Almost every week we read the latest figures on exploding corporate uptake of the Intranet. But dig deeper, and we find that the primary use of these closed Internets is internal communications such as email. Similarly with the much touted Extranet - the extension of the private Net to customers and partners. But if corporations are to invest millions of pounds and gain serious competitive advantage from the Intranet and the associated shift of computing approaches, they will want to do more with it than just exchange memos. If the progress of the Intranet is to be sustained, serious business applications must be successfully deployed by the pioneers, or the dominance of client/server will hardly be dented.
The announcement by retail giant Safeway that it is to move all its applications to network computers linked across the Intranet to servers indicates how the market may go. The supermarket chain?s programme is radical - it is to replace 800 PCs this year with NCs and migrate decision support and office applications, followed by some transaction processing. It is using its wholesale architecture rethink as an excuse to introduce new policies on IT, notably that everyone in any kind of decision making role, however junior, should have business intelligence tools on their desks. Safeway believes that the NC approach makes this practical by lowering the cost and complexity of installing sophisticated tools across the company.
Most corporations that want to go beyond email are likely to look to decision support and office applications for their next move towards the Intranet. Surveys, such as recent one from BT, indicate that they are still nervous about entrusting their critical OLTP functions to an architecture that puts such heavy demands on the network and that relies on a browser interface that many IT traditionalists still regard as flaky. But decision support and office are less business critical, and lend themselves to the NC approach - mass deployment with low cost of ownership and training, but with tight central control from the server.
The software companies that take advantage of the trend will be those that offer companies a comfortable migration path from client/server to thin client/fat server and Intranet. John Morley, European head of Brio, claims this is why his company?s business intelligence suite has been selected by Safeway for its overhaul of corporate decision making. It can operate in client/server mode for those users who already have powerful PCs while new users are started off with the Web version on an NC. Then migration between the two should be relatively painless.
"Business intelligence is now the major driver of the Web," he continued. "There is pressure on the IT department to delivery more functionality for less money in less time, and the Web helps them do this. He claims virtually all new sales of the toolset have at least some Web components. "Most clients have a Web server in place and want a small amount of client/server with the majority of deployment via the Web," he said. The advantages to corporates are low cost of training and maintenance, ease of upgrading software and the ability to support remote and mobile users.
There are still good reasons to stick with at least some client/server for decision support though. Some functions are still not feasible with Web-based tools, such as handling of certain specialised report types and data models. Joining data sets from different databases also requires reasonable client horsepower, so that hefty PCs are necessary for power users and for systems staff creating new views of data. There are also some performance issues when accessing relational databases via the Web server when carrying out complex tasks, admits Morley, who believes companies should stick to a mixture of Web and client/server models for the foreseeable future.
Buyers also need to watch out for companies promising Web-enabled tools that have limited functions - for instance, some can publish results via the Web but actual processing, such as creating new reports, cannot be done in this way and still requires significant PC horsepower.
In other words, as with most technical advances, users must ensure the new approach suits their needs rather than following fashion. But it does seem the Web and NCs will be important in achieving what decision support vendors have talked about for years - getting serious tools out to a far wider section of the corporate population.
Netscape appears to have taken the view that business intelligence is key to the uptake of its browser technology too. It has formed an alliance with decision support tools makers,including Micro Strategy, Arbor, Brio and Business Objects, to support a core set of standards in this area. Together with Sun and Brio, Netscape will host an international seminar series to promote data warehouse and Olap solutions based on these Web standards. "Providing business intelligence across the enterprise means bringing together the best of the client/server and Web-based worlds," commented Chris Grejtak, vice president of marketing at Brio.
On the office front, Corel is pinning many of its future hopes on its early start in the NC/Java-based office applications field. It hopes to set out its stall in this area while chief rival Microsoft still hesitates, torn between the desire to remain ubiquitous and reluctance to see the higher margins and greater control that it enjoys in the Wintel market shrivel away.
And shrivel away they will, if Frank Gens, senior vice president of research at IDC, is to be believed. Gens, in his keynote address at this week?s IDG Global Summit in Istanbul, predicted that the Wintel dominance will be broken by 2005 and powerful PCs processing large amounts of applications and data on the desktop will be a small minority in the corporate world. The clear candidate to take its place, Gens believes, is the NC.
However, before companies get too excited about casting off the Microsoft lock-in, Gens warned that there will be a new lock-in - at the Web server level.
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