Electricity provider makes efficiency gains with SOA

US utility Southside Electric has saved cash and resources by reusing existing applications via an IBM-Qualcomm package

Using a service-oriented architecture, the Southside Electric Cooperative in Virginia has successfully eliminated much of the paperwork that slowed its processes, enabling it to double the rate at which it collects delinquent payments and reduce the average time it takes to complete service work from three days to one, officials at the utility say.

“If a member called in before to have a tree cut off their line, it could be a week or so before somebody got to that. Now the service orders are done in two days,” says Linda Easter Davis, Southside’s information systems supervisor. “We’re also doing collections a lot faster. We’re actually going to homes and collecting on delinquent accounts. We had estimated it would take three years to pay for the project. Our manager of finance said it was paid for in the first year purely in the payment of collections.”

The project, implemented over the past 18 months, involves Qualcomm OmniTRACS, a wireless communication and satellite positioning tool for delivery and service vehicles, and IBM’s SOA-based WebSphere business integration software.

An SOA is an approach to building IT systems that’s centered around the deployment of reusable application components. Southside has used IBM tools to recycle existing software and reduce the time employees spend filling out forms or waiting for information, Davis says. By integrating various applications, the organisation aggregates information from separate systems, giving employees a single, real-time view of customer accounts and engineering resources, according to IBM.

The combination of OmniTRACS and WebSphere lets the cooperative’s field workers enter data immediately after finishing maintenance and repair work. Work orders also are sent out to employees much more quickly, via computers in their trucks. When Southside was using paper service orders, the beginning-to-end process of receiving a member complaint and acting on it took 15 steps. Now that much of the paper-pushing has been eliminated, it’s a four-step process, Davis says.

“We used IBM’s WebSphere business integration to create real-time data integration between engineering software and the business side of the house software ... to move the data back and forth, so the data was more accurate and available to the office and field in real time,” Davis says.

Southside provides electricity to 52,500 members in 18 counties in Virginia.

IBM says it has hundreds of WebSphere customers in the energy industry. While start-up cost is one of the concerns companies have about SOA, the experiences of Southside show that it is feasible for smaller organisations, says Allan Schurr, managing director of global energy and utilities for IBM.

“No one would hesitate for General Motors to invest in SOA,” Schurr says. “But for a small firm — 52,000 members is not a large utility whatsoever — for them to be able to justify the business case is a statement about the high value of SOA.”

Many utilities have not kept up with other service sectors in providing swift customer service, and implementing SOA is one way to improve those processes and save money at the same time, according to Schurr.

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