo ran a successful trial program with 20 general merchandise vendors that accessed the company’s 800GB data warehouse of merchandise information. ShopKo’s 200GB warehouse of prescription benefits management information will eventually be available to its clients, which are self-insured companies, HMOs and other insurance companies, Klawikowski says. ShopKo used to run periodic hard copy reports for its clients but will stop once the company integrates its warehouse with the Web. On the Web, a ShopKo business partner will be able to monitor competitors’ prices or see which products people buy. Klawikowski says ShopKo is investigating Web access to its data warehouses to see if that information can generate profits. While Web access to data might not open an entirely new revenue stream, Klawikowski says it will make its services and data more valuable to businesses in ShopKo’s supply chain. “We know what sells in every store in every shopping basket. Vendors would like to see that information,” he says. “Data is going to be very profitable if you can use the Web to access it.”