Growing up watching her father driving through rural Virginia for his job as a lineman for Southside Electric Cooperative, Linda Easter Davis, remembered how he struggled with cumbersome and usually out-of-date paperwork in his truck.
Today Davis is information systems supervisor for the cooperative, and while her father is retired, service-oriented architecture (SOA) is making it possible to provide real-time location and customer data to a new generation of linemen.
"That was my dream," she says, "to put computers in the trucks."
Putting a laptop in a utility truck wasn't the difficult part, she explains. The challenge was finding a way to get data to linemen working in rural areas without cell phone access and sometimes facing extreme weather ranging from hurricanes to ice storms.
The linemen are what Anne MacFarland, director of data strategies and information solutions for The Clipper Group, describes as mobile workers on the "active edges of business." She predicts mobile workers will be the end users for much of the SOA wave and the rich Internet application (RIA) development that provides access to home office data they need to do their jobs.
Southside Electrical Cooperative, which provides power to farmers and home owners who pay a $5 annual membership fee that hasn't gone up since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House, is on the leading edge of that SOA wave.
Davis said she was looking not only to get data out of linemen in their trucks, but also link the various software and databases in the home office, so departmental workers weren't wasting their days re-keying information from one application to another.
"For years, we tried to send data back and forth either copied in PC files or by a manual process," she explained. "But it always caused problems. It wasn't real time. There was a lot of redundancy, where we were double keying information. It wasted a lot of time. There were mistakes. The goal was always to get that handful of data that is crucial for the entire company in a real time process."
Since the late 1990s, the coop had installed new applications for most of its business processes, replacing virtually all of its software over a five year period. The updates had to do with Y2K issues, new government regulations and the need to meet the needs of the customers, Davis said. But there was a missing link, literally, as the data was still in silos.
"We realized that it was pretty ridiculous to continue building this wonderful software system if it wasn't laying on a really solid foundation," she said.
Then Davis saw a demonstration of IBM Websphere with the MQ message broker in an SOA environment and the scales fell from her eyes.
"When I saw that presentation," she recalled, "I could see in my mind, the broker sitting in the middle of all of the software like a control cop saying you go here, you go there. It seemed so simple and so logical."
Among the selling points of SOA at the co-op was that it would eliminate one of the major problems Davis and her IT staff had whenever they installed a new packaged application and had to hardwire connections to related applications. Vendors of legacy applications weren't always responsive when asked to provide help with messaging and their services could be very expensive, she said.
Davis was lucky in that when she explained her vision of what SOA could do for the co-op, she got support from her counterparts in engineering and from the business side.
"When we decided to do this, engineering as well as IS gave up a couple projects to reallocate money to this because we felt so strongly that if we could build this foundation we would have something that was more efficient and would save us time and money," she said.
Saving money is important to the customers, who as members of the co-op get back any profits in the form of capital credit checks which are usually sent out around Christmas. This past Yuletide, it amounted to $1.2 million distributed among the coop's 53,000 members, who averaged $50 each, Davis explained. While she did not have ROI numbers for the savings from the SOA implementation that went live this past fall, she said one measure of success was that the co-op's chief financial officer told her he is revising his original estimate that the project would take three years to pay for itself, down to one year.
While the SOA implementation is ending the integration problems inside the main office, it is also helping the linemen, who must cover an area Davis describes as "180 miles wide by 90 miles deep."
Because cell coverage is spotty in the rural areas and prone to outages where it is available during the extreme weather when linemen must to go out to deal with down power lines and restore service, the co-op is using Qualcomm's OmniTracs satellite communications to link the main office to the 100 vehicles out in the field. The choice of satellite linking already proved itself when a minor hurricane hit Virginia, Davis said.
The system linking the computer in the truck to ESRI GIS system maps integrated with Daffron and Associates Inc. customers information system, allows the lineman to see both the customer issues and the customer location at the same time, Davis said. They don't have to toggle back and forth between the map and the customer information, it's all integrated on one screen even though it is coming from two applications in the main office, she explained.
The new system also provides a link to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), she said. In the event of a disastrous storm, that system would relay data on the number of power outages from the trucks in the field to FEMA, so the scope and location of problems could be assessed, she said. In a devastating storm, the data from the field could speed relief efforts.