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From push technology, new applications will emerge: HERE COMES SCADS OF INFORMATION, LIKE IT OR NOT

This article appears in the issue February 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 2]

The Internet changes everything. Whether we are talking about Net-enabled drink machines or next-generation workflow, it seems that is true. While many imaging and document management systems were early adopters of push technology, the entire knowledge management industry is quickly moving its platforms to take advantage of Internet technology.

Push technology is commonly associated with Internet applications such as RealAudio (from RealNetworks, Seattle) and PointCast (Sunnyvale, CA), but workflow systems were actually one of the first applications of the technology. In simple terms, push technology involves "pushing" data from servers to the desktop. That is a dramatic shift from 40 years of centralized information that required the user to "request" information.

With traditional technology, the user or the desktop application must ask for specific information to be sent from the mainframe or server. For the most part, only the information that was needed was sent to the user.

With push technology, information is sent from the servers to the workstations, regardless of whether the user requested the information. Sometimes useless information is pushed to the user. That means that some bandwidth is wasted on information that isn't used, but it also helps ensure that information is available to the user immediately without requiring the user to specifically request it and wait for it to arrive.

With PointCast, for example, news and stock information is automatically pushed to the desktop. Users can customize the information that they wish to see by selecting various categories. Some systems push all information to all users and rely on the desktop to discard the information. For example, the server may send everything related to sports to your desktop, but the application may only display information about sports if that is what you have selected.

Other push technology allows for more customized data streams. That reduces the amount of traffic that the desktop must handle, but requires more sophisticated servers. It is ironic that push technology requires client-server approaches but has also heralded a new future for mainframes since they are ideally suited to handle complex push applications.

Most workflow systems are a good example of push technology, although they are just beginning to use Internet technology. Some workflow systems do require the user to query the servers to see if more work is waiting for them, but most automatically have the work pushed from the server to the desktop. When the user double-clicks on the work in-basket, the images have automatically been downloaded to their workstation.

As workflow users become distributed in several locations, Internet-enabled workflow is becoming more common. In those implementations, workflow routes the information across the Internet and has it waiting on the user's desktop. In most workflow applications, the transaction takes a few minutes, so even images can be transferred in the background while the user works with the image on the screen.

For one large local telephone company, Internet workflow has turned out to be very successful. Bell Atlantic (New York), which operates from Virginia to Maine, has customer service departments in various states. Correspondence and service requests are received in each of those offices.

When Bell Atlantic re-engineered its business processes, it decided to scan most of the information at a central location. Each office also needed scanning capabilities to handle the documents it receives. Finally, different states had different work schedules and holidays, so the phone company decided that it needed to be able to route workloads between the various facilities.

For telephone companies, there is no difference between the Internet and leased lines: They are the same thing to the company that owns the wires. Because of that, Bell Atlantic decided to use an Internet approach to its workflow needs. Since it was a customer service application, the company needed to ensure that the information was available to key people as soon as possible. That meant using a push approach.

Customer service call centers in each state are designed to handle calls related primarily to customer service, fraud and billing disputes within a certain geographic boundary. Customers often send in copies of their bills or letters--sometimes addressed to the company president. Rapid response is just good customer service. In some cases, a dispute can result in a charge to Bell Atlantic if it is not handled quickly.

Bell Atlantic looked at using imaging technology to achieve its goal of "world class customer service" in its call centers. "Our emphasize was to improve customer service. What we found was that it allowed us to be more flexible in how we provided customer service," said Beth Sorah, manager of Desktop Integration for Bell Atlantic.

Unfortunately, push technology is not particularly well-suited for the Internet. Why? Because the original Internet protocols were developed in the late 1960s for small messages designed to be passed through slow links.

Push technology--especially when coupled with imaging and workflow--usually demands high bandwidth. The telephone infrastructure that carries much of the Internet technology is nearly 50 years old. That means that many of the backbones were designed for only 45 to 56 Kbps--about the same speed as today's faster modems. Today the backbones run much faster, but the most common protocols are still not designed to fully exploit the faster backbones. Combined with the fact that the backbones increasingly are overloaded, there are some serious challenges to making push technology work effectively.

For Bell Atlantic, the use of imaging across the Internet meant it had to examine its own bandwidth requirements. With customers demanding bandwidth at a rate faster than Bell Atlantic can provide, the Consumer Sales department was told that it had to find a way to keep its bandwidth requirements well below those associated with traditional imaging systems. To do that, it implemented its system to use only 25% of the bandwidth that a traditional imaging system would use.

Bell Atlantic was able to do that by employing special servers that create smaller images and pushing them to the users. Images are frequently scanned at 200 dpi, but today's VGA monitors can only display at 72 dpi. The extra pixels are used when the image is zoomed on the screen. By transferring images closer to the resolution actually displayed, Bell Atlantic was able to dramatically reduce the amount of network traffic that is pushed to the desktop.

Of course, workflow isn't the only Internet application for push technology in the knowledge management industry. At the simplest level, Internet mailing lists are designed to distribute information automatically. Users opt-in by subscribing to those mailing lists. From time to time, the mail server sends out an E-mail containing various information. Some of the new mailing lists can even customize information for the recipients. Pacific Bell used automatic Internet mail push technology to send a note to its managers informing them that an invoice was waiting for them in the imaging system.

In the future, we can expect workflow vendors to continue to adopt push technology for more applications. High-end imaging systems often retrieve more information than they need in anticipation of user requests for images. As workstations and networks become more powerful, a viable option is to send more information to the desktop so that the information that users want will already be waiting on their workstation.

In the meantime, push technology tends to be used for specific applications.

As it matures, more applications of this important technology are certain to emerge. Some will like the idea of information at their fingertips--others will hate the information overload. Either way, push technology is certain to change everything.


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