This is one article of a series appearing in this issue categorizing the users of the corporate information factory.

Are you an operator? Even though your phone extension is probably not zero, you may still be an operator if you consider fresh, detailed, day-to-day information absolutely essential to completing your work and performing your tactical analysis.

As an operator, sometimes you make special requests for information, but most of the time you need current, detailed information on a scheduled basis. You rely heavily on standardized queries. In general, you simply hope that the critical information you need is available and immediately accessible.

As information storage has increased via computers, more and more operators have adopted the view that all the information they need is in the system somewhere. They want someone to give them access to it ­ now!

Understandably, IT departments have been besieged for years by requests for current information from their ever-increasing customer base of operators. Later, when multiple operators clamored for the exact same information, IT took notice and consolidated duplicate extract programs. Still later, the random, ad hoc evolution of multiple extracts feeding multiple satellite operational systems frequently turned out to be inefficient, if not unmanageable. As a result, many of today's operators must continually struggle to consolidate and evaluate current information from disparate sources.

The good news is that an alternative exists for effectively satisfying operators' needs for current, detailed, enterprise-wide and consolidated tactical information. More on that later. For now, a better description of operators is in order.

Operator Characteristics

Operators are easily identified by their administrative, tactical focus on today's problems. They may be individuals functioning in the role of first- or second-level managers, line or shift supervisors, or even customer service representatives who need current information from the corporate information factory. They also represent a fairly large portion of the business community.

Their questions require immediate answers and must be based on the best and most current data available. For example, which depot should we use to ship products for a special order? What is the financial impact of an impending hurricane on our insurance company's policies? Has the production line made enough of a certain product to satisfy current orders? How many telemarketing calls must still be made to complete the current campaign? Operators require data that is as comprehensive or enterprise focused as possible because a decision must be made NOW.

Operators are generally responsible for monitoring the day-to-day performance metrics of the business. While they may interact with multiple operational systems, they need consolidated integrated information to track the current state of the performance metrics.

Operators often perform routine processes and queries. They have a predictable pattern of usage and are veterans of OLTP environments. Therefore, they expect transaction-like performance and response times (sub-second to a few seconds) to their requests.

Historical Data Requirements

Operators rarely require significant amounts of historical data since they address the current state of the business. They require a minimal amount of history because the time aspect of their analyses is usually limited to today, yesterday, this week or perhaps this month. While they may not need a large amount of historical data, they do need a broad range or scope of data. Frequently, operators must look at all the angles of a problem before making their decisions. Because of this, they present the data architect with a significant challenge in maintaining the integrated, detailed, broad-scoped, third normal form style table structures.

User Interface

Tools that facilitate unstructured access, such as those in the OLAP family, are generally not necessary for operators. While the operators strain the IT infrastructure to provide current, detailed, accessible data, their interface or presentation requirements are often relatively simple. Many simply need on-line access to the few lines on the "green-bar" reports of interest to them each day. Given the predictable pattern of usage demonstrated by most operators, their interface should be intuitive, simple and menu-driven. Interfaces that facilitate structured access and invoke a series of standard queries using only a few keystrokes are very effective.

Web-based query and reporting tools also may be extremely useful. Browser access to standard and performance metric information utilizing Web-based tools is very close to "on-line access to the green-bar reports."

Rather than querying the information themselves, managers may want key performance indicator information to be broadcast automatically as changes occur or at a set frequency, such as every half-hour. Today's information broadcasting tools can send information directly and efficiently via e-mail, voice mail, pages or faxes.

An Architecture Supporting the Operators

The architecture for operators is called an operational data store (ODS). Like a data warehouse, an ODS is subject oriented and integrated. In contrast, though, it also contains frequently updated, current data that operators need to make their tactical decisions.

Economy and simplicity are the strengths of an ODS structure in the corporate information factory. In terms of economy, an ODS embodies one-stop shopping by providing operators with a single source of integrated, enterprise-wide data and a single destination for disparate source system extracts. Simplicity is a natural byproduct of integration and consolidation. That is, it's simpler to load and access one system as opposed to many.

On the other hand, centralization can be a double-edged sword. The biggest challenge posed by an ODS is frequently one of update timing. Assuming an iterative approach to construction, the average ODS starts out small, satisfying a limited number of needs. A small ODS means that updating the data fast enough is not a problem at first. Several iterations later though, after its success is proven, an ODS may become so large that it takes significant effort to coordinate the updates to its content. A separate batch process may be needed to handle the integration and transformation process alone.

Even with such potential problems, it's obvious that operators and IT resources alike can benefit from an ODS. The ability to make sound tactical decisions from a reliable, up-to-date source of data is becoming a mandatory requirement in many organizations.

Database Design

The need for normalized structures in the ODS is another unique aspect in its design in supporting operators. Current, detailed and updateable data is dynamic in nature. Of course, the true meaning of dynamic depends on how often you update or refresh the ODS database and how much of it gets updated. In terms of content, the potential exists for change to every attribute in every row. In terms of frequency, many operators need "zero latency," or instantaneous updates. Whatever the combination, the most stable data structure for use when updating dynamic data is readily accepted as a normalized database (generally in third normal form).

Summary

Operators are a unique class of business users for the corporate information factory. They represent specific and challenging business and technical requirements. These include:

  • The business need for subject-oriented and integrated operational data to perform business management functions.
  • The business need for data as current as it is technologically feasible to get (updated as frequently as possible from the operational applications).
  • Access to very detailed information with performance response times of seconds or sub-seconds.
  • Ability to analyze detailed information rapidly to act immediately.
  • An interface that is relatively simple and easy to use.
  • The ability to have key performance metrics published or "pushed."

By recognizing operators as part of the family of corporate information factory users, you can implement better architectures and applications to meet their specific needs.

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