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Case Studies

In the Flow

Digital business processes help leaders at Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission serve millions of customers.

by David Baum

November 2014

With more than 10,000 miles of water and sewer pipes crisscrossing two counties in the state of Maryland, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) is the eighth-largest water and wastewater utility in the United States. WSSC serves retail and commercial customers in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County with fresh water and wastewater treatment services. It also offers permit services to developers and contractors.

Snapshot

    Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC)

    Location: Laurel, Maryland

    Industry: Utilities

    Established: 1918

    Employees: 1,600

    Revenue: WSSC is a US$1.5 billion utility, with an operating budget of US$661.8 million and a capital budget of US$788 million

    Oracle products: Oracle Exadata Database Machine; Oracle Exalytics In-Memory Machine; Oracle Exalogic Elastic Cloud; Oracle Database, Enterprise Edition; Oracle Multitenant; Oracle E-Business Suite; Oracle Utilities applications, including Oracle Utilities Work and Asset Management and Oracle Utilities Mobile Workforce Management; Primavera P6 Enterprise Project Portfolio Management; Primavera Contract Management; Primavera P6 Analytics; Oracle Identity Governance Suite; Oracle WebLogic; Oracle Business Intelligence Applications; Oracle Human Resources Analytics; Oracle Financial Analytics; Oracle Spatial; Oracle Tuning Pack; Oracle Diagnostics Pack; Oracle TimesTen In-Memory Database; Oracle Tutor for Applications; Oracle Developer Suite

    Customer accounts: 460,000

    Coverage area: 1,000 square miles

    Facilities: 2 water filtration plants, 7 wastewater treatment plants, 3 water storage reservoirs, 54 water storage tanks

    Infrastructure systems: 5,600 miles of fresh water pipeline, 5,400 miles of sewer pipeline

    Pumping stations: 14 water, 41 wastewater

Mujib Lodhi

CIO

Length of tenure: Four years

Education: Master’s degree in executive leadership (in progress)

Personal quote/mantra: “CIOs should not measure success by the IT services they deliver, but rather by the business value they deliver. Look for opportunities to help the business succeed and then determine how IT can contribute toward that success.”

More

Like many utility companies, WSSC is challenged by an aging physical infrastructure of pipes, valves, and mains—parts of which are nearly 70 years old. WSSC’s business leaders need modern technology to manage this vast operation, as well as to serve an increasingly savvy base of 1.8 million customers. Mujib Lodhi, chief information officer at WSSC, believes that WSSC’s “soft” infrastructure of information systems is every bit as important as its “hard” infrastructure of pipes, pumps, and valves. In his view, in order to effectively move water around this 1,000-square-mile area, his organization must first get better at moving information.

WSSC

Launch the Slideshow

“Information technology isn’t just a way to exchange data or automate business operations,” Lodhi says. “Ideally, IT should serve as a catalyst to business success. We believe that data is not just transactions. It’s an asset to be used strategically—a way to analyze our business operations and understand customer behavior.”

With this goal in mind, Lodhi and other IT professionals formed partnerships with their cross-functional business counterparts. Under the direction of the Commissioners Strategic Plan and guidance of WSSC General Manager Jerry N. Johnson, the organization is modernizing corporate business processes and replacing legacy information systems to optimize organizational performance and customer service. The team selected Oracle Applications and Oracle’s engineered systems as the foundation on which to build toward success. The long-term vision is to migrate existing mainframe functions to an Oracle Applications infrastructure running on Oracle Exalogic Elastic Cloud and supported by Oracle Exadata Database Machines.

“We are touching every single enterprise system at some level,” notes Lodhi. “Our strategic approach enables us to implement information systems that are faster, cheaper, and better than before. We are seeing tremendous uptime and performance along with new efficiencies within the IT department.”

Previously WSSC ran Oracle Database on almost 50 separate hardware platforms to handle essential business functions such as finance, HR, and inventory control. It stored data on its mainframe systems and on an attached storage area network (SAN). Managing and maintaining this diverse infrastructure was difficult for the IT operations staff. It was also nearly impossible to create consolidated reports for management.

To remedy these problems and to create a new IT infrastructure with embedded analytic, geographic information system (GIS), and mobile computing capabilities, the team is rolling out new enterprise applications to simplify billing, asset management, accounts payable, purchasing, procurement, permitting, and other business functions. They are also deploying new tactical information systems for construction management, financial reporting, and mobile computing.

Retiring the Clipboard

WSSC must continually maintain, repair, and replace nearly 2 million assets such as pipes, valves, pumps, and drains. Various operational groups within WSSC are charged with inspecting and repairing these assets. These operational groups used to run mainframe reports to figure out which assets to fix first and to prioritize field service activities. However, it took days to run these calculations on the mainframe and there was no easy way to query the system. The team had to work from static reports that were generated after a lengthy batch reporting cycle.

Consumers become accustomed to instant feedback in a connected, post-PC-era world.”–Mujib Lodhi, CIO, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission

“It was all paper based,” says Minchy Shaw, chief IT implementation officer at WSSC. “Inspectors had to take hard copies out into the field and then enter the results on clipboards. A couple days later, a data entry clerk would update the records in a mainframe database.”

Shaw worked with Kannan Seenivasagam, manager of application development and database services at WSSC, to create new mobile applications coupled with Oracle Business Intelligence and GIS technology. Along with their teams, they developed apps for dispatching work orders, inspecting field assets, and communicating status information to local emergency services personnel. Now the operations group has a business intelligence (BI) dashboard that enables dispatchers to constantly analyze upcoming fieldwork, forecast potential problems, and prioritize work orders for the construction team.

“We have the insight we need to maintain the assets and prevent service outages, such as when a water line breaks,” says Shaw. “Soon, our BI systems will also help us ensure that we have the budget and inventory on hand to make repairs in a timely fashion.”

Another mobile app helps with fire hydrant inspections. Historically inspectors printed out work orders and carried them into the field. Now they consult their iPads as they move from one job to the next. The new mobile app and BI system, integrated with GIS technology, helps a team of 45 inspectors synchronize their activities and work more efficiently. As these workers service valves, pipes, and hydrants, they can update the records on the spot, eliminating delays in updating the database that sometimes stretched for a month.

“No paper is involved, and updates are instantaneous,” says Seenivasagam. “We’ve seen a 25 percent improvement in efficiency for these activities.”

Integration with a GIS enables dispatchers to convey precise directions to the field service team. For example, if a water main breaks, the work order will include a digital map that pinpoints the asset and describes the surrounding infrastructure, which expedites the repair. Once the job is complete, the field crew can instantly update the operating status of that asset through a tablet or smartphone. At the end of each day, they can upload their timecard information. The data is automatically integrated with the Oracle Payroll system.

Customer-facing mobile apps make it easy for citizens to interact with the utility, including paying bills, reporting incidents, submitting water readings, and purchasing permits. When people request onsite service, they receive an e-mail confirmation that includes a picture of the crew so they can verify that it is truly a WSSC employee at the door.

“Today’s customers expect a utility to be as modern and responsive as any other type of public or private company,” says Lodhi. “That’s difficult to do when you rely on legacy systems that lack mobile, GIS, and BI capabilities. These customer-service expectations will only continue to grow as consumers become accustomed to instant feedback in a connected, post-PC-era world. We selected Oracle technology as the fabric to create a smart, real-time utility.”

Beyond the Mainframe

Approximately 85 percent of WSSC’s business runs on legacy systems, many of which are 20 years old. To mitigate this business risk, WSSC purchased its first Oracle Exadata Database Machine in November 2012 and has since added three additional Oracle Exadata systems and three Oracle Exalogic Elastic Cloud systems to its data center. These engineered systems have enabled the utility to dramatically reduce its hardware footprint by retiring legacy infrastructure, with consequent savings in energy usage. (See the “Engineering Efficiency” sidebar.)

“We are gradually decommissioning the mainframe,” says Lodhi. “As we replace legacy systems, we are working closely with our functional business partners to transform the business with new enterprise applications and business process improvements. Many large organizations make the mistake of focusing on discrete technology stacks. We are taking a building-block approach with Oracle Exadata, Oracle Exalogic, and Oracle Exalytics so we can start transforming the organization right away.”

It used to take one person all week to manually create revenue and budget reports. Now it takes six minutes.”–Kannan Seenivasagam, Manager of Application Development and Database Services, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission

IT decision-makers evaluated new infrastructure products from HP, IBM, and Oracle. They selected Oracle because of the extensive integration and optimization that characterizes these engineered systems—both internally within each rack of equipment and as a unified hardware, software, and networking fabric. The team determined this platform was the best fit for an organization that is dedicated to ensuring the continuity of water and sewer services.

“We chose the Exalogic/Exadata combination because they are well integrated and communicate with each other via high-performance InfiniBand links,” says Seenivasagam. “Since deploying these systems, connectivity issues have become simpler and performance has improved. Backups and other operations are seamless. And our DBAs find it quicker to provision new server and storage capacity. We have reduced our hardware footprint significantly by consolidating our information systems.”

Consolidated Business Intelligence

The IT team is working closely with business stakeholders to implement new BI applications on Oracle Exalytics In-Memory Machine. The team is also implementing a reporting and analytics solution based on Oracle Business Intelligence. This modern BI infrastructure enables the consolidation of many reporting applications onto one common platform, with exceptional performance for analytics, modeling, forecasting, and planning applications. Oracle Exadata hosts a data warehouse; Oracle Exalytics hosts the BI applications.

This modern BI system will provide online reporting services to all supervisors, eliminating the need to send printed reports from the legacy systems. To date, the team has implemented BI solutions associated with procurement, finance, customer care, billing, and human resources. The results have been remarkable. “It used to take one person all week to manually create revenue and budget reports,” says Seenivasagam, citing one example. “Now it takes six minutes.”

Oracle Business Intelligence includes prebuilt schema for Oracle Applications. Seenivasagam says this reduces development time and gives managers lots of standard reports, right out of the box. “Line-of-business managers and executives now have the necessary facts and dimensions at their fingertips,” he adds.

Lodhi sees a bright future for analytics. He wants to leverage WSSC’s billing and usage data to better understand customer behavior. “How are our customers using water?” he asks. “What type of customer calls the most? What routine problems do they face? What is the percentage of customers that call within each tier of service, and when do they call us? Analyzing usage data enables us to foresee customer needs and predict trends, so we can ultimately offer better service.”

Other new analytics applications will help the utility understand the health of the physical infrastructure. For example, there might be an unusually high incidence of leaks in certain areas or zones. By analyzing data on inspections and repairs, analysts can discern patterns that indicate the likelihood of leaks in similar zones and conditions, and then take proactive action to inspect and repair that infrastructure before a failure occurs.

“All utilities are interested in the pump-to-sold ratio, which reveals how much water is lost and how much water is sold from every available gallon,” says Lodhi. “There are many calculations involved, and in the future we are planning to integrate advanced analytics and advanced metering infrastructure, coupled with engineering solutions, to improve our pump-to-sold ratio.”

Looking Ahead

WSSC’s new IT environment is delivering insight throughout the enterprise to assist with customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, reliability, and safety. The addition of Oracle Exadata, Oracle Exalogic, Oracle Exalytics, Oracle Business Intelligence, and many Oracle Applications has enabled better decision-making and communication between WSSC and its customers.

“We implemented this comprehensive Oracle fabric to improve performance and simplify the connections among systems,” Lodhi sums up. “We think Oracle’s engineered systems will meet our needs today as well as 5 or 10 years down the road. These systems are flexible, intuitive, and easy to manage.”

Action Items
  • Engineering Efficiency
  • E-Book: Oracle utlilities analytics
  • Photography by Shutterstock