Customer data integration evolves to customer hubs, says Forrester

The customer data integration market is moving toward customer hubs, according to Forrester's latest ranking of the top vendors.

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Many customer data integration (CDI) efforts focus too much on technical infrastructure -- and not enough on making information useful to consuming applications, according to Forrester Research Inc.

That's why the Cambridge, Mass.-based analyst firm's latest study of CDI vendors, the Forrester Wave for Customer Hubs, promotes a new term. "Customer hubs" move beyond traditional CDI because they collect and package data in a way that other subscribing systems can use, according to R. "Ray" Wang, study author and senior analyst with Forrester. CDI, in the traditional sense, just focuses on the technical acquisition, cleansing and management of customer information -- while customer hubs take the concept a step further by better preparing data for use by source systems.

"CDI is a very infrastructure-oriented way of looking at the world," Wang said. "A customer hub looks at business processes, event triggers and how the data can be rearranged for use in a different system."

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Customer hubs must find a middle ground between functions historically provided by either infrastructure players or more customer-focused products, Wang said. Infrastructure players have focused on the technical aspects of integrating customer data, such as data models, acquisition, cleansing, integration, synchronization, metadata management and architecture. Customer-focused products have enabled improved use of information by systems with features like hierarchy management, data stewardship interfaces and event management.

Ultimately, packaged customer hubs should do it all -- combining data cleansing, matching and management with integrated stewardship and administration, though few vendors offer that today, Wang said. These hubs must also support various use cases, balancing intelligent consumption, or how systems and processes will use data, versus transactional maintenance, which emphasizes infrastructure and processing efficiencies.

Ranking the customer data integration vendors

The study ranked nine vendors based on many criteria, including the breadth and depth of their packaged software (no hosted services were considered), their ability to provide 10 or more reference customers and interest from Forrester clients. The study noted that "some vendors, such as SAS DataFlux and Cordys, were not invited nor included" due to minimal interest from clients.

The four vendors in the "leaders" category can claim "true customer hub status," according to the study. The IBM WebSphere Customer Center, based on the acquisition of DWL, earned the top spot for its Web services architecture, product strategy and market presence. San Mateo, Calif.-based Siperian Inc.'s Hub XT lacks market share but is probably the strongest from a technical perspective, Wang said, considering its flexible data model design, hierarchy management and recently added business-to-consumer support. Another leader, Chicago-based Initiate Systems Inc. has some of the best data match/merge facilities, he said, as well as new business-to-business (B2B) hierarchy management features that won it a deal with Microsoft. And finally, Oracle-Siebel UCM 7.8 has held its ground and continues to evolve, despite the acquisition pains.

In the next category of "strong performers," the sole .NET-friendly product, Glasgow, Scotland, U.K.-based VisionWare plc's MultiVue, scored well, though it has low market presence. The small vendor has lots of momentum in public-sector sales and one of the "hottest products in the .NET space," but Wang said it will need to expand its features and support databases other than Microsoft SQL Server to become a leader. Another smaller vendor's product, Redwood City, Calif.-based Purisma Inc.'s Data Hub, got high marks for rapid deployment times and good hierarchy management, though it also lacks in market share, the study found. Oracle's Customer Data Hub (CDH) is also a strong performer, Wang said, and fares well with B2B organizations seeking Dun & Bradstreet integration and hierarchy management. Rounding out the category, SAP's MDM tool is gaining ground in its install base.

The "contender" section included only Short Hills, N.J.-based Dun & Bradstreet Inc., the sole vendor that provides a customer hub along with trusted B2B data. While it has made significant advancements, it will need data model extensibility and hierarchy management to move to the "strong performers" category, the study said.

Advice for customer data integration buyers

Every product has its sweet spots, and decisions should have more to do with a good organizational and technical fit than where a vendor appears in the study, Wang said. For example, financial services providers may look first to IBM, Initiate or Siebel, while .NET users should evaluate VisionWare. Siebel customers are likely candidates for the UCM product, while heavy Oracle shops might choose CDH. And, though master data management (MDM) is inevitable for most organizations, Wang advised buyers to first focus on smaller domains such as customer or product.

"While everyone is moving toward an MDM solution in general, it's very hard to implement that kind of change across an organization. Starting with a smaller target like customer or product is a good way to make sure that you will ultimately succeed," Wang said.

As products evolve, Wang also said that preference management and policies will be even more important, given the growing privacy regulations. Event management will also be an important capability, he said, because it helps subscribing systems make better user of customer data.

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