EII: A database of databases

Enterprise Information Integration (EII) allows a company to create a single view of the information located in all its databases

The lifeblood of Merrill Lynch is the information that the investment bank has collected about its clients, trades, investment products and stock prices. Trouble is, that information is scattered across four separate databases, and brokers can't get a clear view of all the information they need for vital activities such as trade execution and risk management.

So the company uses enterprise information integration software to create a single view of the information located in all four of its databases. The software, from vendor MetaMatrix, creates a "virtual" data warehouse that apparently gives users the illusion that all the data is located in one place.

Enterprise Information Integration (EII) is designed to give companies real-time access to information that's stored across multiple applications, databases and data warehouses. It's an emerging technology -- Aberdeen Group puts current spending on EAI at less than $200m (£107m) a year -- but one that's growing fast.

What is Enterprise Information Integration?

1. A directory. This 'database about databases' contains information about data stored in the databases, and the information stored in each database's data dictionary and information about data shared across databases.
2. Conversion capability. An EII product must often convert incoming data from non-relational to relational format or from relational to object format. When updates to back-end databases are involved, the EII must also convert the common format back into the target database's format.
3. A database veneer. To the user, and if possible to the developer and administrator, the EII solution must look like a single database. Therefore, EII products must support standard SQL and querying transactions.
4. Front and back-end communications. The EII will have a method of communicating with front-end programs and with users. It should also be able to send transactions to, and receive results from, back-end databases.


During the next two years, Aberdeen analyst Wayne Kernochen expects EII functionality to be offered by an increasing number of portal, enterprise application integration (EAI) and business intelligence vendors, creating a $7.5bn market by 2006. 

Driving that growth is the entry of IBM into the information integration market. IBM's DB2 Information Integrator is the third generation of data integration products, which provide access to structured and unstructured content across multiple platforms. IBM's presence is seen as a positive factor by smaller, startup EII suppliers. "We're happy for IBM to spend the marketing dollars and for us to get the benefit," says David Penney, European managing director of EII startup MetaMatrix. "IBM is broadening the market for everyone."

Other new entrants to the market include SAP, which has licensed MetaMatrix' technology for its NetWeaver integration platform. In addition, Group 1 Software purchased Enosys in 2003 and continues to market its EII technology.

How does it work?
EII uses metadata to create a virtual database that provides a single view of information residing in multiple sources, explains Phillip Russom, an analyst with Giga Information Group. In a business environment, this could mean your call centre agents could submit a single query to the EII platform and get a result that incorporates relational data from a DB2 database, email from Lotus Notes, images from Documentum and spreadsheet data from Microsoft Excel.

"The key characteristic of EII is that it lets you access a view of data as if it were physically located in a single database, whereas it might be from a number of sources," says Russom. "The user only sees a single set of data because the integration is done transparently by the EII technology, along with all the security, data integrity and query optimisation."

The benefit of all of this for IT departments is that it improves efficiency. EII allows companies to get real-time operating data from multiple systems with minimum effort. In-house testing at IBM indicated that its EII tool can cut the time taken to hand-code programs by as much as 65 percent.

Moreover, EII can dramatically increase both speed and flexibility. "EII fetches data in real-time as it is needed, rather than requiring a complicated data movement process," explains Russom. "Also, because EII relies on virtual metadata constructs, it's possible to create new views of data very quickly, to cope with evolving business requirements."

As with any emerging market, not everyone agrees on precisely what constitutes EII, and there is some confusion as to how EII differs from other data integration tools. For example, data extraction and transformation tools are used to aggregate huge volumes of batch data into data warehouses; and EAI is widely used to pull together data from multiple sources.

EII and EAI: What's the difference?
While there is certainly some overlap between EAI and EII, Aberdeen Group's Kernochen says the two technologies are ultimately complementary. "EAI picks up data associated with an application and places it into another database associated with another application. What EII does it provide a database-management veneer to all of those databases," says Kernochen.

Actual deployments of EII technology are still relatively hard to track down. In the UK, one of the earliest deployments is at the Ministry of Defence, which is using software from MetaMatrix to provide a single view of its complex and long supply chain. In the US, telecoms giant Verizon uses EII software to provide customer-service staff with a single view of customer data.

Kernochen argues that most mid-sized and large enterprises stand to benefit from EII technology. "The potential of EII is enormous for companies with lots of data on the desktops, a data warehouse, a couple of Web sites and half a dozen databases," he says. "What EII does is give you more value from that data by giving users the ability to ask questions of all the data, across all of those systems." Kernochen's own dream EII application is simple enough: "Imagine how powerful it would be if Amazon could combine its recommendations with its supply-chain data and tell me when books by my favourite authors are about to come out," he says.