Business Objects tailors tools for extranets

Business Objects SA last week announced a new version of its World Wide Web-based decision-support system (DSS) software that includes features intended to make it easier for organ-izations to extend their tools from an intranet to an extranet.

DSS, or "business intelligence," tools are designed to allow customers to take large pools of data and extract various levels of information by automating database queries, reports and analyses.

WebIntelligence, announced late last year, is the thin-client version of Business Objects' full-client BusinessObjects tool, which is designed specifically for users working over the Internet with a Web browser interface. The product already accounted for 19 percent of the company's total license sales in the first quarter of 1998, according to Timo Elliott, director of marketing for WebIntelligence at Business Objects, San Jose, Calif.

WebIntelligence 2.0, in beta testing now and scheduled for full-scale production in the third quarter of this year, adds features tailored for the extranet, in which external users are given access to an organization's intranet.

The product uses digital certificate technology from VeriSign Inc., for example, to provide secure "signed" applets that can be downloaded just once and stored in a user's Web browser cache, reducing the overall demand on the network.

WebIntelligence 2.0 also has been designed to work through multiple firewalls— something Elliott said is vital to extending these kinds of tools to an extranet. To work in extranet environments, DSS tools have to be able to function through various firewall configurations on both the server and the client side without requiring changes to security. WebIntelligence uses only "pure" Hypertext Transport Protocol, Elliott said.

"It's the only way we've found that we can get to the extranet," he said. "Other nonstandard protocols don't go through all the firewalls."

The U.S. Postal Service is one of the latest WebIntelligence customers. The agency selected the Business Objects product from a group of some half-dozen competing products to help it with a project to automate and bring online a mail tracking system.

Currently, said Richard Schall, an operation quality improvement specialist in the USPS Service Management Policies and Program Division, the Mail Condition Reporting System collects data from more than 400 major facilities nationwide to provide a daily "red flag" report on possible problems that could delay postal deliveries. The report is used by local and regional management, as well as at USPS headquarters in Washington, D.C., to analyze what may be going wrong with the system.

"We had already been thinking of putting this information into an internal Web environment so that anyone could look at the report data," Schall said. "The challenge was that once we got the information into this Web environment, how would we get it out?"

USPS will be taking advantage of an online analytical processing module included with WebIntelligence 2.0 that allows users, through the Web, to "drill down" into data and use it to provide a number of analyses.

Network administrators can provide pre-defined interactive reports in which the information is retrieved directly from the server's cache. If users need more information than is provided through this report, the system automatically goes to the database to retrieve the information. Users can also "hyperdrill" into information beyond the database by automatically switching to other sites on the Web.

"WebIntelligence will allow us to get into the data easily and in real time," Schall said. "It will also allow us to format reports in several different ways, to analyze the data in various different ways, to see trends in the data, link different databases and so on."

The Web-based system will be deployed at the 400-plus USPS facilities beginning early next year, Schall said, and over time it may be extended to smaller offices nationwide. The system also may provide other benefits, he said, such as real-time inputting of data so that the mail status report could be available continuously instead of just once a day.

Business Objects has a number of other federal clients, including installations at several Navy and Defense Department sites, the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and NASA.

The problem with making decisions in this market is not judging if the market will grow, observers said, but what direction the development of DSS tools will take.

"This is already a large and growing market," said Mitch Kramer, director of business intelligence and data warehousing with Patricia Seybold Group, Boston.

"The client/server market was also big but was limited by the ability to use the products. The Web demands that products be easy to use, so this could be a very large market indeed."

But it is difficult to know where the market is heading, he said, because it is "somewhere between something that exists and something that could be developing." For the long term, the marketplace will probably need applications that provide an ability above and beyond that of simply visualizing what is in the database, he said.

WebIntelligence is available through Business Objects' General Services Administration schedule and through companies such as Wang Global and the TRW Systems & Information Technology Group (formerly BDM International Inc.).

Business Objects products also are available on several governmentwide contracts, such as NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II.

-- Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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