Exploring data virtualization tools and technologies
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HealthNow New York Inc. has chosen Informatica data virtualization software over competing products from IBM and Composite -- primarily because it required less SQL coding and did a better job of enhancing the insurance provider's data quality strategy.
"One of the things that I didn't like about both IBM and Composite was that [they were] much more driven off of coding," said Rob Myers, an enterprise data warehouse solution architect with HealthNow. "It seemed like you had to write a lot of SQL or that it was really just generating SQL mappings instead of the kind of transformation engine that Informatica gives you."
But there are some areas where Informatica Data Services has room for improvement, Myers added. For one thing, he would like to see the software become more business user-friendly over time. That would make it easier for HealthNow business analysts to map data sources and create basic reports with information culled from virtual data marts.
Myers would also like Informatica to interoperate more seamlessly with enterprise service bus (ESB) technology from competing vendors. ESB technology serves as the backbone of a service-oriented architecture by providing a consistent view of services and hiding underlying application complexities.
"You've got to be able to talk to [message] queues," Myers said. "I know Informatica has been doing some stuff with queues, but [IBM MQ] is big in the ESB space and there are other players out there. I don't believe that that is where [Informatica] should be trying to compete. I think that would dilute their efforts."
Data quality workflow integration a deciding factor
Headquartered in Buffalo, HealthNow is a Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance provider for about 800,000 members in western New York. The company boasts about 2,500 employees, including a 30-member strong data management team.
HealthNow's IT shop runs mostly on IBM DB2, Microsoft SQL Server and Sybase database management software. The company also runs IBM Cognos business intelligence (BI) and Facets health plan administration software from The TriZetto Group Inc.
"I joined HealthNow three years ago now, and this was a very traditional ETL shop. There was no concept of doing data services yet," Myers said. "There was no SOA architecture, and there was no reference architecture, to be honest."
That all started to change about a year and a half ago, when Myers and his team began evaluating data federation and data virtualization technologies as part of an effort to get usable information to business analysts faster than in the past.
At the time, Informatica was reselling Composite Software as part of an original equipment manufacturer agreement and had just come out with its homegrown Informatica Data Services. The roadmap for Informatica Data Services looked promising, Myers said, but the deciding factor mostly had to do with Informatica's ability to incorporate data quality rules.
"Informatica was showing us that not only could we federate the data, but we could throw in some quality rules," Myers said. "We could profile the data and those rules can go right into the mappings. A developer could write out the mappings into a virtual data model. [They] could see and profile the data at each step."
Another big factor that led HealthNow to Informatica over IBM and Composite centered on the capability of the company to provide quality maintenance and support. HealthNow negotiated a deal with Informatica which stipulated that all service calls would go directly to folks in the know.
"They took us and said, 'We'll embed you with the [Informatica development] lab and we'll have people from the lab come out and see what you're doing and make sure it's right,' " Myers said. "'That was a good feeling."
The insurance company went live with Informatica Data Services about a year ago, and Myers said the main benefit of the software can be described in one word: speed.
The company now has the ability to quickly create virtual data marts that pull in data from disparate sources and can be accessed by business users. The process of creating a data mart can take as little as two days, Myers said. In the past, he said, the process of moving data around for business analysts could take months to complete.
HealthNow faces down data virtualization challenges
Data virtualization software packages have often met with skepticism from end-user organizations concerned about ensuring the security of sensitive information, according to a recent paper from Cambridge, Mass.-based IT analyst firm Forrester Research Inc.
But security was not a major concern at HealthNow, thanks to the company's highly fortified IT architecture. The company runs an IBM WebSphere DataPower appliance "in front" of Informatica Data Services, which provides the system with one level of security.
"The only people that can really get to [the data services tier] are other application developers," Myers said. "And if we're letting end users hit it through Cognos, we have the Cognos security level on top of that."
A bigger challenge for Myers was convincing HealthNow's data integration team that Informatica Data Services could be a stable environment. Myers overcame that obstacle by taking on a few small data virtualization projects and producing solid results.
"[It showed] that the environment was stable and also showed that [the data services] were reusable components that were trusted by the business to deliver the right data," he said. "[The components] could be reused on many new projects coming down the line."
Despite some minor problems that arose as a result of HealthNow's inexperience with data virtualization, the Informatica Data Services implementation was mostly painless, Myers said. The company had the system installed, configured and passing proof-of-concept tests within two months.
"You certainly could do it faster," Myers said. "But I think that, as with any good architecture team, we [spend a lot of time] evaluating the best use of certain technologies and the direction we want to go."