Escape from ETL Hell: The Real Time Enterprise

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in September 2003.

Five 9's-the universal symbol of reliability in high-tech. Five 9's represents 99.999% uptime or just a little over five minutes of allowed downtime per year. Achieving five 9s isn't easy. Operations groups that achieve five 9's have to do almost everything right, including carefully instrumenting and monitoring systems using software like HP OpenView and IBM's Tivoli. Systems monitoring software isn't cheap to buy or operate, but operations managers know that you can't manage what you can't measure and with only five minutes to spare in any given year, they'd better have that information in real time.

Technical operations managers may have pioneered the ideas behind real time information access and alerting, but business managers are learning that they can play this game as well. Good companies have long used standard accounting practices and other metrics to give them insight into how their businesses are operating. Great companies often make use of data warehouses to gather extensive information about every aspect of their business, allowing business managers to query the data and create reports telling them just about anything they want to know-as long as it happened a few days ago.

That's the problem. Data warehouses are trapped by what we might call the ETL cycle for "extract, transform, and load." In any large organization, data resides on myriad systems in multiple formats. ELT is the process of extracting the data from all those systems, transforming it into a common schema, and then loading the result into the data warehouse. This process often takes days.

To be a real time enterprise, data must be freed from the batch-processing nature of data warehouses. Instead, data flows, in real time, from the systems of interest, through translation services, and through a rules engine that can be configured to look for specific trends, coincident events, and other interesting activity. Managers can watch dashboards of this data as it changes, be automatically alerted to unusual conditions, and those alerts can be automatically escalated to managers when they're not handled in a timely manner. Systems people have had these kinds of tools for years, but the business side of the house is just seeing the benefit.

Imagine that you work for a large bank. Your job is to manage mortgage sales. In a good company, you see sales figures, broken down by region and mortgage type, for the last three months and cumulatively for the year. In a great company, all this data is in a data warehouse and you can query these reports and almost any other information you can think of on yesterday's sales. In a real time company, your dashboard shows a slump in the last hour's sales of 15-year mortgages and an increase in 5-year adjustable rate mortgages, allowing you to adjust your strategy for reselling the paper this evening instead of tomorrow afternoon.

Of course, real time data isn't a panacea. Most people have heard about Cisco's much vaunted real time sales system over-predicting sales in 2001 because customers had gotten in the habit of double ordering just to be sure they got their product. Operations managers have learned that the key to solving these problems is managing process and holding frequent post mortem evaluations of mistakes and reporting errors so they can be avoided the next time. In addition, building these systems and processes is something better done in chunks than in wholesale change-outs. MacDonalds recently dropped a $1 Billion project to create a real time enterprise after spending $170 Million and concluding that the benefit of the project didn't justify the cost.

These systems aren't just for executive management. To be effective, the company has to be prepared to deliver real time information to each worker just when they need it. Duy Beck of the Virtua Group called this the “virtual network of demand.” Getting work done in any large organization is a function of workflow (formal or informal). Workflow gets things from one person to another in the right order, at the right time so they can act on them and send them on.

Another way to think of this is as every person representing a little bit of production capacity with their own supply chain and demand chain. All of these internal supply and demand chains represent a "virtual network of demand" within your company. Getting business done requires finding ways to efficiently and effectively service this network and keep it flowing.

From an IT perspective, when we install CRM systems, ERP systems, employee portals, workflow systems, personal computers, office suites, and the like, we're trying to service and automate this demand network. The problem is that we can't, yet, view each employee as an individual who has specific needs, roles, styles of work, ways of learning, comfortable communication methods, and so on. We more or less give everyone a standard set of tools and require them to change their style of work to suit our tools.

Real time enterprises are enabled by light-weight integration tools, collaboration software, wireless and mobile computing, Web services standards like SOAP and XML, peer to peer computing, and even instant messaging. As these technologies and other like them find their way into the enterprise, real time business decision making systems will become easier and easier to build and deploy. Nimble companies will deploy them to avoid information latency and the loss of competitive advantage that comes with it.

Phillip J. Windley, the former CIO of Utah, is a technology writer, speaker, and consultant. Windley writes a weblog on enterprise computing at Contact him at

Last Modified: Wednesday, 03-Jan-2007 16:54:20 UTC