I'm no analyst, but I've observed the ebbs and flows of the technology marketing hype cycle for nearly 10 years now. I have to say, semantic technologies may have one of the slowest hype cycles since the Internet itself. After all, Tim Berners-Lee first described his semantic Web "dream" in 1999. That leaves us well over 10 years into it and the concept is still pretty muddled as far as the mainstream is concerned.
Still, there is movement. Last year, I started to see more and more about semantic technologies from integration vendors. It was unexpectedly subtle, but definitely mentioned more than in previous years.
What's interesting to me, though, is to see what those deeply involved in the semantic Web movement have to say about it. And what they talk about when it comes to integration is Linked Data.
I've written about Linked Data before, but for those of us with short memories, here are two quotes I think sum it up well:
Linked Data is a sub-topic of the Semantic Web. The term Linked Data is used to describe a method of exposing, sharing, and connecting data via dereferenceable URIs on the Web." - Wikipedia
The Semantic Web isn't just about putting data on the web. It is about making links, so that a person or machine can explore the web of data. With linked data, when you have some of it, you can find other, related, data." - Tim Berners-Lee
So now that we've refreshed our memories on what it is, let's be practical. What business problem will Linked Data solve?
Juan Sequeda has an answer to that question.
Sequeda bears a number of titles: He's the executive director at Semantic Web Austin, chief engineer and project director at Smartbridge GmbH, and a PhD student and researcher assistant at the University of Texas at Austin. He's also the co-chair of the Triplification Challenge 2010, a competition recognizing the most promising applications of Linked Data.
But perhaps what's most relevant is that he's a semantic web and ontology researcher and Web developer who focuses on integrating relational databases with the semantic web. In other words, his specialty is bridging the gap between where we are now and where we hope to be.
And what Sequeda says Linked Data means to the enterprise can be summed up in one word: Integration.
In a recent Q&A with the Semantic Web Company, Sequeda explained Linked Data's relevance this way:
I foresee two things happening with Linked Data. One is from the web development perspective (the so-called Web 2.0 developers) and the other is from the enterprise perspective. The web development community will sooner than later realize that Linked Data will enable easy integration of data and therefore will ease the pain of consuming data from different data sources. ... From the enterprise perspective, Linked Data is another data integration solution. ... Imagine being able to query 'get all my clients from cities whose population is greater than 1 million' even though I don't have the data about population of cities in my database.
But, of course, there's more to it than that. Linked Data won't just simplify integration-Sequeda and others believe it will enable an unpredicted world of applications and technologies, in much the way HTML lead to the thriving e-commerce ecosystem we know today.
What's holding us back? The Triplification Challenge 2010 site notes that it's something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Developers don't learn or use Linked Data and semantic tools online because there aren't concrete applications showing how to use it to solve real problems-and there aren't concrete applications because developers don't know about it or use it.
Sequeda's student Web site says the database community is becoming more interested in the data-management aspects of the semantic Web. Right now, there are technical challenges to making relational databases work with triple stores, which are the databases used to manage semantic Web data.
The trick isn't resolving these technical challenges. The trick is reaching some critical tipping point for adoption, and it turns out, the key to reaching that tipping point might be government adoption and open publicaition of Linked Data techniques.
"Once there is an incentive to create quality links, these links will start to show up," Sequeda told the Semantic Web Company. "And then users will start linking to the data hubs of their interest."
It's exciting news, although, as with all things new, a bit frightening. For instance, could semantics be the key to solving the festering integration obstacles to electronic medical records? And if so, what are the security and privacy ramifications of Linked Data?
I don't know. But I'm excited to see how technologists will resolve the obstacles of the semantic Web and, when they do, what lies beyond the tipping point.