Grid operator consolidates BI tools to single vendor

California's electricity agency is reducing the number of business intelligence apps it runs

The company that coordinates the buying and selling of wholesale electricity for 80% of California is standardising on new business intelligence tools as part of a major technology upgrade.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO) has been replacing its reporting tools from Business Objects and Microsoft —and Microsoft Excel — with query, reporting and analysis tools from Actuate over the past year, says Steve Berberich, CIO and vice president of technology at the electric grid operator.

The BI project is running in tandem with a major technology upgrade to replace the ISO’s specialised core systems that provide internal users with electricity demand data, prices and the ability to settle transactions, Berberich says The project is slated to be completed in November 2007.

The ISO electronically manages the flow of electricity along California’s wholesale power grid, coordinating 40,000 transactions every hour between buyers and sellers. The non-profit electric grid operator’s IT systems also must manage demand forecasts, track prices and settle transactions.

“The data that we provide and how we provide it actually facilitates the market,” Berberich says. “We’re very demanding in what we use. Because of the role we play, it was important to have a bulletproof product and one ... we knew could integrate with our new applications.”

The ISO will use the Actuate tools to marry historical data with real-time information so users have online access to reports containing scheduled energy loads and forecasts. That will help energy companies more easily access online information to better plan for production and establish pricing, Berberich says.

According to Berberich, the upgrade is an opportunity for the grid operator to eliminate some of the costs associated with maintaining separate BI tools. He says it would be difficult to estimate the exact savings that standardising on BI tools will yield.

“We are creating value on a number of fronts — first, we have reduced support costs because we don’t have so many disparate reporting tools. Training costs are reduced because we don’t have to train on a collection of tools.”

Finally, he says, workers gain efficiency because they don’t have to use separate tools for different tasks.

While he acknowledges that it’s generally difficult to get BI users to change tools, the ISO has been successful by clearly laying out the advantages of the new products. Officials have worked to create a “bit of excitement around the new product” that may make the tools more attractive to users than those now in use.

“You have to be firm in your position on the standard,” he says. “What is important to us is that we focus on providing information. To the extent we have a tool that can change data into information ... [that] is very useful.”

Bill Hostmann, an analyst at Gartne, says organisations need to find ways to keep costs down when building an infrastructure that can be used to link historical and real-time data. A BI infrastructure for analysing real-time data is typically much more expensive and complex than those focused only on historical data, he says.

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