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Information Builders, SQL Server breathe new life into BI platform

The commercial shipping industry's news and data provider spent the last three years overhauling its BI platform and data processing system.

When Nathan Tableman saw UBM Global Trade’s information management system, he knew the road ahead would be ard...


“It hadn’t been touched in a very long time,” said Tableman, the vice president of technology for the media and data company, which is headquartered in Newark, N.J.

The company, a subsidiary of London-based UBM plc, provides data, data analysis and news on the commercial shipping industry to subscribers through The Journal of Commerce and the Port Import/Export Reporting Service database, also known as PIERS.

Three years ago, its data management system used proprietary coded C-based systems that ran on a Hewlett-Packard Unix machine. Its business intelligence (BI) platform relied on an older version of Information Builders’ programming language Focus, which delivered data in spreadsheets and didn’t support data manipulation, graphics or drill-down functions.

“But our customers were operating in the Internet age, and they were expecting a higher degree of interactivity around data,” Tableman said.

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While important, product modernization wasn’t the most pressing reason UBM Global Trade needed to update its data management system. If it was going to continue functioning, the company required an almost immediate technological upgrade. Deployed in the early 1990s, the system was at such an advanced age that pieces of it were on the brink of failing, Tableman said.

“It was an incredible business risk,” he said.

Because of the situation’s urgency, UBM Global Trade’s data management system, including its BI platform, underwent two significant overhauls, what Tableman referred to as second and third generations of the system.

Stabilizing the system

The second generation was an overall update to the system -- a transition to Information Builders’ WebFocus, an Internet-ready BI platform that uses Focus.

“The move from Focus to WebFocus was not questioned because we needed to get that old system shut down,” Tableman said. “There was no real shopping around.”

The company also transitioned off its old Informix -- now IBM Informix -- relational database to Microsoft SQL Server. Tableman, who said he wasn’t a fan of IBM, and his team considered a product from Oracle, but negative experiences with the company steered them away.

“When it came down to it, I had had experiences with Oracle being unfriendly with their licensing,” Tableman said. While with another employer, Tableman saw rising Oracle licensing costs that exceeded the original audit in spite of maintaining the same infrastructure. He described Microsoft, on the other hand, as being “pretty straightforward.”  

Because of WebFocus’ abstraction layer, significant changes could happen internally but created no customer-facing interruptions. And so, beyond interacting with an updated interface, the alterations went undetected by UBM’s users.

“It allowed us a smooth transition from an older to a newer database as we rearchitected our enterprise,” Tableman said.

Now customers can search on, aggregate and use the data to generate charts and graphs using an interactive wizard. Or, as many still prefer, they can download the data in spreadsheet form and combine it with their corporate, internal data.

Integrating the data

With the second generation, UBM stabilized the system and concentrated on updating its interface. With the third generation, the company looked at taking things a step further -- from code to what Tableman refers to as “configure.” And they again selected Information Builders for the job.

But Tableman and his team weren’t under the same pressure as when building the second generation, which gave them some room to look around.

“When we moved to the third generation, we paused and said, ‘OK, we have this chance to rethink everything; so what are we going to do?’ ” he said.

As they evaluated products, they found some were too light, such as Tableau, and some provided more than they needed, such as BusinessObjects. Information Builders, a company UBM had a long-standing relationship with, presented its iWay Software, which promised to help automate and integrate UBM’s more than 70 data sources. Most of that data comes from bills of lading, which contain shipping and carrier information for all metal containers transported by boats, rail or any other mode of transportation.

“The idea behind iWay tools is to write very little code and do a lot of configuration of business rules and logical interactions,” he said.

Part of UBM’s goal is to provide the cleanest but rawest data it can so that customers can use it, combine it, recombine it and draw information from it. The iWay software helps to clean and standardize the incoming data.

Now that it’s up and running, UBM employees touch the data about half as frequently as they used to. The company is also able to process and deliver data to its customers at a much faster rate, in seconds rather than days in some cases, Tableman said. That’s with a third less staff than the company employed three years ago.

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