Analyze this

The Air Force's F-16 aircraft have a lot of moving parts, many of which must be maintained or replaced regularly to keep the complex machines flying. Gyroscopes, key components for flight safety, wear out inconsistently, but predicting their lifespan helps keep pilots safe.

For help, Air Force officials turned to the Knowledge Services program, a 3 terabyte enterprise data warehouse with advanced business analytics tools, to study gyroscopes and develop replacement schedules.

After custom mathematical models sorted through past and real-time data, they came up with an important finding: Gyroscopes wear out quicker from November through February than in other months, possibly because of colder weather. Now, in addition to paying closer attention to these components during those four months, maintenance personnel stock extra gyroscopes in September and October.

The Air Force now gets more planes in the air thanks to the maintenance insights gathered from business analytics software from vendor Business Objects SA, said John Rusnak, a civilian employee of Mitre Corp. who acts as chief architect for the Air Force Knowledge Services in Dayton, Ohio.

The three-year Knowledge Services program relies heavily on tools within the traditional business intelligence arsenal, including data warehouse and query and reporting applications for searching historical data for hidden trends.

More recently, the program has taken advantage of less widely used, more sophisticated business analytics tools that can expand the boundaries of business intelligence. At their best, these tools use mathematical models tailored for specific analyses. They integrate with the existing business intelligence infrastructures and are anything but black-box technology: Business analytics models require tailoring, customization and people skilled at using them.

But as the payoff for this complexity, business analytics tools can run the gamut of data collected by an organization, from historical statistics and constituent information held in relational databases to real-time unstructured information gleaned from e-mail messages and Web documents. Business intelligence's forté is helping managers understand past behavior, while business analytics' promise is predicting new behaviors.

Business analytics analysts and vendors say the technology is becoming more widely used in the intelligence community for identifying terrorists by sifting through text and broadcasts as well as government health care organizations looking for new ways to contain costs and manage diseases.

Growth market

"With [business intelligence], you have an idea of which records or fields in the database you need to focus your queries and analyses on," said Jay Desai, federal practice leader and co-founder of Knightsbridge Solutions LLC, a Chicago-based systems integrator. "With [business analytics], you're looking for patterns in the entire data store."

Business analytics "uses prebuilt data models to solve specific problems like, 'How do I optimize inventory in my supply chain?' or 'How do I achieve compliance with a specific regulation?' " said Michael Beckley, vice president of product strategy for Appian Corp., a systems engineering and software vendor in McLean, Va.

By expanding analyses beyond historical information, business analytics increases predictive capabilities, said Larry Northington, vice president for strategic planning and corporate development at Teksouth Corp., a systems integrator doing business analytics work for the Defense Department. "You can take corrective action at the front end of the problem and fix it when it is a mole hill and not a mountain."

This potential is helping the business analytics market grow, said Henry Morris, group vice president for analytics at market researcher IDC and the person often credited with coining the term seven years ago.

Overall, more money is still spent on query and reporting tools

About the Author

Alan Joch is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.

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