I was in Vienna for the Linked Data Practitioners gathering this week. Danny Ayers asked me if I would blog about the State of the Semantic Web or write the This Week's Semantic Web column. I don't have the time to cover all that may have happened during the past week but I will editorialize about the questions that again were raised in Vienna. How these things relate to Virtuoso will be covered separately. This is about the overarching questions of the times, not the finer points of geek craft.

Sören Auer asked me to say a few things about relational to RDF mapping. I will cite some highlights from this, as they pertain to the general scene. There was an "open hacking" session Wednesday night featuring lightning talks. I will use some of these too as a starting point.

The messaging?

The SWEO (Semantic Web Education and Outreach) interest group of the W3C spent some time looking for an elevator pitch for the Semantic Web. It became "Data Unleashed." Why not? Let's give this some context.

So, if we are holding a Semantic Web 101 session, where should we begin? I hazard to guess that we should not begin by writing a FOAF file in Turtle by hand, as this is one thing that is not likely to happen in the real world.

Of course, the social aspect of the Data Web is the most immediately engaging, so a demo might be to go make an account with myopenlink.net and see that after one has entered the data one normally enters for any social network, one has become a Data Web citizen. This means that one can be found, just like this, with a query against the set of data spaces hosted on the system. Then we just need a few pages that repurpose this data and relate it to other data. We show some samples of queries like this in our Billion Triples Challenge demo. We will make a webcast about this to make it all clearer.

Behold: The Data Web is about the world becoming a database; writing SPARQL queries or triples is incidental. You will write FOAF files by hand just as little as you now write SQL insert statements for filling in your account information on Myspace.

Every time there is a major shift in technology, this shift needs to be motivated by addressing a new class of problem. This means doing something that could not be done before. The last time this happened was when the relational database became the dominant IT technology. At that time, the questions involved putting the enterprise in the database and building a cluster of Line Of Business (LOB) applications around the database. The argument for the RDBMS was that you did not have to constrain the set of queries that might later be made, when designing the database. In other words, it was making things more ad hoc. This was opposed then on grounds of being less efficient than the hierarchical and network databases which the relational eventually replaced.

Today, the point of the Data Web is that you do not have to constrain what your data can join or integrate with, when you design your database. The counter-argument is that this is slow and geeky and not scalable. See the similarity?

A difference is that we are not specifically aiming at replacing the RDBMS. In fact, if you know exactly what you will query and have a well defined workload, a relational representation optimized for the workload will give you about 10x the performance of the equivalent RDF warehouse. OLTP remains a relational-only domain.

However, when we are talking about doing queries and analytics against the Web, or even against more than a handful of relational systems, the things which make RDBMS good become problematic.

What is the business value of this?

The most reliable of human drives is the drive to make oneself known. This drives all, from any social scene to business communications to politics. Today, when you want to proclaim you exist, you do so first on the Web. The Web did not become the prevalent media because business loved it for its own sake, it became prevalent because business could not afford not to assert their presence there. If anything, the Web eroded the communications dominance of a lot of players, which was not welcome but still had to be dealt with, by embracing the Web.

Today, in a world driven by data, the Data Web will be catalyzed by similar factors: If your data is not there, you will not figure in query results. Search engines will play some role there but also many social applications will have reports that are driven by published data. Also consider any e-commerce, any marketplace, and so forth. The Data Portability movement is a case in point: Users want to own their own content; silo operators want to capitalize on holding it. Right now, we see these things in silos; the Data Web will create bridges between these, and what is now in silo data centers will be increasingly available on an ad hoc basis with Open Data.

Again, we see a movement from the specialized to the generic: What LinkedIn does in its data center can be done with ad hoc queries with linked open data. Of course, LinkedIn does these things somewhat more efficiently because their system is built just for this task, but the linked data approach has the built-in readiness to join with everything else at almost no cost, without making a new data warehouse for each new business question.

We could call this the sociological aspect of the thing. Getting to more concrete business, we see an economy that, we could say, without being alarmists, is confronted with some issues. Well, generally when times are bad, this results in consolidation of property and power. Businesses fail and get split up and sold off in pieces, government adds controls and regulations and so forth. This means ad hoc data integration, as control without data is just pretense. If times are lean, this also means that there is little readiness to do wholesale replacement of systems, which will take years before producing anything. So we must play with what there is and make it deliver, in ways and conditions that were not necessarily anticipated. The agility of the Data Web, if correctly understood, can be of great benefit there, especially on the reporting and business intelligence side. Specifically mapping line-of-business systems into RDF on the fly will help with integration, making the specialized warehouse the slower and more expensive alternative. But this too is needed at times.

But for the RDF community to be taken seriously there, the messaging must be geared in this direction. Writing FOAF files by hand is not where you begin the pitch. Well, what is more natural then having a global, queriable information space, when you have a global information driven economy?

The Data Web is about making this happen. First with doing this in published generally available data; next with the enterprises having their private data for their own use but still linking toward the outside, even though private data stays private: You can still use standard terms and taxonomies, where they apply, when talking of proprietary information.

But let's get back to more specific issues

At the lightning talks in Vienna, one participant said, "Man's enemy is not the lion that eats men, it's his own brother. Semantic Web's enemy is the XML Web services stack that ate its lunch." There is some truth to the first part. The second part deserves some comment. The Web services stack is about transactions. When you have a fixed, often repeating task, it is a natural thing to make this a Web service. Even though SOA is not really prevalent in enterprise IT, it has value in things like managing supply-chain logistics with partners, etc. Lots of standard messages with unambiguous meaning. To make a parallel with the database world: first there was OLTP; then there was business intelligence. Of course, you must first have the transactions, to have something to analyze.

SOA is for the transactions; the Data Web is for integration, analysis, and discovery. It is the ad hoc component of the real time enterprise, if you will. It is not a competitor against a transaction oriented SOA. In fact, RDF has no special genius for transactions. Another mistake that often gets made is stretching things beyond their natural niche. Doing transactions in RDF is this sort of over-stretching without real benefit.

"I made an ontology and it really did solve a problem. How do I convince the enterprise people, the MBA who says it's too complex, the developer who says it is not what he's used to, and so on?"

This is an education question. One of the findings of SWEO's enterprise survey was that there was awareness that difficult problems existed. There were and are corporate ontologies and taxonomies, diversely implemented. Some of these needs are recognized. RDF based technologies offer to make these more open standards based. open standards have proven economical in the past. What we also hear is that major enterprises do not even know what their information and human resources assets are: Experts can't be found even when they are in the next department, or reports and analysis gets buried in wikis, spreadsheets, and emails.

Just as when SQL took off, we need vendors to do workshops on getting started with a technology. The affair in Vienna was a step in this direction. Another type of event specially focusing on vertical problems and their Data Web solutions is a next step. For example, one could do a workshop on integrating supply chain information with Data Web technologies. Or one on making enterprise knowledge bases from HR, CRM, office automation, wikis, etc. The good thing is that all these things are additions to, not replacements of, the existing mission-critical infrastructure. And better use of what you already have ought to be the theme of the day.