Whether you call it data, information, or content, one thing is clear: We're drowning in it. Everywhere you look across the enterprise, pockets of information exist that are inaccessible to most people in the company. And yet many people could benefit from the knowledge those packets of data represent.
This has always been a problem, but it was supposed to become more manageable thanks to the Internet. In truth, the Internet seems to have exacerbated the problem more than it has helped.
Rather than having a few islands of information where large amounts of data resided, we now have thousands of little islands of information residing in Web servers distributed across the enterprise.
In theory, it should be easier to link Web servers to create a unified view of that data versus trying to achieve that task across multiple mainframes and minicomputers.
But few people realistically have time to do this, and the tools to accomplish the task are just now becoming available.
So as we look forward, there are two trends on the horizon that would seem to offer us some hope: CMSs (content management systems) and Web services.
The next generation of CMSs will not only make greater use of XML but will also be enterprise-class offerings. If you look at most CMSs today, they are optimised around managing a handful of Web sites at best, and most of them still require a lot of programmer intervention to accomplish a given set of tasks.
Yet any large company in business today has hundreds if not thousands of intranets installed - wherein lies the problem. And very rarely is any kind of standard in place for a CMS. As a result, most companies typically have multiple incompatible CMSs in place.
The good news is that we are seeing companies such as IBM, Merant, Computer Associates and others bringing to market the first generation of enterprise-class content management systems.
These offerings, in turn, are putting pressure on the more established players in this space, such as Vignette, to think about CMSs on a grander scale. In effect, what's required is a CMS capable of managing others so that content can be more easily replicated throughout the enterprise. In concept, this is a little different than the idea of having a metadirectory capable of managing the other directories residing in individual applications.
The second good thing happening is the whole concept of Web services. If you look at most corporate portal applications, they will be the delivery mechanisms for Web services across the enterprise. We will see companies such as Epicentric, Plumtree and IBM position their portal offerings as platforms capable of pulling together diverse Web services that can be delivered to end users via a centrally managed portal.
Better yet, most of these portal applications will function as supersets of other portals designed to be Web services in their own right. This means a portal application could actually be comprised of multiple portals, which are calling on specific Web services written in Java, C#, or any other language for that matter.
There is a reason why all this matters: Rather than building and distributing several sets of the same data and applications across the enterprise, it will become a lot easier to build something once and then make it widely available, so not every business unit has to build its own e-billing application or create its own customer database. The mantra should be, "Build once and use everywhere."
It's still too early to say if the providers of corporate portals should merge with the CMS providers. But clearly, these technologies are joined at the hip. And deploying one without the other is simply a half-measure.
In the meantime, there's actually cause to be optimistic about data management, which for time immemorial has been a phrase that was little more than another in a long list of computer industry oxymorons.
Michael Vizard is Editor-in-Chief of Silicon-Valley Infoworld. Contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org