IBM's Visual Warehouse for Windows NT (VWNT) addresses information distribution problems for organizations with lots of data--especially for organizations that distribute data across databases on different platforms (mainframes, UNIX systems, PC clusters, etc.). VWNT uses a database-warehouse (see, "Database Warehousing,") approach to provide information to users, and it includes IBM's DB2 database software. Because IBM's DB2 database server is the backbone of IBM's database offerings on all its hardware platforms, this inclusion comes as no surprise. Although VWNT is relatively new, DB2 has a solid track record.

The Core
VWNT consists of five main parts: DB2, VWNT desktop, VWNT server, VWNT agent, and DataGuide. DB2 is a full copy of IBM's DB2 database server for NT. DB2 is necessary for the VWNT and the DataGuide databases it uses. NT can mine information from a variety of databases, including DB2, Oracle, Sybase, and Microsoft SQL Server. NT can also use nonrelational databases, such as Internet Mail Server (IMS) and MVS flat files, as data sources. Check IBM's Web site (http://www.ibm.com) for an extensive list of database sources.

The VWNT desktop is the front-end application that manages the VWNT database (as shown in Screen 1). This database holds source database information (also called tables or files), destination database information (also called business views, as shown in Screen 2), extraction procedures, schedules (as shown in Screen 3) and other related information.

The desktop component manages the VWNT server which, in turn, coordinates one or more VWNT agents. These agents extract information from the source databases (as shown in Screen 4). Destination databases are DB2, and the VWNT desktop shows these agents (as shown in Screen 5).

DataGuide maintains a meta-directory for VWNT. You can have the extraction tools automatically create it. In brief, DataGuide helps users find information in the warehouse. DataGuide includes both user and manager aspects, which let managers limit user access to information. As noted, DB2 databases store all of the DataGuide information.

After VWNT puts information into the destination database, a client application can use it. Clients typically use Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) to access business views, but clients can use any tool, such as Microsoft Access, to access the destination database. DataGuide lets database managers organize databases in groups, so users can easily select, drill down in, and use databases. In addition, you can associate predefined queries and reports with DataGuide entries, which lets you access information even without front-end applications.

These five VWNT components can run on a single server, but administrators usually distribute them among servers in a much larger network. For example, an agent might be on a corporate network where it can access source databases at high speeds and send consolidated and summarized information to a branch office over a low-speed communications link. Similarly, you can distribute destination databases so they can send one extraction to many locations--this capability is handy with temporary or low-speed connections to remote sites and when the extraction occurs at night during low utilization.

VWNT comes with Lotus Approach 96 for Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 (it also runs on NT). Approach 96 is a database front-end application that uses ODBC to access information. Approach can also use DB2 client software to directly access DB2 servers. Approach 96 supports queries. It also supports scripting through LotusScript and SQL Assistant for creating stored queries. The Approach package includes a single copy for the database manager, and you must buy additional licenses for end users.

VWNT's performance depends on the source and destination database servers and their location on the network with respect to the VWNT agent. The VWNT server uses TCP/IP to communicate with its agents, and both the server and agents run on NT Server systems. Many database managers consolidate large databases infrequently and coordinate this task with other events, including backup. VWNT's agent and server performance usually do not come into play here because the time needed to process the data is much greater than placing the results into the destination database.

Installation and Documentation
VWNT is definitely a tool for the seasoned database manager. Patience and a knack for reading are a plus when working with IBM's documentation and installation procedures. Follow the installation procedures to the letter, and your system will be running in a few hours. If you dive right in, you may need to call tech support.

VWNT's printed documentation focuses on low-level installation and planning. Only the Lotus Approach documentation targets end users. The documentation assumes database managers will present customized access and operation information or instruction to users. This assumption means database managers will have added work, but this requirement is not unreasonable given the variety of environments in which you can use VWNT. Still, IBM needs to provide a Web-based overview and tutorial. The product has online documentation, but its depth varies from detailed to superficial. And VWNT doesn't offer one coordinating online document or accessible printed user documentation.

VWNT installation and configuration require many steps. Installation wizards are accessible throughout, but one wizard for the whole product does not exist. You must install DB2 first, followed by VWNT, and then DataGuide. You install VWNT agents and underlying communication support only once, but installation can be complicated for someone not familiar with databases, communications, and NT Server.

VWNT includes sample database sources and database warehouse business views, and I recommend that managers work with these tools extensively before using VWNT with real data. Although the samples are small compared with databases in real installations, they are large enough to require about an hour to install them after a complete installation of VWNT.

Don't expect VWNT to drop into place in a couple days. Proper planning and installation can take weeks or even months. Aspects such as network bandwidth utilization might not show themselves until well after installation. VWNT provides statistical information about its internal operation, such as how long an extraction takes. You can combine this information with network monitoring information to solve complex loading problems.

Pros and Cons
VWNT's ability to work with almost every major database server means that you'll want to consider it for any installation needing a database warehouse, regardless of where the data currently resides. VWNT can consolidate information from a variety of sources, making it the ideal interface between legacy systems and easy-to-use, front-end database applications such as Lotus Approach.

VWNT's cost of nearly $25,000 is low for a warehouse product, but more than the database server's price. VWNT is obviously not a solution for one database server in a small organization however if your organization depends on information, VWNT is definitely worth considering. Also consider IBM's consulting services if you are new to database warehousing.

VWNT is a workhorse in its present state, but IBM could improve its documentation and installation through Web integration tools. VWNT can probably handle any database warehouse job you throw at it. The hard part is figuring out what data you want and then implementing the VWNT business views.

Visual Warehouse 1.0
Contact: IBM * 520-574-4600 or 800-426-3333
Web: http://www.ibm.com
Price: less than $25,000
System Requirements: Windows NT Server 4.0