Over the past five years, electricity distributor Southside Electric Cooperative in south-central Virginia has seen the number of accounts it services increase by 73%, from 30,000 to 52,000.
While it grew, the utility's management team sought to maintain good customer relationsfrom responding to a request for account information to a service outage.
Problem was, Southside Electric uses six databases to store information on outages, dispatches, electricity usage, geographic mapping, billing and accounts receivableand the databases were not connected to each other.
For example, a field service technician would use a Qualcomm OmniTRACS device with two-way satellite link to exchange information, such as a customer's address and the status of a repair, between the field and the main office. However, the technician's records were not automatically connected to other Southside Electric databases, such as accounts receivable. As a result, the utility's employees had to manually enter data and then access multiple systems to coordinate a single repair trip.
In 2005, Southside Electric set out to build a real-time integrated system. The goal was to have all databases appear as if they were one, and to create a system that linked all departments and functions to provide employees with reliable information, says Linda Easter Davis, information systems supervisor at Southside Electric.
To achieve that, the utility turned to a service-oriented architecture (SOA) to aggregate and integrate information from the separate databases. The systems integrated include a customer information system (CIS), geographic information system (GIS), automated meter reading, financial management, materials management and mobile data. The GIS uses an Oracle database, and the CIS data resides on an IBM i5 operating system.
Southside Electric integrated its six databases using IBM's WebSphere product line, which includes three basic components: messages, adapters and a broker, Davis says.
"Messages are the data," she points out. "Adapters are used to retrieve the data from a database and send it to the broker, as well as sending it from the broker back to the database. The broker sits in the middle between all databases and is programmed to know what data needs to be sent to what database." Specifically, Southside Electric uses WebSphere Business Integration Broker V5, WebSphere MQ V5.3 for messaging and three WebSphere Business Integration adapters.
The software allows the utility to present a single interface on the front end.
Southside Electric considered a Microsoft integration solution but selected IBM, in large part because the vendor was willing to help the utility analyze its SOA requirements before the purchase. "They flew in SOA experts to view our needs," Davis says. "It was invaluable and made the difference."
Real Time, All the Time
Under the new platform, information gathered from the field is updated across systems in real time, eliminating the need for manual data transfer processes that used to take a half-hour to complete. The automated updates also reduce the risk of errors associated with repetitive manual data entry, so technicians have the most accurate information.
Before the new software was deployed, a worker would take a service order off a printer and place the order in a supervisor's tray. The supervisor would sort and prioritize orders, and place them in a serviceman's tray. The serviceman would pick up the service order, often the next day, and begin the service call. Upon completion, the serviceman would bring the service order to the office, where a clerk would document that the work had been completed and so on.
Now, when a service order comes in, it is displayed on the mobile system in a service technician's vehicle. The serviceman does the work, completes the service order electronically in the vehicle and posts the data immediately on all databases.
Southside Electric estimates the efficiencies will help decrease average power outage times to two days or fewer. Previously, some outages lasted as long as a week.
Davis declines to disclose how much Southside Electric spent on the software. She also says it's difficult to quantify benefits, maintaining that there are too many variables.
Design and planning took more than a year, sharing the time with other projects. Coding and implementation took three months; testing another two months. A consultant from Prolifics worked on the project along with two programmers and Davis.
Among the lessons learned: Devote sufficient time to the project, including planning and development. "When we first started this, we would hit it for two weeks, then wait, then go another two weeks. Other projects strained the department," Davis recalls. "Finally, we just took a deep breath and said, 'We've got to dedicate a month of time and get this done.' That's the only way I'd ever approach this again."