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Case Study: Union Pacific Keeps Data On Track

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Since its founding in the 1860s, at a time when America was rapidly expanding westward, the Union Pacific Railroad has criss-crossed the country with essentially the same mission — to haul goods and supplies from Point A to B.

But virtually all aspects of this old-line company have been transformed by the IT revolution. Nowhere is it seen more than in Union Pacific’s engineering department, where each day 4,000 workers monitor and manage upkeep on every inch of 33,500 miles of track, cataloging every curve degree and rail joint, plus every UP bridge, road crossing, signal, and rail yard in 27 western states. Another 800 field inspectors input data from hand and visual tests.

James Holder, director of engineering systems for Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific, says, “Our engineering business is truly data driven.” That’s an understatement, as more than 10 gigabytes are added daily to a multi-terabyte system. The system is crucial to train safety, helping fix track imperfections, lower train speeds, limit loads, reroute traffic, and comply with federal safety rules.

AT A GLANCE: Union Pacific Railroad
The company: Union Pacific Railroad, which generates $12 billion in annual revenue, operates 33,500 miles of track in 27 U.S. states, hauling coal, cars, and other commodities across the country.

The problem: The need for 4,000 field workers, managers and execs generating 10 gigabytes of track-maintenance data a day to access and analyze data residing on 25 separate databases.

The solution: Business intelligence software from nQuire Software, which helped the railroad create a Web-based, personalized “dashboard” of critical information.

But two years ago UP faced a problem. All of these data exist on 25 databases residing in software created by four different companies (Oracle, Teradata, IBM’s DB2 platform, and SQL Server), running on hardware built by four other companies (Sun, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and NCR).

The goal: easily access and analyze disparate sets of data residing in multiple systems across the country. “All of this has to be brought together (to determine) where we’re going to spend money and where we’re going to do maintenance,” Holder says.

UP had been using various tools to program queries made to a single, multi-terabyte data warehouse built in Oracle. Some of the queries took weeks to write and test and were difficult to modify. Users submitted requests to the IT department, where programmers would write the queries and return results to field workers or managers via spreadsheet or e-mail. “There was not a whole lot of self service; we’d have to pay programmers to keep coding,” Holder explains.

Instead, management wanted to leverage technology to create a Web-based “dashboard” of key information about the condition of the railroad. It had to be personalized to each user, no matter where they were in the field, and it also had to be easy enough to navigate from with a browser by thousands of workers with only basic IT skills.

About two years ago the company set out to find a solution to its business intelligence needs. It measured several reporting and online analytical processing tools on functional, architectural, performance, and total-cost-of-solutions benchmarks.

The solution UP chose: business intelligence software from nQuire Software Inc., a privately held Minnetonka, Minn., firm. The result: A Web-based system that let workers access the right information in the right format at the right time, no matter their location or IT proficiency.

In May 2000, Union Pacific implemented nQuire Suite to bring together data stored in numerous operations, transactional, and data warehouse systems. The Suite platform consists of three components:

  • nQuire Server, which reaches beyond the bounds of any single data store to unify information from multiple data sources in relational, host, and XML-based systems. It provides the analytical capabilities to derive intelligence from data.
  • nQuire Answers, the suite’s portal function, providing self-service access to real-time information over the Internet or intranet.
  • nQuire Delivers, which lets companies create “information insurance,” whereby any information-based problem can be detected and the right person notified via Web or wireless device.

UP execs say the decision to go with nQuire was easy. Within hours of being installed during the pilot phase, nQuire was up and running against multiple data sources and was used by several dozen end users. Within several months, more than 600 users were accessing 45 data sources and using 65 nQuire “subject areas” — simplified business views of physical data that shield the user from complex underlying data structures.

The end result: an easy-to-access source for real-time data on track conditions that can be queried in numerous ways to help workers and management make business decisions and plan projects.

“There are a ton of different ways you can slice and dice your report,” Holder says, adding that the solution can do in hours and days was used to take weeks and months to accomplish. The system is supported by fewer than five full-time administrators, far fewer than required by many other business intelligence packages.

How is the system used? Say managers want to take a snapshot of the condition of Union Pacific’s railroad in the southern region. Based on internal criteria, or “risk factors,” managers can query the system, create a list of the “worst” and “best” areas of track, and produce actionable data that can be used for planning maintenance programs and deploying resources.

Want to find the sections of rail with the most “curve wear” or “head wear,” two terms that describe the physical deterioration of iron rails? nQuire can search the databases and come up with a list based on a variety of criteria, such as rail location, degree of curve, when the rail was laid, the percentage of “head loss,” vertical wear of the tracks, and other benchmarks.

Currently, UP’s data sources include more than 25 separate databases residing in Oracle, Teradata, DB2 Mainframe, DB2 PE, XML, Microsoft Access, and SQL server. Regarding hardware, nQuire resides on a dual Pentium Hewlett Packard NetServer LC3 (2-400 Mhz) with 1Gb of RAM. Individual data sources reside in NT, UNIX, and mainframe systems.

Currently, 4,000 UP workers use the nQuire system, but that’s expected to grow to include the entire 50,000-plus member workforce of the Union Pacific, which has revenues of $12 billion.

The company did not disclose details on the cost to implement and run the system. However, UP is said to be realizing a return on its investment in technology through, among other things, its ability to better manage their stock or replacement track. With a budget of several hundred million dollars per year to replace old track, a savings of a few percent can add up to a substantial return. An nQuire official said UP was able to implement the system with what amounted to two full-time administrators.

Pricing for nQuire’s server implementation starts at $225,000, with addition licensing or subscription fees being charged on a per-user basis, according to a company official. The company, which was founded in 1997 and began selling product in 1999, counts among its customers the Royal Bank of Canada, that country’s largest bank, and Simon Property Group, a real estate investment trust that owns malls.

If the results are any indication, Union Pacific will be moving quickly to roll out nQuire across other business divisions. Says Holder, “nQuire’s capabilities are enabling us to positively impact operating efficiencies, improve our ability to exploit our information assets, and allow employees at all levels of the organization access to the information that they specifically require to do their job.”

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