Gartner Lee Models The Future

Forced to build forecasts far more complex than Excel can handle, an environmental-consulting firm foregoes more advanced BI tools and puts its faith in a startup modeling specialist.

Environmental-consulting firm Gartner Lee is in the business of projecting the future. A new waste-management operation in Brunei, a new municipal water system in a mid-size Ontario city, a mine reclamation project in British Columbia -- businesses and governments hire Gartner Lee to create elaborate models that forecast everything from a project's budget to the likely needs of a community, based on population growth and other variables, thirty years down the road. Called "financial-decision support models," they're heavy on economic and environmental data, and heavy on computing.

For years, Gartner Lee, Markham, Ontario, used Excel spreadsheets to create and present models for its clients. "But as we've been going along, the models were getting more and more complicated, and also ballooning in scale," says Andy Keir, vice president of strategic development at Gartner Lee. "We found that we needed something that would allow us to do our modeling much faster." Excel couldn't deal quickly with the sheer number of variables that Gartner's consultants needed to throw at it, Keir says, so the firm set out to find some modeling-specific software that could.

In 2003, Gartner's IT department tested a number of different options. They looked at offerings from Oracle. They looked at enterprise modeling software from Cognos, among other vendors who specialize in BI analytics. And then, after a search on the Web, they discovered a tiny modeling specialist out of Portland, Maine, a recent start-up with a seemingly innovative approach and, perhaps most importantly, a cheap price. "We stumbled onto Quantrix," Keir says. "We gave it a try, and, lo and behold, it turned out to be an interesting tool."

Quantrix began life in 2002, the brainchild of Peter Murray, a longtime programmer and CTO at a range of high-tech and dot-com companies, including the Silicon Valley development shop Lighthouse Design, long since acquired by Sun Microsystems. There he first worked on spreadsheet-modeling software technology, also called Quantrix.

The origins of the concept were simple: A discrepancy seemed to exist between the Excel spreadsheets many people used to create financial forecasting models and the ever-expanding complexity of those models. "Our position is that Excel is a technology designed to meet the needs of the lowest common denominator," says Chris Houle, Quantrix's chief operating officer and co-founder of the company with Murray. "It hasn't changed in 15 years. But business users' needs have grown exponentially during that same time -- the people who want to do quantitative modeling -- and that gap represents what Quantrix is going after."

The company rolled out version 1.1 of its Quantrix Modeler for commercial release in November 2003, and Gartner Lee was among the first to buy into the product. Indeed, Gartner was such an early adopter that the input it gave Quantrix in the wake of that first release helped the software company make improvements, which became part of version 1.2, released in July. Meanwhile, over those 18 months, Quantrix has landed 170 customers in 30 countries, according to Houle, spanning financial planning firms to manufacturing companies to economists and business professors in academia.

For Gartner Lee, perhaps the most attractive feature was cost. With a list price of $999 per license (though Gartner Lee paid about $700 each for its ten seats), it certainly compared favorably to its competitors on the enterprise level. Additionally, because Quantrix is desktop-based, it exhibited a flexibility, and accessibility, that server-based enterprise modelers couldn't match.

"The learning curve was much steeper in Cognos," says Gartner's Keir. "The people in our organization doing modeling are largely economists, and Cognos seemed to require a much deeper understanding of programming. So we went the other route. Quantrix is kind of an extrapolation. If you know how to use Excel, you can probably climb into Quantrix rather easily, which is probably not the case with Cognos."

And, of course, maintaining the Excel status-quo wasn't an option for Gartner Lee, either. The Quantrix calculation engine uses a technology similar to an OLAP cube: its formulas are built in three dimensions, unlike the two-dimensional Excel. Keir uses a Lego analogy: the Quantrix models are built out of many smaller modules, which are bolted together like Lego blocks. This makes plugging new variables into a modeling structure much less time-consuming, and thus much less costly.

"We like our models to run what-if scenarios," Keir says. Hundreds of thousands of variables are sometimes at play in a specific project. If a client wants to rejigger the cost of a landfill as part of a massive waste-management system -- a project Gartner is currently working on in Brunei -- along with multiple other proposed capital expenditures, "we couldn't do that in Excel without some serious visual basic programming," Keir says. "The models then become quite big in terms of memory. I think we've got one model, for a large regional government in Canada, running at well over 2 gigs in Excel. That's starting to push the limits of Excel." The size of the same model in Quantrix, on the other hand, is running in the hundreds of thousands of kilobytes, Keir estimates.

This, in turn, increases the model's calculation speed. "One model that runs in Excel takes about seven minutes to do a calculation, because it's hitting 150 million cells. In Quantrix, the model runs in under 30 seconds." And this, in turn, reduces costs. Asked if he could attach a dollar value to the savings, Keir said, "If we were had a project that cost $100,000 to develop in Excel, you'd be looking at $40,000 to develop it in Quantrix."

Next up for Gartner Lee is using a new Quantrix connectivity program to link the modeler directly to databases. Currently, Gartner imports the data by hand. "We've got a project coming up shortly," Keir says, "and we're going to see if we can wire Quantrix to Oracle." The firm also wants to deliver all of its models to its clients using the Quantrix interface, whereas now, it sometimes does the calculations in Quantrix, then imports them Excel for delivery.

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