Playing with trains and analytics


BNSF Railway hauls enough grain in one year to make bread for 900 million people and enough newsprint to publish 350 million Sunday papers. A road could get laid around the equator--if there was land there on which to lay it--not once, but four times with all the asphalt the railroad hauls.

Most people are aware of the sophisticated systems with which railways track their equipment around the country, but Kent Collins, senior database architect at BNSF Railway, says the key is information management.

Collins told a crowd at IBM's Information OnDemand conference last week that BNSF has 220,000 active cars on its rails across 32,000 miles in 28 states and two Canadian provinces.

It not only tracks the equipment, it uses predictive analytics to predict failures. BNSF has more than 1,700 servers track everything from maintenance schedules, weather, scheduling, inventory, safety and deliveries and more. The company uses a solution called pureScale, an availability and reliability solution for IBM (NYSE: IBM) DB2 clustered databases.

Collins says the systems his company put on pureScale are essential to the business and can never go down.

He used the analogy of an ice cream cone to explain how IBM's OnDemand solutions help him realize the benefits of analytics, saying the first step was to get all the necessary components--the ice cream, the bowls, a scoop—and you can either dig in right away at the hard ice cream or you could wait for it to soften (or learn how to let the systems do their work).

He said pureScale analytics, because it was on demand, was more like going to an ice cream shop and letting them do all the work.

Analogies aside, Collins said his goal is to focus on leveraging the algorithms in his systems that keep people safe by helping to manage the yards and manage trains, and for service delivery, to help leverage and manage the inventory that comes in and out of his yards. "I want to help my business customers meet their objectives. I want to unlock the data, open up the environment and find new ways to deliver value for the customers I support," he said.

For more:
- see the videos from Information OnDemand 2012

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