Mashups are poised for a business outbreak

It started slowly. First, one person in Mexico got sick. Then another. Then more. The culprit? A strain of influenza commonly known as swine flu. But before it was identified, folks returning from that country were unwittingly bringing the deadly flu back to their homelands.
As fear of a pandemic grew, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) needed to get a handle on outbreaks of the H1N1 virus. One of the tools of their disposal was a software mashup, created by IBM, that brings together the CDC’s reporting data with Google Maps.

“The mashup could see where the outbreaks are in different regions of the country,” said Rod Smith, vice president of IBM’s emerging Internet technologies unit. “A business can now share that mashup with its stores and regions so they can see what’s going on with it, and the CDC can share it with state services, maybe to see what other health facilities or health products are out there.”

When mashups first picked up steam as a mainstream technology, they were essentially a neat way to squeeze together two different pieces of data into one entity. For instance, information about an outdoor music festival could be mashed with a weather application, or Google Maps could be combined with customer data from, so a sales rep could look at the account and see a map of how to get to the client.

Along the way, certain software companies got involved in the mashup game and boasted enterprise mashups, which focus more on helping businesses try to accomplish tasks at a faster pace. Businesses can use them for IT issues, production environment change tracking, auditing and various other recurring business processes.

The question, though, is have mashups actually been adopted on the enterprise-level on a wide scale, or are they still just a neat technology to tinker with?

Mashups have gone “from cool to useful,” said John Crupi, CTO of enterprise mashup software provider JackBe. It took some time for business users to realize the value in viewing data from multiple sources in one place, and to see mashups as something more than eye candy.

“You may see data being mashed together from three different sources, and it’s not visually exciting, but the businesspeople are jumping up and down,” Crupi said. “Does that mashup demo well? For that company it does. But at a conference, it doesn’t look glitzy and cool.”

Another executive who said mashups are leaving the “neat” phase was IBM’s Smith. IBM offers Mashup Center, a mashup platform for assembling Web applications from IT requirements, and WebSphere sMash, a dynamic scripting environment for building Web 2.0-based applications and mashups. Smith said business mashups are driven by companies wanting to see how quickly their data can be mashed up.

“People want to make their content mashable and see that content utilized in different scenarios,” Smith said.

Clay Richardson, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, said mashups from a business process standpoint are a “novel idea,” but not many companies are adopting them. However, he said the economic downturn will accelerate the adoption of mashups because a lot of companies are looking for software that can quickly put a business process together. Richardson said Forrester hasn’t seen a great deal of business users yet, but he predicted that usage of process mashups will increase dramatically in the next year.

“There’s a lot of value in process mashups for the business because you can quickly get these processes out that traditionally had to go the big BPM development route,” Richardson said. “Every process doesn’t have to be a big, continual process improvement.”

One company that said it relies heavily on enterprise mashups is Financial Engines, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based retirement planning company. Financial Engines uses Serena Software’s Business Mashup suite for tasks such as getting legal approval of documents, monitoring transactions with clients, and reviewing mutual funds, stocks and bonds.

Matthew Todd, chief security officer of Financial Engines, said enterprise mashups bring several benefits to all parts of an organization. Teams using them directly get an agreed-upon “enforced business flow,” while team managers will know what mashups are being used and how many IT tasks need to be carried out.

Additionally, IBM worked with Cisco to create a widget that connects to Cisco’s surveillance cameras. IBM connected that widget to an application that allows security guards to notify company executives and others immediately if something suspicious happens.

Forrester’s Richardson said that in a business setting, mashups can mainly help with departmental activities like IT requests and human resources. For instance, when a company hires a new employee, a mashup can help multiple departments coordinate to set up a new employee's salary and benefits.

One task for which Richardson said he wouldn’t use mashups is expense reporting, because it is a complex process. A great deal of coding and business rules can go into expense reporting, and mashups are better suited for less complex tasks.

Kyle Arteaga, a spokesman for Serena, talked about how there was a great deal of hype around mashups in early 2008, with data and presentation mashups garnering attention in the technology world. Since then, Serena has seen growing interest in business mashups.

“Mashups that are restricted to mashing data and presentations, ones that aggregate information and present it to a user, I find that those aren’t really much more than neat,” Arteaga said. “I think there’s a huge opportunity—and where people are going way beyond neat—when the mashup platform they use has some notion of process.”

BY Jeff Feinman

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