AARP transforms its business intelligence infrastructure

Achieving a 347 percent ROI in three years from BI modernization effort

Published on 22-Sep-2011

Validated on 15 Jan 2014

"We have opened a whole new realm of possibilities to our internal customers, who are actually able to create reports on-the-fly and get the results back in a matter of seconds." - Margherita Bruni, Practice Director, Business Intelligence, AARP


Professional Services

Deployment country:
United States

PureData System for Analytics (powered by Netezza technology), PureSystems, Data Warehouse, Smarter Computing


AARP transformed its traditional BI environment into a dynamic, agile platform that helps its staff better know its members, accurately match services and product offerings to member needs, and deliver value-added packages to targeted customer demographics. Consolidating more than 36 terabytes of analytics data and all analytics processing tasks to an IBM Netezza data warehouse appliance has provided AARP with a 1,400 percent improvement in daily data loads and enabled real-time responses to queries on financial results, campaign performance and segmentation.

Business need:
Transform a traditional BI infrastructure into a dynamic, blazing-fast environment that helps AARP staff better know its members, accurately match services and product offerings to member needs, and deliver value-added packages to targeted customer demographics.

A purpose-built, high-performance data warehouse appliance that makes advanced analytics on very large data volumes simpler, faster and more accessible.

1,400 percent improvement in data loading time; 1,700 percent improvement in report response time; anticipated 347 percent ROI in three years; steady growth in member renewals, acquisitions and engagement.

Case Study

Can having data at your fingertips get you a promotion? Maybe not entirely, but it certainly can help. Consider the case of one analyst at AARP — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps people age

50 and over improve the quality of their lives — after the organization’s traditional business intelligence (BI) infrastructure was transformed into a dynamic, blazing-fast environment. As in many companies, AARP’s BI environment is critical in helping staff better know its members and determine if its programs are on track.

“When we modernized our BI environment, our analysts could not believe how quickly results were provided — they were so shocked that their work could be accomplished in a matter of hours rather than weeks that, initially, they thought data was cached,” says Margherita Bruni, practice director, Business Intelligence, AARP. “One analyst, who is now a director, told us that he used the extra time for other projects, which ultimately helped him become more successful and receive a promotion.”

A growing demand for business intelligence
In 2002, the organization first launched a BI initiative that would centralize information (AARP has offices in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia) and empower its staff with current, relevant, accurate and flexible analytics to:

• Match services and product offerings to membership base and expectations.
• Improve member profitability, retention and acquisition.
• Protect AARP brand image by managing relationships with third-party service providers.

This insight helped fuel AARP’s success and, with this success, came larger data volumes and an increased demand for new analytics.

By 2009, the BI team faced a new challenge. Its data warehouse — based on an SQL relational database from Oracle — could no longer keep up with the demand. The team experienced more than 30 systems failures that year. This was both unacceptable and costly.

System performance was a key concern as well. As the data volumes grew, daily loads into the warehouse couldn’t be completed until 3:00 p.m. — which affected how long staff had to wait for reports. “Our analysts would run a report, then go for coffee or for lunch, and, maybe if they were lucky, by 5:00 p.m. they would get the response,” says Bruni. “It was unacceptable. The system was so busy writing the new daily data that it didn’t give any importance to the read operations performed by users.”

Analysts also couldn’t create ad-hoc queries without IT intervention. When IT received a request for a new type of report, the BI team would have to optimize the queries and send a report sample back to the requestors for review. The process, from start to finish, could take weeks to months.

Finally, with more than 36 terabytes of data in the data warehouse, staff found it impossible to back up the system each night. Backups were limited to a few critical tables, making it difficult for staff to create an effective disaster recovery plan.

According to Bruni, if left unsolved, these challenges could have affected AARP’s work. “Analytics provide key metrics that are critical to evaluate how well our membership and social goals are being attained,” says Bruni. “It is essential to enabling continuous improvement and decision making to support member needs.”

Creating an agile BI environment
As Bruni’s team looked to modernize the BI environment, they evaluated two options — upgrading the existing environment or moving to a single data warehouse appliance. “We found the cost of each option comparable, but only the appliance provided us a paradigm shift in terms of the performance we needed,” says Bruni. “Among the different partners we looked at, PureData System for Analytics provided the safest bet because it didn’t require the data model fine tuning that other data warehouses do. We were also able to try the solution before we bought it to see whether it really could do everything we needed. Most vendors do not provide this type of ‘try-before-you-buy’ option.”

In building the new environment, the organization adopted a “Scrum” development model, usually used by software developers, to provide a framework that shortens development cycles and speeds time to market for BI requests.

“Using Scrum in data warehousing is kind of unheard of,” says Bruni. “But the basic premise it provides is an agile, iterative process that enables us to rapidly transform our users’ analytic needs into operating reports that show meaningful data.”

Within nine months from the acquisition of its new platform, the team had converted all the scripts and procedures from Oracle Database into PureData System for Analytics. Core accounts and membership data (which resides on an IBM DB2® for z/OS® database running on an IBM System z® server), financial and human resource data from other smaller databases, and campaign analysis and segmentation data from third-party data sources are now loaded in PureData System for Analytics nightly and accessible via the organization’s BI tools without interruption.

Running complex queries at lightning speed
In terms of performance (which was the BI team’s most pressing concern), daily data loads are now completed before 8:00 a.m. — a 1,400 percent improvement — and reports that previously took minutes to run are completed in seconds — a 1,700 percent improvement. The solution also helped compress the data size from 36 terabytes to just 1.5 terabytes, enabling staff to easily backup the data warehouse in only 30 minutes.

Equally important, the nearly 220 membership, human resources, finance, marketing and campaign staff members that use the system can now conduct what Bruni refers to as “train-of-thought analysis” — creating ad hoc reports to test theories regarding membership needs. “IBM PureData System for Analytics is like driving a Ferrari,” says Bruni. “We have opened a whole new realm of possibilities to our internal customers, who are actually able to create reports on-the-fly and get the results back in a matter of seconds. In the first few months of operation, we saw a huge spike in the number of reports being created — nearly three times the number that we had previously supported. With the deep dive they can conduct now, we’ve seen a steady growth in member renewals, acquisitions and engagement.”

Achieving rapid ROI
The new platform has also enabled the organization to redeploy IT support staff from the BI group to other areas. Previously, the team needed one full-time database administrator (DBA) along with part-time support from the organization’s storage area network (SAN) and
mid-range service teams.

“It’s amazing,” says Bruni. “We no longer need IT support. IBM PureData System for Analytics is shipped already optimized. Give it power, give it network, and you’re done. It doesn’t need anything else.”

These improvements have enabled the organization to realize a nine percent return on investment in the first year, with an anticipated 274 percent ROI by the second year, and a 347 percent investment by the third year.

“Our initial analysis projected a positive ROI already in the first year — which is very unusual for infrastructure upgrades given all costs are incurrent in the first year,” says Bruni. “Our actual ROI post-implementation was even higher as we completed the swap three months ahead of schedule.”

Expanding the influence of BI
By modernizing its infrastructure, Bruni’s team has elevated the value and perception of BI in the organization.

“After we moved to IBM Netezza, the word spread that we were doing things right and that leveraging us as an internal service was really smart,” says Bruni. “We’ve gained new mission-critical areas, such as the social-impact area which supports our Drive to End Hunger and Create the Good campaigns, based on the fact that we have such a robust infrastructure and that we changed our approach to business. We can develop in a more agile way from a development standpoint. From a program management standpoint, it shrinks our release cycles from months, which is typical with traditional data warehouse infrastructures, to just weeks.”

About IBM PureData System for Analytics The IBM PureData System for Analytics, powered by Netezza technology, integrates database, server and storage into a single, easy-to-manage appliance that requires minimal setup and ongoing administration while producing faster and more consistent analytic performance. The IBM PureData System for Analytics simplifies business analytics dramatically by consolidating all analytic activity in the appliance, right where the data resides, for industry-leading
performance. Visit to see how our family of expert integrated systems eliminates complexity at every step and helps you drive true business value for your organization.

About IBM Data Warehousing and
Analytics Solutions
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Products and services used

IBM products and services that were used in this case study.

System z

DB2 for z/OS, IBM Netezza 1000, PureData System for Analytics (powered by Netezza technology)

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