Driving Intelligent Data

Oracle Exadata and BI solutions deliver performance and insight to Polk.

by Monica Mehta, November 2011

In 1870, Ralph Lane Polk founded R. L. Polk & Co. as a city businesses directory. Years later, when his son, Ralph Lane Polk II, was running the business, he met with Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors. As the story goes, Sloan asked Polk II, “I know you can count companies, but do you think you can count cars?”

Polk said, “Sure I can, but why do you need me to?”

Sloan replied, “Because every time I ask Henry Ford how many cars he’s sold, I think he’s lying to me.”

Polk said, “Why do you think that, Alfred?”

Sloan replied, “Because every time Henry asks me how many cars I’ve sold, I lie to him.”

So began Polk’s history as the market leader in trusted, impartial vehicular data collection and reporting. Today the demands of the automotive industry—and customer expectations of data solutions—are much more intricate. Polk maintains a complex set of information about every possible aspect of vehicular use.

In 2010, in order to keep up with its customers’ demands in the internet age, Polk’s IT department needed to revamp and update its data warehousing and business intelligence (BI) tools. An integrated combination of the Oracle Exadata Database Machine and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition 11g provided Polk with the speed and capabilities it needed to remain the nation’s leading provider of automotive intelligence.

“More and more, our customers are looking to us to provide the entire business intelligence solution, rather than just data or straightforward reports,” says Kelly Garcia, vice president of application development and support at Polk. “That’s a driving factor as we go forward.”

A Brake in Performance

Polk serves customers with three different lines of business: market reporting provides the automotive industry with market analysis and forecasting; multichannel marketing helps customers track and maintain their sales databases; and the VINtelligence program delivers current vehicle-owner information attached to vehicle identification numbers. Polk’s customers include all the major global car manufacturers and a number of media companies and government agencies, among others. In order to provide this breadth and depth of intelligence, Polk manages a complex set of vehicle data—about 1 petabyte’s worth.

In 2003, as part of its market reporting line of business, Polk’s management team launched PolkInsight, a Web-based reporting application allowing automotive industry professionals to study and examine in-depth detail related to vehicle sales. Polk provides custom segmentation of the data—2 terabytes’ worth, with 1 billion rows of fact tables—so companies can look at vehicles grouped by a number of different factors, such as type of vehicle, new versus used, region, and household demographics. PolkInsight is a 100 percent hosted software-as-a-service system with about 30 global customers that subscribe to and access it online.

In the internet age, people have grown accustomed to getting real-time information instantly. Technology users expect interactive, visual representations of data—as opposed to text-heavy ones—that can be culled from different sources. Perhaps most importantly, they need to access that data from their mobile devices. But the capabilities of Polk’s toolset had become outdated, and performance was not keeping up with that of other big data providers.

Customers were becoming impatient with the time it took to perform information requests—which could take five minutes or more. They expected “an internet-like customer experience,” says Garcia, with 90 percent of requests returned in less than five seconds. The performance also needed to be sustained through the monthly “rush hours,” or busy periods when Polk published its data and hundreds of users tried to access it at once. In addition, customers weren’t able to request combined data from different sources, and reports weren’t visual or easily digestible. Finally, there was no way for salespeople and field representatives to access the PolkInsight application from a mobile device.

“Our technology was behind the times,” says Douglas Miller, director of database development and support at Polk. “Today the expectation is that you press a button and within a few seconds, no matter what you’re asking for, it comes back.”

Company executives had tried various solutions to speed the performance of the data warehousing and intelligence application, including a 4-gigabyte storage area network infrastructure, custom-built applications that cached needed data in memory, and various report preprocessing and caching strategies. None provided the high level of performance they sought.

Revving Up Data Collection

Polk’s IT staff started looking for a storage, server, and networking solution that would improve the company’s data warehousing and application performance, and a BI solution that would provide data visualizations, combined data capabilities, and mobile access to customers.

From his research, Miller knew Oracle Exadata was the answer to Polk’s challenges. It was, he says, “the only solution on the market that could deliver such high performance with our Oracle database,” and, he adds, it included “every data warehousing feature available, and more.” As an integrated unit with a very low data center footprint, it had a low total cost of ownership. Miller was also impressed by Oracle’s commitment to making Oracle Exadata its premier database platform, as well as Oracle’s development of a BI middleware platform engineered to leverage the features built into the database.

“It’s a category killer, in my opinion, and I’ve looked at a lot of the other solutions,” says Miller. “It requires less time and effort spent trying to integrate and maintain a custom-designed system, and the total cost is, at the least, not more than that of an equivalent configuration with independent parts. However, an equivalent configuration could not perform like Oracle Exadata.”

At the same time, Polk launched a discovery phase to find a BI application that would power PolkInsight. Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition 11g was chosen over the other finalists. Garcia decided Oracle’s solution contained more features and functionality that were important to Polk and its customers, including out-of-the-box alerts and scheduling, Microsoft Office integration, spatial integration and mapping, and traditional dashboard components with administration and distribution capabilities. In-memory solutions could not efficiently support the size and complexity of Polk’s data structures.

Garcia also found that Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition 11g, Oracle Database, and Oracle Exadata all share a common management framework, Oracle Enterprise Manager, which is used to perform key management tasks for Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition including performance monitoring, diagnostics, and tuning. This common framework ensures that all elements of the BI and data warehouse environment are optimized to work together to ensure the highest performance, scalability, reliability, and availability.

“Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition’s technical architecture was more robust and in alignment with our availability and scalability requirements,” says Garcia. “All the features and functionality of Oracle panned out to make us think that it was ahead of the others.”

Polk’s 24-terabyte, half-rack Oracle Exadata Database Machine was deployed in July 2010. Oracle specialists spent three days configuring the machine according to Polk’s specifications and left the company with a fully functional system. Polk’s IT staff moved all product-facing data warehouses onto Oracle Exadata, including ones that support programs for brand loyalty, the trucking industry, and the VINtelligence program. The machine now handles 13 terabytes of data and is fully integrated with all of Polk’s applications, with no integration issues.

Analytics at Full Speed Ahead

Oracle Exadata has radically improved the performance of the PolkInsight program. Reporting runs 10 to 20 times faster. Administrators used to have reports that routinely took longer than five minutes to run. Now, there are extremely few reports that take longer than 20 or 30 seconds. And as Polk continues to leverage additional features such as Oracle Exadata’s columnar compression—a new method for organizing how data is stored—the performance continues to improve.

“Whenever I talk to the PolkInsight product support desk manager, he tells me it’s running faster this month than it was last month,” says Miller. “There are a lot of things you can do to leverage the power of Oracle Exadata—it’s pretty exciting.”

As an added benefit, Polk was able to decrease its six-tile database server system down to one tile with the Oracle Exadata Database Machine, dramatically decreasing space and power consumption in its data center.

The next step—implementing Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition to power PolkInsight—provided instant results. Now customers can see data from various sources on a single screen, in the form of easily digestible dashboards built by PolkInsight advisors or customer IT staff that Polk trains.

“On one page, a customer can view a national registration summary and view new registrations year over year with an indication of market share,” says Garcia. “They can also compare that directly to sales information and how they’re faring against the industry trend and their closest competitors. They can then drill down into any of that data and find the next level of information. The sky’s the limit in what we offer them.”

Polk’s IT staff was also able to automate the company’s analytical process so IT resources wouldn’t be needed every time users wanted to create a new dashboard to gain visibility into different areas. In addition, Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition enables extension of the PolkInsight application to mobile devices, including mobile phones and tablet devices.

“Using Oracle’s business intelligence features and visualizations, we’re architecting dashboards to fit customers’ data exploration processes, so the important data points pop out to them,” says Garcia. “We want to enable our customers to be experts in figuring out what’s going on in their business.”

When companies deliver a high level of functionality in a deployment, employees are able to make smarter decisions by exploring data in a way that is more self-directed and iterative. “The less time people spend gathering the data for a decision, the more time they spend making decisions and doing what you actually hired them to do,” says David O’Connell, principal analyst at Nucleus Research. “Also, the more informed people are in their decision-making, the higher revenues will be and the lower costs will be.”

Once Polk’s customers can gain better, faster access to information about their business and the industry, they in turn can enable their customers to make better decisions and sell more products and services. For Polk, improving customer satisfaction means management can better generate and retain business, which positions the company to continue being the leading provider in automotive intelligence.

“Maintaining our market leadership is hugely important for us,” says Garcia. “Recently we were working through a renewal process on PolkInsight with a global car manufacturing customer. When we showed them the capabilities we were going to have based on Oracle Exadata and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition, they re-signed with us.”

Polk management is planning to expand the use of Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition internally, using the tool in a project to integrate its data warehouses and employ predictive analysis of the data. This will allow Polk staff to provide insights to customers in a faster, more cost-effective way.

“We bought Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition to service the front end of our business,” says Garcia. “Now, we’re expanding its usage to make it our fundamental platform for providing intelligence, both to ourselves and to customers across all verticals. In the long term, this will lead to cost savings, because having Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition connected to a consolidated data warehouse on Oracle Exadata means we’ll be much more efficient at doing analysis internally.”

Using BI to give people more data means they make more-informed decisions, so they “can sell the right products, upsell the right customers, and even make better supply chain decisions,” says O’Connell. “Another benefit is alignment. When organizations adopt analytics, especially if the mandate comes from the office of finance, then you can have everyone using the same data: the board of directors who oversee the company, the senior management who sets strategy, and the line-of-business managers who have to achieve that strategy.”

In the end, the synergy between Oracle Exadata and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition is what Garcia and Miller say delivers the value addition. “From a business intelligence perspective, we couldn’t even attempt to offer customers all of these combined rapid dashboarding features without Oracle Exadata,” says Garcia.

And with the standard configuration of Oracle Exadata, Oracle Support provides constant maintenance and servicing of Polk’s machine. “It’s a benefit to be able to contact Oracle Support and provide them with the diagnostic uploads. There’s nothing else we have to do,” says Miller.

Past the Finish Line

O’Connell says the greatest benefit of an integrated solution like Oracle’s is related to data. “When projects go badly, it’s usually because the deployment team got overwhelmed with the challenge of integrating various applications and datasources,” he says. “When integration isn’t an issue, deployment teams are able to spend time on the important things: bringing on more datasources, helping more end-user populations, and testing so that they are sure they are fulfilling business requirements.”

Garcia and Miller say they are very satisfied with the way Oracle’s integrated data and BI solution is serving Polk and its customers.

“Oracle Exadata is great, and putting Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition on top of it has been an easy experience,” says Garcia. “For businesses whose use cases are similar to ours, clearly we think the Oracle Exadata and business intelligence combination is the way to go.”

Garcia is also confident that Polk’s investment in Oracle solutions will be supported by Oracle, both in the short term and the long run: “With Oracle, you are buying the future, not just the present.”

For More Information

Mixing IT Up
Oracle Exadata
Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition


Monica Mehta is a frequent contributor to Profit.