When customers input their user name and password at Comcast.com, their accounts are usually authenticated in a matter of seconds. In the blink of an eye, customers can navigate their accounts, purchase new services and change contact information.
What most customers probably don't know is that behind the scenes, data federation technology is what makes it all possible.
While data federation, also called data virtualization and Information-as-a-Service (IaaS), is not new, it has mainly been thought of as technology to supplement existing data warehouses. But as the technology matures, vendors like Composite Software and IBM are extending its use to more complex scenarios.
Comcast, for example, has developed a virtualized data service layer using data federation technology. When a user logs on to Comcast.com, the service layer calls out to multiple sources, including a billing directory and Oracle databases, and integrates the data needed to authenticate the customer's request, according to Craig Richards, manager of directory services at Comcast.
Because it's a virtualized data layer, there is no need to create a new database to store the customer data. The data virtualization technology makes calls to Comcast's databases only as needed. This is similar to data federation's more common use case, supplementing existing data warehouses, thus precluding the need to partition new data marts.
The company has been using the technology from Composite Software for the last two years. Previously, Comcast divvied up responsibility for its customer account authentication business between an internal group and a third-party outsourcer, Richards said. The result was an inefficient process that sometimes left customers waiting for more than just a couple of seconds to gain access to their account.
"You have maybe a second, two seconds at the outside that a customer is going to be satisfied," he said. "We have to keep performance at the best level that we possibly can."
But implementing the technology was not without its challenges.
"It's not a perfect match, and we did have to do some configuration changes with Composite's help," Richards said. "The application we're using this for is a little different than Composite is used to."
Comcast had to build a user interface for its billing directory, for example, and other tuning of the technology was needed to retrieve data. But Composite was "very responsive" to his needs, he said. Most bugs were fixed within 24 hours.
Data federation, data virtualization market growing rapidly
The data federation market currently stands at around $3.3 billion, according to Forrester Research. But the Cambridge, Mass.-based analyst firm expects that figure to grow to $6.7 billion by 2012 as vendors continue to extend and refine the use cases for data federation, as Composite did at Comcast.
In addition to Composite, the market is currently dominated by an eclectic mix of enterprise software vendors. Mega-vendors IBM and Microsoft each offer various forms of data federation technology, for example, while smaller vendors like Informatica and Denodo Technologies are holding their own as well.
Forrester analyst Noel Yuhanna believes, however, that the current independent vendors are likely to be acquisition targets over the next 12 months.
"Over the next year, we are likely to see further market consolidation targeting smaller, specialized IaaS vendors such as Composite software, Denodo Technologies and Radiant Logic that continue to extend their solutions," Yuhanna wrote in a recent report.
At Comcast, Richards hopes to extend the use of data federation even further in the near future. He is currently exploring how the technology could help the company authenticate users between different devices, such as mobile phones and set-top boxes. And he plans to use data federation in its more traditional role to assist in reporting against Comcast's many databases.
Improved website functionality facilitated by data federation has already reduced the number of calls Comcast receives for customer support, Richards said. And the company no longer has to pay a third-party outsourcer for support.
"It's definitely saving us money," he said.