A new IBM product which manages and tracks metadata, should help businesses comply with regulations, integrate data better and move successfully to service-oriented architecture.

Metadata Workbench, available this Thursday as an add-on to IBM's Information Server data integration software, uses visualisation tools to depict relationships among data sources and users, IBM says. The Workbench software also provides proof of data audit trails needed to comply with many government regulations.

Metadata is information that describes the important attributes of data, such as where it came from, who created it, how it has been used and how it has changed. Businesses waste many hours in meetings trying to ensure everyone has a common understanding of the meanings of terms used in metadata, says Sean Crowley, IBM's Information Server market manager.

"Metadata really is one of the dirtier aspects of information integration," Crowley says.

A business might refer to customer information in one database with the phrase "customer ID," and put the same information under the phrase "customer account number" in another database. This creates confusion.

The IBM Information Server has a metadata repository that allows users to define key terms and taxonomies, create links between business and technical terms, and define stewardship over each data set.

Metadata Workbench is placed on top of this repository and provides web-based access to visual representations of metadata generated and used by the Information Server. One type of visualisation would look at the stages of an information integration job, such as an extract, transform and load (ETL) workflow.

IT staff could use Workbench to assess the impact of changes such as the retirement of a legacy data source, Crowley said. Before getting rid of a database, executives would want to know how it relates to business processes and business intelligence. Workbench depicts the relationships sources of information have to the places where information is used, even if it spans different tools and technologies.

Workbench pricing starts at $25,000 (£12,521) for five authorised users.

Competing vendors who offer metadata management tools include BEA, Business Objects and Informatica.