NCR teams with Acton Burnell for data warehousing solutions

NCR Corp.'s Government Systems Group and consulting firm Acton Burnell have formed a partnership to promote and sell data warehousing solutions to federal agencies.

Data warehousing solutions are widely used by companies, particularly retailers, that want to collect as much information about their customers as they can and then analyze that information to maximize their promotions and sales. But data warehousing is quickly gaining ground in banking, insurance and other industries, and government might not be far behind, the firms said.

"The private sector has lived through the hard knocks and learned from experience. Government is just now getting into data warehousing," said Cindy Walker, director of data management services at Acton Burnell.

Acton Burnell, formerly Software Solutions Inc., and NCR, which counts Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. among its data warehouse customers, envision the government's initiation in data warehousing to come as a result of the Government Performance and Results Act, officials of both companies said.

GPRA is the biggest factor raising federal awareness about data warehousing, Walker said. Agencies face the challenge of pulling data together, assembling it and presenting a report that measures their performance against their plans, Walker said. Data collection will begin in fiscal 1999, with reports due March 31, 2000.

The evaluation might involve something as basic as the effectiveness of a literacy program, or it might require a complex query, such as the number of World War II veterans living in Arizona who have epilepsy and need a certain type of medicine. That kind of data could improve efficiency in the Veterans Health Administration by revealing how much of that medicine needs to be available and where.

Beyond GPRA, data warehousing can be used to improve services, detect Medicaid fraud and improve the Defense Department's supply chain, said Kimberly Baker, vice president of data warehousing in NCR's Government Systems Group.

The leading companies in all industries are using a concept called "customer relationship management" to gain a competitive edge, Baker said. The process involves analyzing every aspect of a sale to determine specifics about each buyer.

"The goal is to get at the data and turn it into meaningful information," Baker said. In the public sector, this process could be called "citizen relationship management," and it could be used to improve whatever services the government agency provides.

But data warehousing is a "very complex space," and it is expensive, said Joe Ferlazzo, director of Technology Business Research Inc., Hampton, N.J. Acton Burnell and NCR will be going into an environment of disparate systems.

The key to the companies' success will be their ability to use a combination of software that can tap into existing data sets, combine the data into a separate database and search for trends, Ferlazzo said. They also will need component-based or Java-based middleware that can translate legacy data into whatever format they need, he said.

Despite the hurdles, data warehousing "could do wonders" for agencies that deal with immense amounts of data, such as the Census Bureau or the Internal Revenue Service, Ferlazzo said.

NCR and Acton Burnell said they plan initially to target government organizations within their existing customer base. That includes the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the IRS, the Transportation Department, the General Services Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

NCR's data warehouse solution, called the Teradata database, runs on a Unix or Microsoft Corp. Windows NT operating system. Teradata collects the data from existing databases, "cleanses" it and then collates it into a form that can be read using online analytical processing tools. OLAP lets users analyze a pool of data using queries that involve multiple kinds of records; it is usually used to identify trends.

Teradata's OLAP capabilities distinguish it from online transaction process databases produced by competitors Oracle Corp. and Informix Corp. Those databases handle transactions quickly but have a more difficult time answering ad hoc complex queries.

Teradata runs on as little as four symmetric multiprocessing Intel Corp. processors, and NCR has customers with databases holding 10 to 24 terabytes of data. NCR also partners with tool providers, including MicroStrategy and Cognos Inc., and other companies that specialize in algorithms to complete the solution.

Acton Burnell will contribute by helping organizations define a common set of terms and definitions and by modeling business requirements as a basis for management decision-making.

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