Council retires mainframe monster from data duty

Generating reports from Baulkham Hills Shire Council's old "monster" AS/400 mainframe used to be near impossible. Data wasn't easily extracted, resulting in a concern over the accuracy of the reports, which in turn impacted on the council's decision-making.

"Users wanted reports, but IT would say 'it's too hard to pull out of this impossible monster' of a system," said Alimitra Pestonji, project manager at Baulkham Hills Shire Council, which is in Sydney's north western suburbs.

So the council went on the hunt for a reporting tool to sit on its original database and extract data, to make it easier for IT and users to generate up-to-the-minute reports. The council found that the implementation of Cognos-based reporting solutions, together with moving to NT on an SQL server, has led to greater reporting efficiencies and helped business decisions.

"Cognos Impromptu and the Crystal reporting products from Seagate were considered in the selection process. The council was, and still is, using Crystal's document management system, so we looked at both products. But in the end we chose Cognos because it was more powerful and you could do more statistically with the data. Also it was more user friendly," Pestonji said.

Since then, Pestonji said, Crystal has released another version of its reporting tool, which is more comparable.

The council is now able to generate managed reports on areas such as property, health, rates and building and development and distribute them to more than 50 users via the council's LAN.

The reporting tool has been used for management reporting since 1996, Pestonji said. Cognos has slowly been introduced to other aspects of the council as the database is upgraded. In July last year, the council moved rates and planning to the NT database also.

Currently, Cognos is used to electronically deliver monthly management reports on budget versus actuals to all budget managers within the council. In phase two of the council's managed reporting rollout, Cognos should enable the council to report, with financial data and performance data, via the Web using portals.

PowerPlay, the Cognos OLAP (online analytical processing) software enables multidimensional analysis of the council's data. By using the OLAP software, Pestonji said users can generate their own cubes specific to their business unit and query.

"In general, it takes 1.5 days to build a cube. Once built it may take the council half a day train its staff to use it," Pestonji said.

"Some users prefer IT to do OLAP reporting, which is fine. Other users not only do it themselves, but get training to build the cubes themselves because they prefer to play around with the tool and see what they want," Pestonji said. "This is particularly good for more complex data groupings and formats reporting, rather than simple list reports."

According to Pestonji, the reporting software provides decision makers with information that they would not have had previously.

"An Impromptu simple listing report, say of all development applications from 1996 to 1998, may now take 10 to 15 minutes to produce. From the old mainframe system, which was not powerful enough, it couldn't be done."

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