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Sybase IQ Helps Meet Business Challenges at ODS Health Plans

  • July 01 2001, 1:00am EDT

REVIEWER: Jeff Sexton, system architect for ODS Health Plans.

BACKGROUND: ODS Health Plans is a medical and dental insurance provider based in Portland, Oregon. ODS provides a wide range of medical and dental plans serving over 600,000 members and dependents for over 1,600 employers.

PLATFORMS: Today, our IQ Multiplex server runs on an IBM RS/6000 M80 with four processors, 4GB memory and 18GB SSA RAID disk. This server is dedicated to the IQ Multiplex database server.

PROBLEM SOLVED: Beginning in 1993 with the formation of the Oregon Health Plan, a state sponsored managed care program, the healthcare industry began to increase emphasis on new business models. New and different requirements were generated almost daily. Reporting was increasingly ad hoc, much larger volumes of data needed to be managed, and the customer base and types of provider contracts were entirely new. Maintaining our company's excellent customer-centric reputation in this new environment created a substantial challenge.

PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: An enterprise level data warehouse built around Sybase IQ Multiplex and our existing RS/6000 servers was a natural fit to these requirements. Using Sybase IQ Multiplex, ODS has created an online environment providing detailed data about healthcare services and our customers going back to 1994. Because IQ Multiplex supports ODBC and native Sybase drivers, ODS's marketing, actuarial and accounting staff all have direct access to the database using a variety of client/server tools such as Brio Query. Staff outside the IS department now routinely responds to complex and unpredictable requests from our customers without dedicated programming efforts.

STRENGTHS: Most importantly, Sybase IQ is fast. Many queries perform as much as 100 times faster than would be expected from a traditional database server. We have been able to measure this increase because we use other database products in our OLTP applications. In addition, IQ's data compression allows ODS to store information in 30 to 40 percent of the space that the same information uses in our Sybase ASE-based staging databases. Because of these two factors, ODS has been able to hold down the hardware expenses of its data warehousing project without the smallest compromise of service to users.

WEAKNESSES: Sybase IQ Multiplex, because of its robustness, is an extremely complex product. ODS has used extensive assistance from Sybase to get the most from IQ. Although highly scalable, IQ Multiplex requires a substantial computer to get started. In our experience, small IQ environments for testing or development do not perform at a practical level. Backups have also been a challenge, due both to the amount of data and limitations in the backup hardware IQ Multiplex supports. For example, IQ does not directly support any robotic tape units; however, it is possible with some tinkering to make IQ Multiplex work with robotic units, as we have.

SELECTION CRITERIA: ODS needed an online analytical system that provided rapid response under unpredictable loads. Costs and staffing were limiting factors. Simply installing increasingly powerful computers indefinitely was not an attractive option. To further complicate matters, it was clear that the traditional IS model of skilled programmers generating information in response to user requests would not allow a sufficiently nimble response to rapidly changing regulations and customer demands. We needed tools that empowered a wide range of internal users to generate information on their own without programming staff.

DELIVERABLES: Loads to the IQ Multiplex data warehouse from production data stores (Sybase databases, mainframe-based systems and external sources) are simple and fast even during regular hours of operation. Loads have been automated to increase their timeliness and reliability. Because of IQ's table-level snapshot versioning, users never see an inconsistent view of the database, even when loads require multiple steps. DBA resources have also been minimized. IQ Multiplex is specifically designed for an ad hoc environment. Tuning of the data server is minimal compared to other database products. This has limited the amount of new staff required for our data warehousing project.

VENDOR SUPPORT: Sybase support is excellent; however, we have needed it more than I would have liked to make the system perform its best.

DOCUMENTATION: Documentation provided by Sybase for IQ Multiplex was a bit wanting in earlier editions, but has improved significantly. Due to this product's unique nature, there are not many third party books or other sources of information. We hope this will change as the user base for Sybase IQ increases.

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