Electric grid operator consolidates BI tools

Californian electricity provider is standardizing on new business intelligence tools as part of corporate upgrade

The company that coordinates the buying and selling of wholesale electricity for 80 percent of California is standardizing on new business intelligence (BI) tools as part of a major corporate technology upgrade.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO) has been replacing its reporting tools from Business Objects and Microsoft, and its Excel spreadsheets, with query, reporting and analysis tools from San Francisco-based Actuate over the past year, said Steve Berberich, CIO and vice president of technology at the electric grid operator.

The BI project is running in tandem with a major technology upgrade to replace the ISO's specialized core systems that provide internal users with electricity demand data, prices and the ability to settle transactions, Berberich said. The project is slated to be completed in November 2007.

The ISO electronically manages the flow of electricity along California's wholesale power grid, coordinating 40,000 transactions every hour between buyers and sellers. The nonprofit electric grid operator's IT systems also must manage demand forecasts, track prices and settle transactions.

"The data that we provide and how we provide it actually facilitates the market," Berberich said. "We're very demanding in what we use. Because of the role we play, it was important to have a bulletproof product and one ... we knew could integrate with our new applications."

The ISO will use the Actuate tools to marry historical data with real-time information so users have online access to reports containing scheduled energy loads and forecasts. That will help energy companies more easily access online information to better plan for production and establish pricing, Berberich said.

According to Berberich, the upgrade is an opportunity for the grid operator to eliminate some of the costs associated with maintaining separate BI tools. He said it would be difficult to estimate the exact savings that standardizing on BI tools will yield.

"We are creating value on a number of fronts," Berberich said. "First, we have reduced support costs because we don't have so many disparate reporting tools. Training costs are reduced because we don't have to train on a collection of tools."

Finally, he said, workers gain efficiency because they don't have to use separate tools for different tasks.

While he acknowledged that it's generally difficult to get BI users to change tools, the ISO has been successful by clearly laying out the advantages of the new products. Officials have worked to create a "bit of excitement around the new product" that may make the tools more attractive to users than those now in use.

"You have to be firm in your position on the standard," he said. "What is important to us is that we focus on providing information. To the extent we have a tool that can change data into information ... [that] is very useful."

Bill Hostmann, an analyst at Gartner, said organizations need to find ways to keep costs down when building an infrastructure that can be used to link historical and real-time data. A BI infrastructure for analyzing real-time data is typically much more expensive and complex than those focused only on historical data, he said.

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