REVIEWER: Thomas McDonald, chief operating officer for Empower IT, Inc.

BACKGROUND: Empower IT, Inc. is in the business of integrating, analyzing and applying information to assist those in the consumer goods industry in making the best possible product, merchandising and customer management decisions. Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Empower IT provides data management, decision support, business analysis, consulting and educational services to retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and sales agents of consumer products. In business since 1985, Empower IT's customer base includes more than 150 consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies.

PLATFORMS: AOS from Application Consulting Group (ACG) is installed on an Intel-based Pentium III Windows NT Server. It has a single 700 MHz processor and 256GB RAM.

PROBLEM SOLVED: Empower IT builds and distributes more than 500 different analytical databases to 150 different customers on a monthly basis. These databases are accessed through our desktop decision support system (DSS) application, MarketMaster. The database delivery vehicle for our clients was CDs, and disk space limitations coupled with overnight shipping costs were becoming problematic. In addition, we were expanding into new markets which necessitated streamlining the production process. We decided to use a Web-based solution. Because our customers were extremely satisfied with MarketMaster, this solution would need to broaden the original product functionality, be easy to use and contain the analytical capabilities that our customers expected.

PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: AOS is a Web-based business intelligence (BI) platform that offers a single interface to multiple data sources including Oracle Express. Empower IT was already using Express so we were able to leverage our original databases. In addition, by using a Web-based solution such as AOS, we eliminated the extra data processing associated with the original build process. Because AOS provided the benefits of a Web portal and DSS application all within one product, it provides our customers with the additional functionality we wanted. We are able to create management BI applications that can integrate all of our customers' data sources. Using AOS, we have the ability to host the applications as an ASP.

STRENGTHS: The integration of a Web portal and a DSS product was by far the most significant strength. The reporting functionality of AOS is very robust, a key requirement of the analysts. AOS integrates with desktop applications such as Excel and PowerPoint and consequently is easy for our customers to use. In addition, we can create applications with our own look and feel. The additional capabilities built into the new AOS 3.0 version are also significant strengths of the product. Specifically, the administration functionality and the product's ability to work with relational and OLAP databases are greatly improved.

WEAKNESSES: An important limitation for us was that AOS does not provide a portable reporting capability that some customers require when they need to be away from the office. In addition, while the product has significant ad hoc functionality, highly customized Express reports may require expertise in Express programming.

SELECTION CRITERIA: The primary decision criterion for selecting AOS was the integration of the Web portal and the DSS capabilities into a single tool. The product administration capabilities and ease of use made it economical to deploy and lowered the cost of customer education, an important factor.

DELIVERABLES: Using AOS, we are able to build customized BI portals with a focus on CPG analytics for each of our clients. AOS' portal capabilities allow us to include key corporate data information that is frequently updated. The built-in security allows our customers to share information with all groups within their organizations. With AOS, we are able to deliver a logical series of reports that will provide a complete view of business performance based upon our CPG expertise and cater to the many different functions within each organization.

VENDOR SUPPORT: We had some unique requirements for our applications. ACG was very responsive and accommodating throughout the entire process. Their account manager was knowledgeable and diligent in meeting all of our needs.

DOCUMENTATION: ACG customized its training for the Empower IT staff to specifically address our business needs. While their documentation was above average versus other products we investigated, we felt that our market required documentation that was more targeted to the specific business applications of our customers.

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