Case studies in data management

IT managers are finding a wide variety of ways to manage their growing stores of data and provide business value. Here are some mini profiles of companies using techniques such as Web-based reporting tools, "active archiving" and an extranet-connected data warehouse.

Organization: The Sperry and Hutchinson Co. (S&H), Salem, Mass.

Mission: The 106-year-old company -- famous in the 1950s and 1960s for its S&H Green Stamps -- has re-emerged with an online business model called S&H Greenpoints. Consumers collect these points when they make purchases and can redeem the points for gifts. It can help retailers retain loyal customers.

Challenge: To provide retailers with reports on consumer purchase information and marketing campaign results from a central database. S&H previously generated paper reports and mailed them, and then offered a basic HTML report on the Web. The problem was that "we always lacked the ability to give the retailer access to the data, because it was in a central database," says Al Smith, vice president of operations at the company's Fort Lauderdale, Fla., technology center.

Technology: S&H is using business intelligence software from Cognos Inc. in Ottawa to provide retailers with access to Web-based reports on buying patterns and the results of promotions. Miami-based Initiatives Corp. acts as consultant and reseller of the Cognos software.

Payoff: Retailers can use the browser-based tools to "get access to the data, run their own analytics and retrieve their own reports. It solves a problem for us, which is providing distributed data access for a central database," Smith says. Top managers can see the top-line results, while more sophisticated users can do complex analyses at any time. And by providing easy access to information-rich reports for free, S&H keeps retailers happy, so they're "less likely to leave us," Smith says.

Organization: CNF Inc., Palo Alto, Calif.

Mission: CNF is a $5.3 billion company offering global supply chain services, with businesses in regional trucking, air freight, ocean freight, customs brokerage, global logistics management and trailer manufacturing.

Challenge: To reduce direct-access storage device (DASD) costs and still be able to retrieve old data. At CNF, the databases track all shipments, and sometimes old records need to be retrieved if there are legal issues, disputes, pricing adjustments or research requests, says Jim Campbell, a Portland-based DB2 database administrator at CNF.

Technology: CNF is using "active archiving" software from Princeton Softech Inc. in Princeton, N.J. Active archiving allows an IT shop to off-load more seldom-used data to the archives and then selectively retrieve data when necessary. "Normally, archiving means you probably won't bring the data back. Active archiving gives us the ability to take things off our database very soon -- within a few weeks of entry -- and they may or may not come back, depending on the need," Campbell says. Initially, the software was used to create subsets of data for system testing, but the next step will be a production rollout.

Payoff: "We can get data back as we need it. And if we can save DASD, we can save dollars," Campbell says.

Organization: Penske Logistics, a unit of Penske Truck Leasing Co. in Reading, Pa.

Mission: Penske Logistics provides integrated logistics services through more than 220 locations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It manages a fleet of 3,000 trucks that move products from suppliers to manufacturers to distribution centers.

Challenge: Penske's trucks are basically rolling computers that send more than 500,000 records every night via satellite to headquarters. The goal is to use this data to reduce logistics costs internally and to improve supply chain efficiency for customers.

Technology: One application, called SensorTracs, from San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., is used for internal fleet management to monitor truck performance, such as idle time and fuel usage. A separate mainframe-based logistics system includes a data warehouse and business intelligence tools from San Jose-based Business Objects SA. The logistics system tracks hundreds of variables that affect the cost and quality of deliveries in the supply chain -- and help the company take action if something goes wrong. All employees have access to truck and driver performance data and shipment delivery information. And managers can produce detailed activity and statistical reports for customers as soon as they request it. Major customers have access to the data warehouse via an extranet.

Payoff: SensorTracs allows Penske to closely monitor its equipment performance and fuel usage to look for improvements. "If we can save one-tenth of a mile per gallon out of a fleet of 3,000, you can see where that would help our bottom line in a hurry," says Thomas E. Nather, senior systems analyst for the data warehouse at Penske Logistics Technology Services in Beachwood, Ohio.

The logistics system gives Penske and its customers visibility into what's happening when shipments go down the road, so they can find out whether the customer got it or not, Nather says. If the shipment is late or doesn't arrive, "we can go into the data warehouse and find out where, when and why it happened," he says. Big customers such as Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool Corp. have fast access to the reports via the Web, which replaces expensive paper and fax reports. This extranet-connected data warehouse won a "best practices" award from The Data Warehousing Institute in Seattle.

Organization: National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), Bethesda, Md.

Mission: NIMA provides satellite images to U.S. military commands and intelligence agencies.

Challenge: To manage one of the largest archives of digital imagery in the world, NIMA's National Information Library (NIL). NIL will store five years of digital imagery and archive 25 million images, requiring 7,700 TB of storage. On an operational basis, it can ingest 5 TB of data and handle 80,000 queries per day.

Technology: NIL uses Informix database software (now owned by IBM) with data blades; Origin 2000 servers from Silicon Graphics Inc. in Mountain View. Calif., RAID storage from Sun Microsystems Inc., and IBM's hierarchical storage management technology.

Payoff: Years ago, the government would have developed a custom system based on military specifications, but this one consists mostly of commercial, off-the-shelf technology. The advantage is that "we don't have to develop custom code, which was extremely expensive," says Cookie Watkins, NIMA library program manager in Reston, Va. The challenges are making commercial products do what military intelligence users need, and keeping up with commercial product releases, she says.

Despite the huge size of the archive, the daily care and feeding of the NIL requires only five on-site IT professionals to operate, Watkins says. "As big and complex as the system is, it doesn't require a large crew to maintain it. The system it replaced required significantly more bodies to keep it running," she says.

Special Report

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Taming Data Chaos

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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