In-Depth

XO Communications warehouse streamlines billing, more

WINNER - Data Warehousing/Business Intelligence
Keeping track of return on investment (ROI) is part of Danny Sangster's job as senior manager for Enterprise Business Intelligence at XO Communications. In fact, Sangster and his team, winners of the 2004 ADT Innovator Award in the Data Warehousing/Business Intelligence category, are able to point to a very telling example of ROI.



Members of the XO Communications Team:
(Clockwise from right) Christine Walczak, Aleeta Gardner, Geoff Engman, Kevin Shaver, Aaron Bice, and Michael Epstein.

The call-detail data warehouse that Sangster and crew have forged at XO Communications readily and ably supported XO's decision not to pay a claim of more than $6 million tendered by another carrier in the telecommunications field. Faced with the data, the claimer adjusted its invoice downward to $295,000. This is the type of ROI that does not have to sing its own song.



More team members: (from left) Gang Chen, Danny Sangster, Fred Pedraza, Thota Ramadevi, John Strickland, Anthony Esposito, Charles Spanholtz, Jason Young.

But that is just one of the tangible benefits of a mission-critical reporting system. Enterprise-wide cost reduction, decision support and compliance reporting are benefits of a system that employs the Informatica PowerCenter data integration platform, along with Oracle databases and a variety of reporting tools that include Brio reporting software. (Brio is now part of Hyperion.)

Flexibility has been a watchword for those working on the ongoing Enterprise Business Intelligence project at XO Communications, a provider of communications services for a range of enterprises and carriers. Tools that abstract-up some of the low-level coding requirements have helped. Tools like Informatica's, said Sangster, have allowed business analysts to take on some of the work involved in actually developing the various programs needed to care for and feed a substantial data warehouse.

"We are in this constant learning process here," Sangster said. "The data set challenge, the size of the set -- 100 million records per day -- is respectable to say the least. As it has grown over time, we have had to reengineer our platform. That's a constant challenge. We've gained experience on how to manage it with partitions, using divide and conquer techniques [for example, use five threads instead of one] and so on."

As a team, his group has had to become more flexible in its approach to the business, Sangster said. Analysts doing some of the work of developers is part of that.

With the XO Enterprise Business Intelligence system, network engineering can use call details to feed their traffic pattern analysis models and contracting activities. The data warehouse acts as the simplest place to get aggregated totals for many XO business units. Because the data warehouse and BI project is always leading to new discoveries, the goals of the project can be described as being in flux, although, naturally, some of the fundamental goals of decision support and cost control remain the same.

Getting to those goals required flexibility, too. Managing data volume growth is just an ongoing, immutable fact of life.

"A lot of the activities are like DB activities; for example, loading tables, tuning tables, partitioning tables and indexing tables," said Sangster. "These days, we load up over 100 million records a day. To do that, you have to do what works. You have to customize your load processes to the data and, specifically, the size of it. So DBA skills are very important there.

"An analyst can turn into a pseudo-developer. Normally analysts do not do any coding. They describe business needs or flows," he added. But with the need for flexibility among team members, and the capabilities of data warehouse software like Informatica's PowerCenter, you can allow analysts to generate solutions on the fly without asking the developer for assistance. "For example, we have analysts who, through the use of Informatica, have become developers that we depend on daily," Sangster said. "A tool such as Informatica, in the hands of a savvy business analyst, can become a powerful combination," he noted.

Across industries, data warehousing and operational data systems are crossing paths. Some call this the real-time enterprise, but Sangster does not adhere to that term. "I call it delta processing," he said. The lesson here is that how you handle changes (deltas) decides how well you enable efficient "real-time" operations. "Our goal is strictly to pull deltas from our source systems," Sangster said.

The data warehouse at XO has helped to identify switch configuration errors that impacted billing for certain features. The data warehouse helps the company to analyze traffic behavior daily, rather than waiting until the traffic records hit downstream, back-office applications.

As our Keane judges wrote: "XO effectively leveraged data warehouse content as well as meta data to provide data integration across multiple systems and business units." In this case, especially, that spells ROI.

APPLICATION PROFILE

Project: Enterprise Business Intelligence (EBI)

Purpose: A data warehouse's charter is to house call detail records and summary tables to support business initiatives and trending analysis. The reporting arm of EBI provides reporting capabilities by integrating operational systems.

Benefits: ROI, including cost savings through recognition of inaccurate billing; quick handling of legal obligations such as requests for phone records, as well as regulatory reporting to the Public Utility Commission.

Platforms: Sun Solaris, Windows XP

TOOLS

Informatica PowerCenter, Oracle 8i, Microsoft Project and the Brio reporting tool

DEVELOPMENT TEAM

Christine Walczak, Aleeta Gardner, Geoff Engman, Kevin Shaver, Aaron Bice, Michael Epstein, Danny Sangster, Charles Spanholtz, John Strickland, Jason Young, Thota Ramadevi, Fred Pedraza, Gang Chen, Anthony Esposito.

KEANE REPORT

XO Communications' Enterprise Business Intelligence project implemented a call-detail data warehouse that monitored traffic flow through the XO telecom network as well as from other carriers' networks that XO, under certain circumstances, chose to utilize. The data warehouse provides mission-critical reporting that supports the strategic goals of enterprise-wide cost reduction, decision support and compliance reporting. Its tactical goals included supporting direct billing, regulatory reporting, traffic pattern monitoring for network configuration, sales commission reporting and legal requests for call records.

Features of XO's approach include:

    • Leveraging the features and components of industry-recognized technologies and BI tools to replace previously hand-coded routines and achieve sharable business meta data.
    • Business-focused innovation of the environment to support business process engineering such as the on boarding of new customers prior to full incorporation into the billing systems.
    • Innovative use of meta data to achieve data integration across two duplicated business area DWs.
    • Unconventional and innovative architecture that combined strategic and tactical data. By improving its own business processes, optimally engineering its network and validating bills received from other carriers, XO has successfully leveraged the Enterprise Business Intelligence data warehouse environment to manage business risk and strengthen its competitive position in the industry.

Keane Team Leader: Jack Fuchs is a Keane senior principal consultant with more than 22 years of experience. He currently serves as a senior data architect and DW/BI solutions manager for Keane's Architecture Services Group.

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.

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