BEA aims for a splash with business info

With its Liquid Data project, the software maker wants to uncork information that's been bottled up across corporate computing systems.

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Hoping to tap into an emerging and potentially lucrative market--and gain an edge over competitors--BEA later this year will unveil new business software that makes it simpler and faster to find information strewn throughout a corporate computing system.

The software, code-named Liquid Data, glues together all types of business information stored in various locations, allowing people to search and view that data as if it were stored in one location. That in turn, gives companies quicker access to important business information, said BEA Chief Executive Alfred Chuang.

With the move, BEA will tackle a problem that every major software maker--notably Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and Sybase, along with startups such as Alta Technology and Nimble Technology--is trying to solve: how to quickly find and access data, no matter what its format, stored anywhere on a network. It is a market that market research firm Aberdeen Group expects will reach $7.5 billion in revenue in 2003.

The problem is as old as the computer industry itself. Despite years of development in database and infrastructure software, it's still difficult--and sometimes impossible--to search across a corporate network for all e-mails, documents and spreadsheets related to a specific project, for instance. Searching through video, audio and image files is kludgy at best.

"So why is everyone trying to do this? It's an age-old problem: Old data never goes away. It hangs around forever. So as you keep adding new applications and new databases, it gets more complex to try to make information integrate," said Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Giga Information group. "Customers today have a concern with the difficulty in doing data integration. Its complexity is always an obstacle. It's in the interest of IBM, BEA and others to remove those obstacles."

BEA is currently testing its software with customers and expects to release a product in the third or fourth quarter of this year, Chuang said. A BEA spokesman said pricing and packaging details have not yet been determined.

Liquid Data is "software to go out and explore what you have in data. It's a virtual 'data warehouse' that you can assemble on the fly," said Chuang in an interview with CNET News.com. A data warehouse is a central corporate repository for data.

Tough road ahead
While analysts give BEA's Liquid Data plan high marks, the software maker will face its toughest competition yet, as it attempts to establish the new product in the market.

BEA is the market leader for application server software, which is used as a foundation for e-commerce and other software applications. But growth in the application server market is beginning to slow. In fact, IDC recently lowered its projections for the market, from sales of $17.9 billion to $3.9 billion, in 2005.

Faced with increasing competition, BEA has diversified into three areas: programming tools for building increasingly popular Web services software; portal software for building Web systems for employees, customers and business partners; and integration software, which allows companies to link dissimilar business software to share information. Liquid Data continues the company's expansion into the integration software market.

Analysts say BEA's growing product lineup will allow it to stay competitive against its bigger rivals. The company last week met Wall Street expectations by posting a profit of $25.9 million, or 6 cents per share, on revenue of $225.9 million. Revenue is expected to remain flat or grow slightly next quarter.

"We like BEA's strategy of aggressively increasing the breadth of its infrastructure software stack," said Lehman Brothers analyst Neil Herman, in a report. "We believe this multipronged attack, combined with database independence, should position the company solidly against both Java-focused vendors (IBM, Oracle, Sun) and, longer-term, Microsoft."

Chuang believes BEA can use take advantage of its market-leading application server position to capture a good chunk of the integration software market. Liquid Data, he said, will drive sales of BEA's portal software, which for example, can give workers a view of the information that Liquid Data aggregates together, such as sales or customer support information.

Liquid Data can glue together data from multiple databases; "flat files," such as Microsoft Word or Excel documents; XML documents. Through Web services, companies can even grab information from business partners.

"The task of building an application is made easier by simplifying the view of the data," said Gilpin. "Liquid Data gives an application a single, unified XML document that maps underneath to all data sources, so product information from SAP--information about pricing--could come from your database, and information about customer orders can come from trading partners."

Ace in the hole?
Chuang said Liquid Data will complement, not compete with, database software. That could be BEA's biggest advantage over other vendors that hope to use integration software to complement their core database products. If BEA positions itself as a neutral "Switzerland" in the integration market, working equally well with Oracle, IBM or Microsoft databases, it could have an edge.

"One advantage BEA has over the database vendors is they're not tied to any one database," said Michele Rosen, an analyst at IDC. "Data integration by definition is heterogeneous. There's some advantage to being database neutral."

All the major database makers--IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Sybase--are busy working on technology similar to Liquid Data. IBM has demonstrated its Xperanto data-integration technology that will work in conjunction with its DB2 database.

Microsoft late next year plans to release a new version of its SQL Server database, code-named Yukon, that integrates data from multiple sources and let people query that data as if it were in one single database. That same technology is expected to be included next year in the next major version of Windows, code-named Longhorn.

Sybase is planning to build similar data integration software. According to Oracle executives, that company already has some integration technology through products such as its TopLink tool for mapping Java software to databases and its Business Components for Java, which handles links to databases and other systems.

Among the technologies underpinning Liquid Data is XQuery, a proposed standard language for finding information in XML-based documents. The technology lets people see data almost immediately, allowing companies to make decisions faster. Currently, reports drawn from data warehouses can take a day or longer to assemble.

Rosen, the IDC analyst, said the companies are all attacking the same problem in a slightly different way. She said Liquid Data is important for BEA as it tries to expand out of its application server niche.

"(BEA) needs a data integration solution, given that they want to be perceived as a complete platform along the lines of an IBM, Oracle or Sun," Rosen said. "They don't want to be seen as just an application server vendor."