March 15, 1999

from the Friends-of-the-Revolution dept

Don’t Cry Over Spilled Data

by Brian Day

The Analogy...
I was recently in a meeting where a large services company was discussing a substantial Information Technology overhaul. At one point in the meeting the project manager said, "We haven't decided whether to use Oracle or SAP for the plumbing." I immediately started daydreaming about the plumbing analogy. Plumbing... hmmmm... Having a background in fluid dynamics made the analogy that much more fun.

Where was the data starting from?
Where was it going to?
What is the mass flow through the pipes?
How much back pressure should be applied?
Where should the information go?

The problem
An analogy can often be used to frame a problem. In this case using the plumbing analogy is a poor choice of frameworks. It leads the problem solver to focus on the routing problem like, "who should receive the data?" in the same way you might ask, "should we have a bathtub in the bedroom?" In the plumbing framework this is important since there are materials (money) needed to attach each additional node, and there is an overall problem of water pressure. The whole system must be planned first in order to insure proper water pressure at each point (depletable resources).

While true for atoms, it does not apply to bits. Assuming the information source is on a WAN or the Internet there is little or no additional cost to expose data to all network nodes, and as long as you are not exposing your data to a large site like Yahoo! or CNN there is no considerable pressure drop when serving 100 or 100,000 nodes (bits are non-depletable).

Sources and Sinks
While there are irreconcilable differences in fluid and data flow, I started thinking that a better analogy might be a flat plane with a series of sprouting water sources (maybe of different color) and any number of holes (or sinks) in the plane that fluid could fall through. Aerodynamicists use these sources and sinks to describe a flow pattern. Think of the sources as corporate data warehouses, and the sinks as the different departments, suppliers, or customers. This framework tries not to solve what routing problem ("Who should get what?") but rather how can we make it easy for people wanting information to get it ("What data is being stored and how does one connect to it?").

Let my data go...
In the past is was difficult to connect disparate enterprise applications, so using the plumbing analogy was appropriate since "pipes" (middleware) would have to be built to connect various systems. Today, data-standards in the form of the eXtensible Markup Language (XML) are creating a language which all applications can speak, allowing data to be shared with little or no additional cost. Companies like Allaire, Vingette, Web Methods, and Xtricity, are creating innovative products that allow companies to essentially create open APIs (sources) for their back-end systems. Data will be set free to be used where it is needed and appreciated. Now if they could only get Charlton Heston to do the commercials.

Friends of the Revolution
by Brian Day

A column that comes out every so often, and talks about something or another...

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