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Balli gets heavy metal InFocus

Attunity front end for steel trader's vintage dBase application

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Case study Keeping track of the complexities of international metals trading deals means data integration on a grand scale. As one of the world's largest steel traders, Balli Group has had to cope with fundamental changes in its business in the last few years as a result of growing international demand for steel. Most of its activity involves buying steel in China, then shipping and selling it elsewhere in the world.

The data involved in a typical deal not only covers freight costs and schedules but also fluctuations in the commodity markets, foreign exchange rates, loan interest variations and changes in discount procedures. Small changes can mean the difference between a profitable and a non-profitable deal so Balli must monitor its deals closely to maximise profits.

"In 2006 we saw a significant change in the way we operate. We moved from single customer deals to multiple customers which introduced whole new levels of complexity. It meant we needed a lot more management information and we needed it a lot faster than before," explains David Spriddell, group finance director at Balli.

The mainstay of Balli's operations is its 25-year-old, custom-built Trading Information System (TIS). It was built using the old Nantucket Clipper programming language later taken over by Computer Associates. Clipper uses the Ashton Tate dBase format which is perfectly adequate for the transactional information in a TIS but not suited to the demands of modern reporting: "Every week we had to perform complicated data extractions into Microsoft Excel to get the reports and analysis we needed," says Spriddell.

It quickly became clear that Balli needed a more advanced solution to its management information problem and, in 2006, Spriddell started to look around for suitable candidates.

"We began by looking at products like Cognos and Hyperion but realised that they were really a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They involved a lot of build time, they were expensive and not flexible enough. But our IT manager was looking at Attunity InFocus as a point solution for another project and we thought it might do the job."

Spriddell wanted three things from the project - a flexible reporting system, a 'dashboard' to monitor the progress of current deals and an alert system. Attunity appeared to be able to meet these demands and, additionally, could offer a link to email so Spriddell could send detailed information to individual traders. There were some concerns, however: "We were not sure whether it could extract data from the old dBase files and also send email through our Groupwise system because it uses Outlook."

Balli's IT people worked with Attunity to sort these problems out and then began work on a full implementation in July 2006. Summer holidays delayed implementation but the new system, based on Attunity's InFocus platform, was in place by mid-September.

Attunity InFocus comes in three parts - Designers, Workplace and Server. The InFocus Designers are a suite of tools for building workplace applications. They use visual-oriented configuration and industry standards such as XML and JSP and aim to simplify and speed up the configuration of both the business-view of the workplace and the server-side services that power the application.

The InFocus Workplace is a Windows-based application interface which provides a user interface to a single, composite application so users can assess and monitor key business indicators without having to flip between several applications.

Finally, the InFocus Server uses Web services and SOA to provide core services such as information access, search, collaboration and history. Attunity says InFocus Server simplifies information integration from structured and unstructured data by using metadata-driven access technology and the connectivity provided by the Attunity Integration Suite.

The result from Balli's point of view is that it now has an up-to-the-minute view of the trading information from its TIS database - together with external streamed data such as current commodity prices and exchange rates - in a form which enables fast and flexible analysis. Spriddell says that the 'dashboard' gives him a `good understanding of what is going on’ and the flexibility of Attunity's design `is just brilliant’.

While it is considering a move away from the Clipper- based applications, Balli's use of old dBase technology is not unusual. There are still a lot of applications which rely on the simple Ashton-Tate data format. Attunity's success in adding a shiny, new 21st century front end might see it survive even longer. ®

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