InfoSphere creates new opportunity for channel to increase customer service levels

IBM’s (NYSE: IBM) business strategy continues to evolve. While historically, IBM has been associated with mainframe technology – and database hardware – in the past four years or so, IBM’s approach has shifted slightly to include software application management products. Complimenting its hardware line, software applications are increasingly a focus for IBM as it pushes into 2009.

The IBM Information On Demand 2008 conference in Las Vegas this week highlights the importance of optimizing business applications and managing data effectively. IBM’s InfoSphere suite is a solution to these two emerging trends. Paric Sweeney, IBM’s vice president product management information platform & solutions, software group, describes InfoSphere as being, “a supply chain of information for applications coming from databases.”

In a nutshell, InfoSphere moves data from one application to another, in a streamlined, effective and managed manner. Consider information stored in an enterprise resource program (ERP) or in a customer relationship management (CRM) program. Sitting there, it is interesting, but without further analysis (in this case, transferred to an analytics program such as Cognos), it isn’t as valuable as it could be.

Before the data is transferred to a different database, however, it should be recognized as being valid. At this stage, Sweeney is quick to highlight the significance of business trust. While “trust” is commonly associated as being important between people, it applies to technology as well. The applications must have a significant amount of trust associated with the data, thereby rendering it valuable.

Contributing to an application’s security in data is its ability to ‘see’ where the data originated, and the path it took to reach the application in question. Sweeney was quick to point out that information can stem from a variety of sources – Oracle, IBM, etc. The important part is being able to trace its origins.

To understand the data, InfoSphere assesses it first. This activity is called, ‘data profiling’. Profiling includes inspecting the data understand and assess which problems are likely to occur in different scenarios.

InfoSphere assesses both the quality of the data and the database (the original and the intended receiver.) With the knowledge of potential pitfalls and successes, the risk of changing programs is manageable.

Once the data – and the databases – are deemed ‘good’, InfoSphere moves the data. This is where InfoSphere provides its key benefits. It, “enables any movement methods, [using] the right tool for the right job,” states Sweeney, by focusing on two critical pieces, the database and master data.

New for 2008/2009 to the InfoSphere suite, are four main components in:Foundation Tools, Master Data Management (MDM), Information Server and Traceability Server.

1. Foundation Tools: Enhancements are, “designed to provide environments to understand what data you have, glossary of business terms, encyclopaedia of terms & data”, explains Sweeney. The tools not vendor-specific, nor are they vendor-specific.

2. Master Data Management: MDM provides a central repository for the organization’s data, enabling rapid deployment, data analysis and data transfer.

3. Information Server: provides the “mechanism to move information,” describes Sweeney. As an example, it drives the move of data between an Oracle server to IBM’s Cognos server for analysis. This move, when completed by Information Server, is done in an optimal fashion. “Information server optimizes the move, identifying which tasks should be completed by each server,” describes Sweeney, thereby providing both the fastest and the most efficient movement of data.

4. Traceability Server: “Tracks physical goods in a supply chain,” explains Sweeney. For products with a high value, traceability server provides the ability to manage costs. For the public sector, the enhancements enable “business improvement processes,” over previous versions. Two common ways to track products are RFID tags or bar codes, and “IBM will support either sensor network to trace the goods,” explains Sweeney. Industries which use traceability server include automotive, “tracking parts from sub assembly through to OEM,” and the food industry, “to certify food supply characteristics,” explains Sweeney. Cognos provides the overall dashboard view of the information.

When considering the installation of InfoSphere, the initiative must come from business drivers. Three of the most common drivers include mergers and acquisitions, where “multiple businesses must be integrated to provide a single view of the business.” Another common driver is found on the sales side of the business. “Multi channel sales models, i.e. online and physical, [challenge] inventory management practices,” Sweeney said.

Consider one model selling products, and the other accepting returns, but the two not working together. The third common business driver is cost reduction. The more efficiency an IT department can, “move data between channels,” comments Sweeney, the more costs are under control.

The go-to-market strategy for InfoSphere currently involves IBM Global Services working with large, global organizations such as Accenture or InfoSys. IBM provides “black belts” in the technology – some of which are from its Markham, Ont.-based software lab – to provide technical expertise as necessary.

InfoSphere’s key takeaway is that it “manipulates and delivers the information,” states Sweeny. There is a growing need for this ability, he suggests, as organizations look to optimize their IT infrastructure, as well as better understand, use, and increase the value of the data on hand. This represents a shifting demand from customers, a demand IBM is responding to, and an opportunity for its partner community to increase customer service levels and product portfolios.

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