You know Semantic Web technologies are going mainstream when the company that is so closely associated with making PCs mainstream is getting in on the action. That company is Dell, and who knows but that the work it’s pursuing in the Semantic Web today won’t have just as much of an impact as its supply chain innovations did to help drive its success in those early PC days?

The proof-of-concept Semantic Web work at Dell is taking place under the direction of Yijing (Jenna) Zhou, enterprise architecture consultant, and Chary Tamirisa, enterprise architecture senior consultant. What’s the impetus for Dell to pursue this? Zhou and Tamirisa provided some insight into the whys, whats, and hows in an email discussion with The Semantic Web Blog.

“The questions raised initially were:  why Semantic Web and how can Dell benefit from its use?” Zhou and Tamirisa note. “Our answer is as follows: Semantic technology is a key enabler for Dell to model enterprise business objects to enable end-to-end mapping and reuse across current and future business models, processes, and systems. We are leveraging enterprise architecture management support for semantic technology and ontology modeling to build broader awareness and knowledge across our business and IT stakeholders.  Our long-term plan is to provide tangible value propositions that address current and future business challenges and opportunities. We are also focused on developing the change management strategies required to enable and adopt the techniques and technologies related to semantic-based solutions.”

Tamirisa and Zhou will be providing even more detail when they discuss their work at the upcoming SemTech Conference in June (find out more here). Here’s a preview of what you can hear more about at the event.

Trajectory of adoption of the Semantic Web at Dell:

Tamirisa and Zhou say that Dell IT is in the early stages of adoption of the Semantic Web. Since the technology is new and not many are able to grasp the use or benefit of it, they say, they are looking to find problems to demonstrate its unique value proposition.  A key success factor is to quickly show the benefit of the use of semantic web technology.  Another success factor is to show how this technology solves problems efficiently. Tamirisa and Zhou are discussing the use of semantic web technologies in key areas such as online sales, application integration, enterprise information models, and enterprise business intelligence (see below).

The challenges will be around achieving broad adoption given the need for change management across a wide-ranging stakeholder base that includes business and IT constituents.  In addition, they say they will have to invest heavily in education to make changes to discovery and design processes, as well as design and run-time technologies.  The two are currently building awareness and proving the value of semantic techniques and technologies by providing sample information discovery and design models, as well as providing a lot of industry information to their core architecture and design teams.  They say they also will be able to leverage their highly skilled technology acceleration team that is focused on improving their ability to quickly adopt new technologies.

Why the Semantic Web initially seemed like an opportunity for Dell:

Tamirisa started his explorations when the need for enterprise-wide semantic models to ease message mapping tasks became apparent while working on SOA-based application integration. Dell uses Oracle AIA (Application Integration Architecture), where applications map their application-specific messages to canonical models, and then the receiving application maps from the canonical to its own model. This way, AIA provides reuse of messages while allowing loose coupling of applications. The key problem, then, is to do the mapping of messages, and it is here the semantic models for enterprise business objects, such as Sales Order, Customer, Product and Services, come in handy. Most of the time spent in application integration is this mapping. Tamirisa was looking for ways to represent this enterprise semantic data, and it is here that he made first in-roads into Semantic Web.

Further potential exists, they say, for:

  • Application to application data integration
  • Enterprise vocabulary management
  • Semantic search
  • Semantic catalogs (service offerings)
  • Storing and managing  results of data analytics as part of learnt knowledge

Dell’s service catalogue and how semantic technologies can solve issues/add value there:

The Dell service catalog is a list of all services Dell provides, they explain.  Two critical requirements Dell needs to address are:  1. Standardization of services vocabulary and definitions; 2. Relationships and overall taxonomy to model and maintain the proper, inherited, and reusable relationships between service offerings.  To address these requirements Tamirisa and Zhou built an ontology to organize, classify, define, and visualize all of the services and their relationships.

The value of using an ontology to model the service catalog is rooted in the following findings, as they describe it:

  • The services ontology provides consistent terms and definitions, which will result in better service management and customer management.
  • The services ontology allows sharing of the knowledge easily and effectively across the user community. By defining the relationships and putting the services in a context, Dell will be able to improve reuse and productivity.
  • The services ontology allows easy classification of the services by inference.  This will result in a more efficient and effective service management, therefore improving productivity, they say. The inference engine can pull out related services –this will reveal those cross-sell and up-sell opportunities, and therefore increase revenue, they note. The inference engine can also pull out necessary components – avoiding human work on checking missing components, and reduce contract management and service management costs; increase reuse, and improve productivity and reduce development costs.
  • The additional benefit of an ontological organization of services is that it allows one to search and find services using different key words than what the services ontology provides. This is possible by defining equivalencies between various search keywords.

The challenges of moving in the Semantic Web’s direction in the enterprise:

Semantic web poses the following specific challenges, Zhou and Tamirisa say:

  • Immaturity of tools:  They were unable to find all of the needed features (import/export, visualization, queries, business rules, User interfaces) all in a single tool.  They are currently evaluating a number of tools to speed up adoption of their work.
  • They need to focus on specific problems and develop ontologies. Getting a good problem definition is a challenge. So they are interviewing people to get a better understanding of each of the problem domains.
  • Funding is another challenge for an R&D type of project. They need to show a quick return on investment to succeed with tool acquisition and resources.
  • They need to educate people on these technologies and gain support and momentum. They have organized several seminars and presentations on semantic web.

The lessons learned as a result of the journey (so far) to the Semantic Web:

Among the many they note are these:

  • More important than the creation of an ontology is to illustrate how people can go from where they are today to the new semantic world. This means importing current database schema into the ontology tool they select. They also need to be able to show through the use of a simple customizable user interface (preferably web-based) as to how anyone can leverage the results of ontology creation. For instance, a simple contextual search screen that leverages an ontology they develop will be a good starting point.
  • Start with market-leading tools that actually have import/export facilities as well as an easy-to-customize user interface for quick demos.
  • Ensure that the use of ontology tools is positioned appropriately and that it is not a silver bullet – one medicine to cure all IT problems.
  • Manage expectations appropriately and focus on specific small problems to get easy, early and quick wins.
  • Be persistent and seek new avenues to approach people within IT and business to develop innovative applications.