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8/30/2011
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How Oracle Helps Polk Decode Car Buying Secrets

The kingpin of auto-market data and analysis is using Oracle Exadata and BI tools to give new ammo to its customers, from Acura to VW. Here's a look inside the project.

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How many BMW 3 Series vehicles were sold in California last month--and is the model gaining or losing share against the Audi A4? Which Hyundai dealers are driving the lion's share of that brand's sales gains? Which websites and mailing lists would be best to use to reach potential Chevy Camaro buyers?

These are just a few of the sorts of questions than can be answered by Polk, the kingpin of auto-market data and analysis. It's a blue-chip marketing company and longtime Oracle customer that last year decided to upgrade to that vendor's Oracle Exadata Database Machine.

One year later, Polk is now nearly halfway through a steady enterprise-wide migration of multiple databases and applications. Along the way it has consolidated database licenses, eliminated servers, compressed data dramatically, and delivered results 10 times faster than on its previous Oracle Real Application Clusters (RAC) deployments. It has also upgraded its BI deployment to improve data visualization and dashboarding capabilities.

As the database market share leader, Oracle has plenty of customers contemplating whether to follow in Polk's footsteps. Here's a look inside an Oracle Exadata and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition deployment, along with instructive advice and lessons learned by Polk's top application and database executives.

Serving Many Customers

Polk has tracked auto sales since the 1920s, and its information stores and services have grown along with the industry. Today Polk combines state-supplied information on new and used auto registrations with manufacturer-supplied sales data, and third-party demographic and lifestyle data.

The company has several key customer groups, but the top revenue driver is Polk Insight, an analytic datamart that helps manufacturers understand where they're winning and where they're losing by product, competitor, new vs. used, region, dealer, and other dimensions.

Polk's Multichannel Target Marketing products help the people who market cars and trucks acquire new customers, retain existing ones, build brand awareness, and increase revenue by identifying specific consumer segments that can be reached with advertising and promotional campaigns delivered across email, direct mail, and websites. And it's not just about what might work in theory; complementary services help marketers measure the performance of campaigns through actual vehicle sales.

The manufacturer and marketer insights all rely on data that doesn't include personal information, but the demographic and lifestyle enrichment data provides a clear picture of consumer tastes and preferences by age, income, zip code, leisure activities, and other dimensions.

Some applications do call for personally identifiable information. Polk's VINtelligence database, for example, keeps track of owners tied to specific vehicle identification numbers. It's used by manufacturers in the event of a recall, and insurance companies check VIN numbers to fight fraud.

These are the core data services provided by Polk, but there are several other niche databases that complete the picture. As of last year, the total data environment was approaching 46 terabytes, but it's not all managed as a single data warehouse. Polk makes focused datamarts accessible online through subscription-accessed portal interfaces. Many manufacturers pay for customized blends of information sliced and diced in particular ways.

Moving To Exadata

Diversity and customization demands are two big reasons Polk has remained an Oracle customer. The company did a proof-of-concept (POC) project with Netezza back in 2008, but the company wanted to stick with familiar and extensive capabilities.

"Netezza offered a good product, but we're an Oracle shop and the Netezza database itself seemed primitive by comparison; it didn't offer all the partitioning and database-management capabilities we need," said Doug Miller, Polk's director of database development and operations. (Indeed since 2008, Netezza and other data-warehouse appliance manufacturers have focused on adding database-management capabilities, but perhaps not all those required in an earlier era of database deployment.)

Soon after the Netezza POC, Exadata 1.0 was announced, but Polk wasn't ready to make a change just yet.

"There were two reasons we didn't buy Exadata 1.0: first it was a 1.0 product, and our CIO said, 'no, we won't be buying any version one products," Miller said. "Second, it was bad timing for a refresh because we had just bought a bunch of new technology."

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