Bank Saves with Better Data Connectivity Tool

Combining data from multiple sources need not require you to use multiple tools, as Zions Bancorporation discovered.

Despite their best efforts, most companies have data stored in many places and on many database platforms. Extracting, combining, and analyzing the data for necessary items such as end-of-month reports can be a big challenge. Vendors typically offer their own connectivity tools, but each tool costs money, each works differently, and many can take extensive system resources to load. A few of these highly technical tools are designed for the true business users: data analysts.

That's why Zions Bancorporation, headquartered in Salt Lake City and one of the 40 largest banking companies in the country, turned two years ago to an early version of a product -- Toad for Data Analysts -- from Quest Software.

Quest is a systems management vendor that has long offered a line of Toad products for easing database administration tasks, including Toad for Oracle, Toad for MySQL, and Toad for SQL Server, among others. With Toad for Data Analysts, users can access a range of data sources, view and understand their relationships to each other, and create queries and build reports in a straightforward manner.

In selecting Toad for Data Analysts (the company is now using version 2.1) to address the challenge of accessing multiple data sources, it helped that James McGregor, who is the BI Administrator for Zions, has been a big fan of Toad products for some time. He used Toad for Oracle for years in previous positions. "It's the first thing I installed on my workstation at my first job after college," McGregor says.

The product has already proved to be a good solution for Zions, which has ambitious plans for further use. As with many companies that have grown through mergers and acquisitions, Zions needs to access and create reports from business data in a wide range of platforms, including Oracle, MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, IBM DB2 (both on a mainframe and in distributed mode), Microsoft SQL Server 2003 and 2005, and -- beginning soon -- Greenplum, an open-source, powered massively parallel processing database that will require ODBC connectivity.

To access these varied platforms, data professionals at Zions typically used the built-in tools supplied by each vendor. However, each connection tool worked differently, meaning each had to be learned and launched separately -- a "painful" process, McGregor says, that cost time and productivity. In addition, launching the tools proved to be resource intensive.

Using Toad for Data Analysts, data professionals at Zions can now use a single tool to access, understand, and report on data across multiple platforms. User aids (for example, a diagram feature that visually displays the relationships among databases using lists of fields with lines showing the connections) helps make the product friendlier for business-oriented users such as data analysts. Data can be exported in a single click to a number of formats, including HTML and Excel. Reports can be posted online or e-mailed to users right from Toad. Reports can be run on a user-defined schedule.

Also, as Zions moves from Oracle to Greenplum, the company's Oracle business analysts will be able to transition smoothly from Toad for Oracle to Toad for Data Analysts with little training required. "They're not going to want to give up their Toad-like interface," McGregor says, "and they won't have to."

Cost savings come from several places. First, the product is saving McGregor's team from having to license and maintain separate tools for each database platform. As a Toad for Data Analysts user himself, McGregor says he can testify to spending far less time "bouncing between tools," with a single tool to access all sources. "I'm only running one tool, and it's up and running all day long. That's some productivity savings right there."

Because Toad comes with some prebuilt code and reports, it offers a balance between novice and expert users. An expert user himself who mainly uses the tool as a developer might (to run SQL statements against a database and examine raw results), McGregor says, "I've turned off all the wizards and other novice features."

For the often less-technical data analysts referred to in the product name, there are plenty of friendly features in Toad, including report automation and the visual query builder, he says. A day or two of training, he predicts, will be required when less-technical users such as Zions' quality assurance staff are introduced to the tool. It helps that Quest has included a number of wizards in Toad. ""You don't need to know a lot of SQL," McGregor says. "If you're not a hard-core SQL builder, it will build the SQL for you on the fly."

User reaction has been good, although exposure has been limited so far. "I've evangelized [the product] through my immediate group," McGregor says, and he plans to do so even more once the Greenplum data warehouse is in place. The next steps are to expand use of the product to additional users, including business analysts (BAs).

"We want to push this into BA roles," McGregor says. "As we roll out Greenplum, we want to evangelize it more, and in tough economic times especially, really leverage the licensing." The message to Zions users: "It's a no-brainer to go to Toad for Data Analysts."