Market researcher revs up data warehouse grid

Oracle 10g grid saves company money and improves data redundancy

Like a muscle car driving 55 mph on the freeway, R.L. Polk & Co.'s new grid-based data warehouse boasts gobs of untapped power under the hood, according to Kevin Vasconi, the company's CIO.

In May, the US-based automotive industry market research company finished moving its main 4TB customer-facing data warehouse to an Oracle 10g grid comprised of Dell PowerEdge servers running Linux.

The move has helped R.L. Polk save money and improve data redundancy, availability and access time. It also supports Polk's new service-oriented architecture, which is improving customer service, Vasconi said.

"We are getting more bang for our buck," he said. The data warehouse is doing 10 million transactions a day "without any issues."

Encouraged by the experience so far, R.L. Polk is bringing onto the grid other databases, both domestic and overseas, that total 2.5 petabytes of actively managed data. It's a process that will take at least 18 months, Vasconi said. And the amount of data is expected to grow 30 percent per year for the foreseeable future.

Founded in 1870 -- the same year the automobile's predecessor, a motorized handcart, was invented in Germany - R.L. Polk started as a publisher of business directories. It became a car information supplier in 1921 and began using computer punch cards in 1951. The company is best known to consumers for its Carfax database of car histories.

Before its recent move to Oracle grid technology, R.L. Polk stored most of its data on Oracle 9 or 10 databases running Sun Solaris servers, connected to EMC gear running in storage-area networks.

Now, R.L. Polk's grid is comprised of 100 two- and four-way servers all running Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It also serves up applications and powers the rule processing engine. It can "easily double" to 200 servers, providing room for growth.

Only a tiny portion of the grid -- four four-way servers -- is apportioned now to the data warehouse. Much of it is devoted to running R.L. Polk's new Web-based applications, which both import data into the data warehouse from 260 discrete sources, such as car dealers or state licensing boards, and streams it out to paying customers, such as carmakers, car dealers and parts suppliers.

The data warehouse serves as R.L. Polk's "single source of truth" on a massive database that includes 500 million individual cars, or almost 85 percent of all cars in the world as of 2002. It also includes data on 250 million households and 3 billion transactions.

R.L. Polk cleanses the names and addresses of all incoming records, adds location data such as latitude and longitude, and, in the case of the 17-digit vehicle identification numbers unique to every car, extrapolates each car's individual features and styling. It's a complicated process, but as his team continues to tweak the Oracle grid engine, Vasconi expects to be able to shorten the importation time to less than 24 hours.

Looking forward, Vasconi said data already stored on vehicles' on-board computers -- such as engine-trouble history, GPS-based location history, average speeds and so on -- will soon be imported into the data warehouse, too, if privacy issues can be resolved.

"The car is a gold mine of consumer information," Vasconi said.

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