B.C. water watcher banks on IT

After the widespread illness and deaths that followed the E.coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ont., many Canadians were shocked to learn their drinking water wasn’t necessarily safe.

That’s why the ability to analyze, share and report on data quickly is critical for the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). The GVRD is responsible for the water quality, air quality, sewer services plus parks and facilities for more than two million people in 21 different communities in B.C.’s lower mainland.

A couple of years ago the GVRD became a Microsoft shop. It also migrated its PeopleSoft Inc. application, which was running on Sybase and Oracle, over to Microsoft Windows Server 2000 and Microsoft SQL Server 2000. Now the organization has hopped on board the beta program for SQL Server 2005. It hopes that SQL Server 2005’s additional business intelligence (BI) features could help them better understand the state of B.C.’s water and air.

Because of the GVRD’s responsibilities, the organization needs access to data quickly and in a format its employees are familiar with, said Ed Coutinho, director of business systems.

“Our business function is about quality of life,” Coutinho said. “Obviously the quality of the drinking water is important and it is important that it is monitored.” For example, the GVRD can’t discharge sewage until it has been treated so it needs to access and analyze as much data as possible about its sewage. That’s why GVRD is looking for better BI solutions and to implement more Web services.

SQL Server 2005 is XML-enabled and can now share data with other XML-enabled Microsoft programs such as Office 2003. This makes data stored in the SQL databases accessible to GVRD employees through Excel, since most employees know how to use it, said Gary Wong, manager of corporate applications. As a result, the GVRD can allot more brainpower to interpret the data and doesn’t have to spend time training staff to use new applications. Previously, only users who knew how write SQL queries could tap into the SQL database.

Additionally, SQL Server 2005 has new reporting and analytical capabilities. Microsoft launched Reporting Services for SQL Server earlier this year as a standalone item, which will come fully integrated into SQL Server 2005.

Darren Massel, senior product manager for SQL Server at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., said the new reporting and analysis capabilities lets users slice and dice the data.

The GVRD uses Crystal Reports and Crystal Enterprise from the former Crystal Decisions Inc., which was bought by Business Objects SA in 2003. GVRD now monitors water and sewage quality before it’s released. With SQL Server 2005, Cutinho said the GVRD’s engineers could receive real-time water-quality reports on their desktops, which could help prevent disasters from happening.

Right now the GVRD does not get real-time reports with the Crystal solutions and Cutinho said it would take some integration work from a third party to provide that functionality.

However, the GVRD does not yet know whether it will remove Crystal Reports and Crystal Enterprise even if it adopts SQL Server 2005.

“I’m not about to disconnect a system that works,” he explained. How SQL Server 2005’s reporting and analysis capabilities stack up to Crystal Reports and Crystal Enterprise won’t be known until testing is complete, he said.

Just because the GVRD is testing out SQL Server 2005 doesn’t mean it will automatically choose to deploy the database but Coutinho has confidence that it will be a valuable product. Deployment will only occur if SQL Server 2005 can offer the GVRD a better and more cost effective way to do their business, he said.

Along with new BI tools, SQL Server 2005 will also include 64-bit support. “This is one of the major features for SQL Server 2005 as it relates to Microsoft being able to get into higher value workloads, which is typically in the Oracle and [IBM Corp.] DB2 install base,” said Dave Senf, manager, IT/Business enablement advisory service, at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

Senf added that it is also SQL Server 2005’s abilities to run business processing, support ERP, data analysis and data mining that make it more competitive with Oracle and DB2.

“The net result of the features and capabilities that Microsoft is building — from a technology standpoint — basically bring it on par with Oracle and DB2,” Senf said. Other features include higher scalability, higher availability, data mirroring and replication.

According to IDC, Senf said sales of databases like Oracle and DB2 are not generating a lot of license revenue for their masters — the money is in maintenance. As a result, Senf said database vendors like Oracle, IBM and Microsoft will be competing on the application layer because the value in the database is the analytical services that can be provided on top of it. Microsoft can compete well on the application layer because it already has a significant install base and lots of third-party support for its products — and right now Microsoft SQL Server is growing faster than any other database on the market.

“IBM took a big blow when PeopleSoft — a key application partner of IBM — was bought by Oracle,” Senf said. “They were going to tie in the functionality of DB2 and WebSphere into PeopleSoft applications.”

However, Senf said we’re not going to see organizations with investments in Oracle and DB2 drop them in favour of SQL Server 2005. If erosion of those install bases occur, it won’t happen with a big bang because Microsoft will also have to convince users to abandon Unix and RISC in favour of x86 platforms.

In Canada, Microsoft SQL Server has a strong hold in then mid-market, he added.

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