Data warehousing comes of age

It's not so many years ago that implementing an enterprise data warehouse seemed doomed to failure. Datamarts, as a departmental solution, were the only practical answer. Today, the data warehouse has come of age.

Four years ago, Auckland-based Wherescape changed its focus from data warehouse consulting to offering a prototyping tool for data warehouses born out of experience. It's been quite a success story. Wherescape RED has been strongly picked up in the US and UK, with blue-ribbon customers such as Wells Fargo and Gillette. In fact, nearly 60 percent of the company's business is done offshore.

Locally, Auckland District Health Board -- New Zealand's largest -- has a compelling story to tell, one which the country's other health boards are closely tracking.

Paul McGrath joined the DHB in April 2004. A former IBMer, now with the title of the data warehouse manager, he spent more than a year putting together a business case for a data warehouse. The board signed off on it last August.

Standardization is the key to what is a five-year project, and Wherescape is the prototyping tool that has kicked off the project to a highly promising beginning.

"We needed a development tool that would give us scalability and the capability to quickly meet business needs, McGrath says. "Business requirements change so fast at the board."

McGrath, interestingly, doesn't work within the IS team. Rather, he runs a development team of five and a half full-time equivalents in the decision support department. It is this team which is building the enterprise data warehouse, using some of the IS department's skills, such as networking and database administrators, along with some consulting from Wherescape.

"We were only a couple of months into the project and we found we needed consulting only half a day a week. Wherescape has a lot of things in it that I had been trying to build myself," he says.

McGrath had gone to tender for the data warehouse, responded to by the usual multinationals, but had a concern that their bids came with high-priced people who then moved on. The IP would have been subsequently devalued or totally lost.

"We chose Wherescape because it is a very friendly, intuitive tool from which we can get results quickly. The old waterfall software approach doesn't work with data warehouses.

"Our users are seeing the benefits very quickly. It's good that Wherescape is a New Zealand company, and the price is also right."

He says the alternative was to buy expensive data modeling tools. "We looked at Sybase and other solutions but this gives us a hell of a lot more benefits. Wherescape RED is a development aid, the training is not difficult, and it generates SQL code that everyone is familiar with."

McGrath says it was important the data warehouse had conformity of business rules and terms. "We've got lots of key performance indicator management reports, many standard reports, thousands of daily operational reports, plus analysis and ad hoc reports.

"We needed a single view so we could make good decisions."

Two patient management systems were the first target and stage one of the project has just been completed. The next few years will see pharmacy, laboratory, blood analysis, human resources and finance brought into the data warehouse. "We're getting a lot of interest from other DHBs, which are facing similar issues," McGrath says.

Country manager Perry Sansom describes RED as a framework that generates native code for Oracle, SQL and Teradata. It's also practical for a smaller customer, at an entry cost of around NZ$30,000 (US$19,800), he says.

Implementation comes in at a seventh of the price of competitors, and that there is no limit on scalability, he says.

"Our biggest competitor is customer dissatisfaction with past data warehouse projects," he says.

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