IT departments opening warehouses to outsiders

Pressure from customers is forcing some organisatons to allow outside access to BI and other applications. Heather Havenstein reports

Corporate Express intends to allow 1,000 of its largest customers to run reports and analyse purchasing patterns using data stored in its internal data warehouse.

The office supplies company is one of many that have turned to a variety of technologies over the past couple of years to let external users securely access selected corporate data.

IT executives say such projects can improve customer service, streamline supply chains and let offsite employees access internal business intelligence (BI) applications.

Matt Schwartz, director of business analysis at Corporate Express, says the company moved quickly early this year to select a technology that could provide its top customers with access to purchasing data. The move was made after Corporate Express’ hand was forced by similar efforts at key rivals Office Depot and Staples.

Corporate Express decided earlier this year to use a data warehouse appliance that would allow 10,000 users at 1,000 customer companies to keep track of their purchases, Schwartz says.

Data warehouse appliances bundle high-performance hardware, software and storage devices together in a device that is preconfigured to run a specific task, such as strategic analysis.

Corporate Express, which now uses an Oracle 10g-based enterprise data warehouse, plans to use Netezza’s Performance Server appliance to power a new data mart that will let customers run web-based queries about their purchasing history, Schwartz says.

It will continue to use the Oracle database internally as the company’s enterprise data warehouse, he says.

The Netezza appliance will provide procurement information to customers through dashboards and standard reports, and by drilling down to transaction-level data, he says. Corporate Express turned to the appliance technology for its ease of use features and performance capabilities, he says.

“With our Oracle platform, the performance across thousands of customers wasn’t sufficient for sub-10-second response times,” he says.

Sales personnel at Corporate Express, which also uses business intelligence software from MicroStrategy, are testing the Netezza appliance. The MicroStrategy application authenticates the users and encrypts all the data to be presented outside the company’s firewall.

The company hasn’t encountered any challenges yet in the testing process, Schwartz says.

The Hillman Group, a manufacturer and supplier of hardware, took a different approach to providing salespeople working outside the office with access to internal systems, says its CIO, Jim Honerkamp.

About two years ago the company created a so-called virtual data warehouse to let 800 remote employees access internal BI applications over the web, Honerkamp says.

Instead of moving data from transactional systems to a database for analysis, Hillman uses adapters from Information Builders subsidiary iWay to get direct access to transactional systems without having to physically integrate underlying data, he says.

Honerkamp said the virtual data warehouse has allowed the company to avoid having to build a multi-million dollar physical data warehouse for the external users.

Hillman uses the WebFocus BI software from New York City-based Information Builders to let users view sales reports and drill down into BI reports overlaid with GIS data, Honerkamp says.

“We’ll use this technology to map out the most efficient route for a sales rep to follow on a daily basis,” he says.

“We’re trying to provide to them with a driving sequence that minimises the miles, ...fuel costs and other expenses,” he says. “We also use this to try to optimise the assignment of territories.”

The company has also married BI with GIS maps to optimise which distribution centre ships products to customers to ensure that the most cost effective route is used, he says.

Canvas Systems, which sells used and refurbished IT equipment to businesses, built a portal a year ago to give customers that provide it products on consignment an “open-kimono view into our business,” says Steve Hyser, the company’s IT lifecycle manager.

Canvas moves data from its transactional systems to a Microsoft SQL Server database that then allows those customers to log into the portal — which is updated every 10 to 15 minutes — to track their IT equipment as it is refurbished and made available for sale.

“They can see each individual item what we intend to sell it for,” Hyser says. “They can see what their proceeds are. They basically have a soup to nuts tracking mechanism.”

As a result, he says, there are no surprises, and thus no time-consuming calls from customers questioning a bill or looking to find out where an item is in the sales pipeline.

Colin White, president of consultancy BI Research, says many companies that retrenched to focus on internal enterprise data access following the dot com bust now are beginning to eye making data available outside the firewall again.

“If I’m a funds investor buying funds and I can see information about my funds and how well they’re doing ...that makes me a happier customer,” White says.

“Companies get improved customer satisfaction and retention. They also [reduce] the number of calls coming into their call centre”.

The informatics division of Premier, a San Diego-based healthcare alliance owned by 200 hospitals, recently ousted the system that provided data analysis to 400 hospitals, says Chris Stewart, senior architect in the informatics division.

The division replaced its IBM Red Brick Warehouse SQL-based relational database with a Netezza data warehouse appliance for the core analysis it offers to the hospitals, he says.

The older system would run the required reports for the hospitals, but it could not inform users whether the query would take several hours or several minutes, he says. “[Using the appliance], you can get that analysis back to the customers in a much more predictable fashion,” he says.

The new system speeds the analysis and provides an estimated completion time to queries by hospital administrators, such as how their facility’s treatment of elderly patients with pneumonia compares to other hospitals, Stewart says.

Premier first installed a Netezza warehouse appliance in 2003 to analyse selected pharmacy data, he says. It moved to broadly expand its use this year after gaining confidence in its functionality and performance, he adds.

Strong performance is especially important to Premier because the company places very strong security demands on the 3TB data warehouse, Stewart says.

For example, he says, Premier added rules to the analysis process to verify whether each component of a query has data from enough hospitals, so that the identity of the facility making the query isn’t obvious.

This verification takes place while the query is running, thus significantly increasing the load on the database, he says.

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