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Software // Information Management
07:26 PM
Rick Whiting
Rick Whiting

Intelligence or Info Overload?

Today's breakneck business climate has prompted some companies to adopt real-time business-intelligence systems. But how much is too much?

Continental Airlines Inc. uses Teradata's technology at its massive data warehouse, which stores information on all aspects of the airline's business, including passenger reservations, aircraft maintenance and parts inventories, and flight delays. Using middleware like IBM's WebSphere MQ and Informatica Corp.'s Striva, transactional data is captured and loaded into the data warehouse within seconds, says data warehousing director Alicia Acebo.

Continental has designed its data warehouse so that it can be used for both real-time alerts and long-range strategic analysis. It warns reservations clerks of any incoming flight delays, for example, and identifies passengers designated as most-valuable customers, who can then be given priority on alternative flights if it appears they'll miss their scheduled connections. Business analysts also can use Continental's data warehouse to study historical data to detect customer trends.

The most visible use of real-time business intelligence is business-activity monitoring. The monitoring combines data collection with process- and workflow-management capabilities to monitor streaming data from operational systems to detect "business events," such as production-line problems, spikes in customer complaints, and diminishing stock on a retailer's shelf. Key performance metrics and alerts are delivered through dashboardlike interfaces on managers' desktop computers or through mobile workers' handheld devices, pagers, and cell phones.

In the last year, there has been a wave of business-activity-monitoring software products from startup vendors such as Celequest, First Rain, and Iteration Software, as well as from Tibco Software, which acquired startup Praja last year. "Business-activity monitoring takes business intelligence to the next stage of evolution by making it more actionable," says Celequest Corp. CEO Diaz Nesamoney.

Silver Line Building Products Corp., a vinyl-window manufacturer, is installing Iteration's business-activity-monitoring software to notify shipping managers at the company's North Brunswick, N.J., plant if an order won't be ready for delivery. The Iteration Real-Time Reporting Suite, when up and running this month, will tie into the plant's manufacturing system and track custom-made windows as they move down the production line. For example, if the system determines two hours before shipping time that the order may be late, it sends an alert to BlackBerry devices carried by shipping managers, who can adjust truck-loading schedules. The ultimate goal is to improve customer service to Silver Line's distributors, says Dan Lyons, information systems VP.

Abitibi uses OSIsoft Inc.'s real-time performance-management software to monitor the cost of electricity purchased from the Ontario grid to supplement hydroelectric power generated at its paper mills. If the system detects electricity price increases beyond preset thresholds, it alerts managers by E-mail and pagers to adjust production capacity.

Demand for real-time information delivery is catching on for some specific applications such as yield-management control in manufacturing and inventory control. There also has been a recent uptick in the use of real-time data analysis, particularly for call-center operations where profiles of customers calling in are built on the fly to assist with cross-selling and up-selling efforts.

Still, the challenge companies face in collecting information from scattered, often incompatible data sources makes real-time business intelligence tough for many. "For a lot of companies, real-time business intelligence is still a few years out," says Tom Burzinski, business-intelligence-practice manager at consulting firm Greenbrier & Russell. Poor-quality data adds to the integration hurdle: Tools for standardizing data and correcting errors before moving it into a data warehouse must work in real time as well.

Real-time business intelligence, in fact, will make IT departments more accountable for the quality of the data they provide for analysis, says Tom Nather, a senior systems analyst at Penske Logistics. "If there are data-integrity issues, they're going to come up much quicker," he says. The Penske Corp. subsidiary, which provides supply-chain-management services to manufacturers and their suppliers, uses a real-time system based on Business Objects SA's Broadcast Agent and middleware from Attunity Inc. to alert suppliers of imminent order pickups.

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