Managing corporate knowledge
- By Dan Verton
- Nov 01, 1998
As federal agencies struggle to comply with policies for creating electronic archives and with congressional mandates to specify annual performance goals and plans for achieving them, database technology will be the catalyst that propels users beyond simply managing data to managing corporate knowledge.
The key issue is access. Agencies have begun to install database management tools that allow users to access data from across the enterprise and to take advantage of analysis capabilities built into the products. Agency managers also believe World Wide Web-based database management products can exploit the power of the Internet to make data sharing and analysis much easier.
But observers warn that agencies should not blindly rush into this brave new world. Agencies must first consider issues such as which tools are appropriate for their particular business needs and resolve questions of data ownership. They also must address questions of data security and integrity that will arise when they begin sharing information across the Internet.
From Stovepipes to Warehouses
In some cases, agencies are looking to get more information from data by building data warehouses, which draw data from collections of databases to provide a snapshot of business conditions at a given time.
The commercial sector has employed data warehousing solutions as a means to analyze trends throughout mountains of customer data. Through the use of online analytical processing technology, data warehouses provide companies with data that helps them keep store shelves stocked with the right products, at the right time and at the right location.
This technology is being increasingly applied to federal operations as well. "We see almost every database having a need for these types of services," said Chris Guziak, government account executive for Microsoft Federal Systems.
Cindy Walker, vice president of Acton Burnell, an information management consulting firm, said the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA)— a directive that requires agencies to publish annual performance goals and a clear road map of how they plan to achieve those goals— is driving the government's interest in data warehousing solutions and database technologies that can do more than just store information.
"These goals are requiring agencies to assemble data from everywhere [throughout] their organizations," Walker said. Acton Burnell has teamed with NCR Corp. to sell data warehousing solutions to federal agencies.
Consequently, the government has been pushing hard toward sharing data across organizational lines and purchasing database management systems that are able to support very large datasets, Walker said. Agencies also are searching for ways to provide single, integrated views of their geographically distributed data, she said.
Kimberly Baker, vice president of data warehousing government solutions for NCR, said government agencies are overcoming years of dealing with "tremendous stovepipes" of information. "In the past, data hasn't had a real owner in government," Baker said. "But today we see government agencies appointing data executives and data czars and [then] charging them with looking at data as a corporate asset."
Databases on the Web
Still, while some agencies have turned to data warehouses, many others are looking at the Web as a way to make data more widely available in their organizations.
"Having more Web-based tools" is key to making database access easier for users, said Joanne Woytek, a scientific, technical and engineering workgroup manager at NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement Program Office. "The sooner [vendors offer this access], the better," she said. "That way, I won't have to have a tool installed everywhere I sit."
Oracle Corp. realized this and has brought the Internet to its latest release, Oracle8i. Tim Hoechst, vice president of technology for Oracle's Government, Education and Health Division, said the Web is revolutionizing one of the key aspects of all database solutions: access. "In this new world, there's no such thing as proprietary protocols," Hoechst said. "It takes the database one step closer to being the platform, not just a place to store information."
Oracle8i includes tools for deploying and managing database applications on the Internet. An Oracle spokeswoman said the product includes a Java Virtual Machine, which is built into the database to store and execute Java code on the server. The Java VM allows applications to run faster and more securely, creating an environment geared to data warehouses and other large-scale enterprise applications, she said.
The Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) recently selected Oracle as one of its enterprisewide databases, providing the 108,000-member command with access to multiple applications, in such areas as maintenance, supplies and personnel, through a Web front end.
AFMC officials described the application as "part of a global modernization of AFMC's structure that will result in a true enterprise intranet for the command."
Similarly, Informix Software Inc. added the Informix Web Integration Option to its Dynamic Server database, providing a link between the product and Web servers. The company said the option allows Web developers to create, manage and deploy applications that deliver Web pages that are tailored to an enterprise's users.
But Jeff Jones, program manager of data management marketing for IBM Software Solutions, said that along with the benefits of the Internet come concerns about security. Users have to ask themselves whether they trust the Internet, he said.
Geoff Myers, chief of the Army's Joint Ammunition Management Standard System, Rock Island, Ill., said he views the issue as the most pressing problem for the database management world. "Part of the power of information is to be able to move it," Myers said. "If you can't move it with reasonable assurance of data integrity, then the tools you have don't do you a damn bit of good."
The issue of data integrity has picked up quite a bit of momentum while riding the wave of the government's information assurance initiatives. Acton Burnell's Walker said these initiatives have become imperative, especially in the wake of GPRA. "The [data] quality question hits agencies right where they live," she said. "If you're reporting that information to Congress, you have to have an audit trail showing where that data came from."
Oracle's Hoechst said the industry must help bolster Web security by focusing on providing secure access using open protocols. He said Oracle "can make the data in the database more secure than anyone needs," but that does not ensure the safety of data moving around the network. The question, according to Hoechst, becomes how to strike a balance between security and the need to make the data available.
Vendors and users are still grappling with that question.
The Next Wave
Agencies also are concerned about access to multiple kinds of data. In the past two years, vendors such as Oracle and Informix have begun addressing the challenge of developing the capabilities to handle complex data sets, such as imagery, geospatial data, video, voice and graphics.
Dick Martin, federal manager for Informix, said complex data elements are fast becoming a requirement for all database vendors. "If you can't handle complex data elements in the Department of Defense, you're not much help to anyone," he said.
To address these needs, Informix offers Informix-Universal Server, a database designed to handle multiple data types, including images, text, maps and video. Likewise, Oracle touts its Oracle7-based Universal Server product as a method for handling different types of data. Meanwhile, Sybase Inc. developed extensions to its database technology that also address nontraditional data types.
The Army's Myers said products have improved but still are not quite filling the bill. "There still has not really been a tool suite that can bring together relational data, imagery and other [file types] into a single environment," he said.
Myers said his agency had some success deploying Enterworks Inc.'s Virtual DB as a solution to bring together data residing on distributed mainframe solutions that used 30-year-old technology. He said Virtual DB provides a unified view of enterprise data across incompatible databases, platforms and formats using standard Web browser interfaces. "Tools like Virtual DB will, in fact, set the pace for the Shared Data Environment [initiative] in DOD," Myers said.
Craig Mullins, vice president of marketing and operations for Platinum Technology Inc.'s Database Management Division, said the greatest challenge facing database administration groups will be managing heterogeneous environments.
"Most organizations have more than one [database management system], and many have three or four," Mullins said. "It is not unusual for medium to larger shops to have IBM, Sybase, Oracle, Informix and Microsoft products installed and housing production data."
IBM's Jones said customers also are demanding increased integration of analysis capabilities— traditionally known as data mining— into the database engine itself. Vendors are building "more inherent analysis capabilities so applications can hand over this task to the database," Jones said.
But the most potentially significant harbinger of the future is Microsoft's effort to "commoditize" the database tool by making it easier to install and use. The company's planned release this month of Version 7.0 of SQL Server for Windows NT aims to "take the mystery out of database management systems," according to Guziak.
Although vendors report that agencies such as the Army, the Navy and the Internal Revenue Service have had some success with knowledge management, they also stress that agencies should proceed with caution when implementing these solutions. "[Users] first have to get their arms around what it is they are trying to accomplish in their business," NCR's Baker said.
According to Harvey Hindin, a research analyst with D.H. Brown and Associates, government users considering a high-end database solution must first ask themselves whether they really need it or whether they can get by with a more mundane database. Hindin said agencies must proceed with the understanding that many warehouse efforts fail for lack of preliminary planning, and then they must determine whether their data is suitable for a data warehouse.
Despite the confusion over where the technology is heading, government database managers and users are becoming very knowledgeable about their agencies' requirements, according to Walker. "I'm seeing very sophisticated users asking very sophisticated questions," Walker said. "It's very different from 15 years ago."
At a Glance
Status: Federal users are experimenting with database management products that will allow them to access multiple types of data throughout the enterprise and harness the power of the Internet to make data sharing and analysis easier.
Issues: Users are concerned that increased use of the Internet could jeopardize the security and integrity of their databases. Meanwhile, they continue to wait for products that can adequately bring together relational data with imagery and other types of data.
Outlook: Unclear. Although new products will address agencies' needs, solutions from different vendors appear to be headed in different directions and are creating confusion in the market.