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Imagine the following two scenarios:

Scenario One:

Having left work on a Friday, a group of friends gathers for drinks at a local bar. On the spur of the moment one of them suggests going to see a movie and pulls out her PDA; its “always-on” Internet technology allows her to go straight to her favorite entertainment Web site, where she searches for last-minute seats in local cinemas.

After some heated discussion, the friends choose from the five shows that have seats available. Unfortunately, the link to the cinema seat layout shows all remaining seats have restricted views. They agree on a second choice (which is the subject of more debate) and this time find that there are four prime seats left, so they click to reserve them. Behind the scenes, the PDA manages the transfer of payment from the bank account to the cinema box office. Upon arriving at the theatre they use the PDA infrared connection to beam confirmation to a machine at the box office, and they get their tickets and go into the film. After the film they decide they want to eat, so they search for Italian restaurants within three miles of the theatre that have an average price of less than $25 per head and a table for four free in 15 minutes. Soon they are discussing the film over pasta and salad.

Scenario Two:

A sales rep from a large manufacturing supply company is in a meeting to close a large repeat order. Midmeeting, the customer raises an issue with the level of support they have been receiving from the supplier. The account manager for the supplier is pretty sure that this is a negotiation ploy and asks if the PC in the corner has an Internet connection. It does, and so he logs on to his company’s secure information portal over the Internet and looks up the customer’s information on his corporate “all around customer view” system.

The account rep sees that in the past six months there have been 75 contacts for this customer, but by selecting Support Calls from the drop-down list he sees that there have been 45 support incidents with an average resolution time of five days. The customer is about to say that a five-day response is unacceptable when the account manager narrows the report to just Severity 1 incidents, which are the ones that stop a critical business activity. There have been three Severity 1 incidents and for each incident the initial response has always been within 10 minutes; furthermore, all have been resolved within two hours. Suddenly the focus has moved from the deal at hand (which now seems a formality) to questions about how the client could put such a system in place.

Far from being science fiction, these scenarios are a glimpse into the near future. The information revolution sparked by the growth of the Internet has only just begun, and far from being a spent force, it will change our everyday lives more in the next five years than it has in the past five years.

In five years, always-on high-speed Internet connections to both handheld devices and domestic computers will be as commonplace as telephones are today. Using this connectivity to form robust information relationships (like those in the preceding scenarios) is something that will make or break not just some organizations or most organizations, but all organizations. The impact of the Internet on how information is shared means that it will be the norm to have a unified information infrastructure that can individually identify every employee, customer, supplier, and partner and provide them with a level of information and analysis that is uniquely appropriate to them.

Three main layers of technology are required to build a unified information infrastructure:

  • A relational database underlying every type of application. We are long past the point where there is universal agreement that applications of any significant size (Web or otherwise) need relational storage for their data.

  • A Web infrastructure layer comprising a Web server and an Application layer sitting atop the relational data store. (Incidentally, the two dominating Web application layer standards are J2EE engine and Microsoft’s .NET platform.)

  • The third layer, provided by Crystal Enterprise, is an information infrastructure. This scalable layer will securely manage the flow of information from any database platform over a Web infrastructure application and present it in a usable form to any end user or customer.

Although this third layer is not yet as universally accepted as a “required” enterprise technology, more and more companies are starting to realize that just as they would never dream of building their own database infrastructure or their Web infrastructure layer, they do not want to build their own information infrastructure, either. The ironic part is that portions of an information infrastructure are built every day in different organizational initiatives through various Web and Windows business applications. It seems that, regardless of the application, one consistent requirement is reading a database and providing useful information to an application end user based on that data.

One of the biggest mistakes organizations will make in the next few years when undertaking information delivery and reporting projects is underestimating the complexities in this third information management layer. One of the biggest reasons for making this mistake is convincing themselves that delivering information is easy; after all, the Web is all about open technology standards. How difficult can it be to use ASP and ADO or JSP and JDBC to build such a solution for yourself?

The answer is that initially, for a few simple requirements for a few users, building your own information delivery mechanism probably is not that difficult. However, the challenge of sharing information on a large scale is similar to an iceberg, where the challenges that loom beneath the water’s edge are much more ominous than the visible portion.

In a similar context, the information delivery portion of a project has many issues that initially either appear small or don’t get taken into account at all. Just like the iceberg, however much you prepare yourself to expect more hidden issues than you can currently think of, you can be overwhelmed at the number of issues that come across from initial development right through to ongoing system maintenance.

The following is a brief synopsis of some challenges many organizations face today when developing applications that do not leverage a reliable information infrastructure:

  • How do we keep the information in our application available all day, every day (fault tolerance)?

  • How will the application cope with more and more users over time (scalability through clustering)?

  • As we add more and more information, how will users still get their information in an acceptable time (report streaming)?

  • How will we provide secure information through our firewall and our customers’ firewalls (thin client HTTP-only delivery)?

  • What about the different security and skill levels of our application users (feature-based security levering open standards like LDAP and Kerberos)?

  • How do we allow nondevelopers to add information to the reporting system (separation of design and development)?

  • How do we give some users more analytic capabilities above basic reporting (adding OLAP analysis)?

  • What about the fact that some information needs to be up-to-the-second while other information needs to be prepared monthly (managing on-demand and prescheduled access)?

Crystal Enterprise is built on the same underlying Web technology standards you would use if you were tempted to build your own information platform, but it provides prebuilt answers to all the problems listed here and many more. Your organization can roll out these types of Internet survival systems many times faster and be assured that they can scale into the mission-critical systems they need to be.

This book provides a great insight into what should be expected of an information infrastructure, Crystal Enterprise, and the possibilities it can open up for your organization. Building highly available, multiuser information systems is never straightforward, but the Crystal family of products will provide you with a solid foundation and massive improvements in productivity. By reading this book (and implementing Crystal Enterprise), you will have taken another step into the new information age and begun a positive journey both for your career and your organization. Good luck!

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