Data Management

BI Eases IT Workload at SD Supercomputer Center

Non-technical users at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, a research unit of the University of California, San Diego, can now access a range of business information whenever they want, instead of waiting up to a week for an IT expert to produce a needed report. The center is using a business intelligence (BI) software solution from eThority to provide ad-hoc reporting capabilities for users.

According to Cindy Lee, manager of business computing for the Supercomputer Center, eThority Enterprise is being used primarily for business reporting, including human resources, financial, and, soon, facilities data. Currently, the data is federated into the center's local Oracle database, then extracted to eThority. 

"We may start extracting some data from the [UCSD] campus [IBM] DB2 server directly into eThority and combining it with our local Oracle data in the next couple of months," Lee said, adding that she hasn't seen anything yet indicating that there would be any difficulties in doing that.

The center, almost 25 years old, aims to become a regional computing resource for researchers at UC San Diego, the UC system, and beyond, including industry, offering technical expertise, facility co-location services, and data-intensive computing. It provides cyber-infrastructure resources to scientists who require massive computing and data-handling capabilities to conduct their research. With about 250 paid staff and another 75 unpaid--including graduate students and others--it is considered an "organized research unit" of UCSD and has a research, not academic, focus.

Finding software that would let business users such as executives and administrators prepare their own reports became more and more important as her staff was increasingly faced with a high volume of ad-hoc report requests, Lee said. Her group offered well developed Web reports that business users could customize, but, nevertheless, she continued to receive a large number of "one-off requests for ad-hoc data." A year later, she explained, a similar request might come in, but with a number of parameters that needed to be adjusted: "The queries were sufficiently different that we couldn't just generate a canned report."

That meant her application development staff was spending precious time responding to report requests and pulling data from the appropriate databases. "We really wanted to enable business users to get at the data themselves," Lee said.

eThority users included front-line operational staff who might be looking for transactional data tracking information on a grant, for example, or for human resources information in report form. The primary users, however, are management, who use the system for high-level planning such as checking on the financial status of the center, and on the volume of research proposals and their status.

The product rollout was fairly easy and quick, Lee said. Her goal was to identity those data structures and combinations users were most likely to use initially, "then develop views that would allow us to de-normalize data to make querying easier for users." The implementation took about two months, with total staff time equal to a single technical staff member. Access is near-real-time, since transactional data is refreshed every 15 minutes.

User reaction so far has been highly positive. "They're pleased with being able to get at data directly, and in the time frame they need," Lee said. Depending on the complexity of a requested report, users might have waited from a day to a week.

Lee said that the time her staff spends handling report requests has dropped in just the month the product has been in use. In particular, she cites preparation for an annual report for one of the center's federal grants. "Previously, I would get an initial request for data, then subsequent revisions to the request parameters, meaning that I could run several queries for the same report." Revising the parameters iteratively took time, as did obtaining clarification from the requestor regarding the data needed. "Now that the staff can experiment with the queries themselves," Lee says, "the amount of time that my group has spent pulling data has dropped."

Her group reviewed at least 10 other products in selecting eThority, Lee said. Topping the must-have list was ease of use. "An intuitive, easy-to-use interface was very important," she stressed. She also liked the fact that a primary focus of eThority is ad-hoc reporting, rather than displaying dashboards with various predefined reports ready for selection.

Another key consideration was the ability to export data results into Excel, among other formats, and to e-mail reports to others. Setting up access permissions to allow the appropriate users access to the appropriate raw data wasn't "quite as straightforward as I would have liked," Lee said. While limiting access to individual tables was easy, it was more difficult to get more granular, setting permissions to limit access to certain columns or records within that table.

She's also awaiting technical documentation for the product.

In general, having eThority in place, Lee said, is resulting in fewer requests to staff for reports, allowing her staff to focus more on key areas of responsibility, including business process design and software development.

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