IT managers at Shell have cracked the age-old problem of comparing information from inconsistently structured databases.
The managers, who developed the Kalido data warehousing software for internal group use, have now set themselves up as a separate company and are marketing their product to companies outside the group.
Comparing information from inconsistent databases is particularly useful for companies with many subsidiaries and for those who are restructuring or taking part in mergers and acquisitions.
But working across a variety of data formats and classifications has been the bugbear of data warehouses, according to Martin Brampton, director of research at Bloor Research.
"The AA did a collation exercise and found that there were 13 ways of spelling beige - this made tracking cars difficult," he said.
A pioneer user at Shell Retail International said that the ability to mine data across a federation of worldwide warehouses had increased this company's gross proceeds by 22% in a declining market.
Yvonne Kiley, product control manager, added, "We have achieved a gross margin increase of 11% due to our ability to control the retail selling price and track price elasticity."
Shell managers developed their Kalido package using XML links and a "federation architecture" of databases.
An early external customer is fast-moving consumer goods giant Unilever, which reputedly buys and sells a company a day: "There's no way such a giant could [otherwise] pull together data from such disparate companies" said Brampton. Principal analyst with Ovum, David Wells said this flexibility would incur "a bit of a performance hit" but argued that this was outweighed by the advantage of handling a variety of data structures.
"A problem in the past with data warehouses is that they cost as much to maintain in the first few years as they cost to build. This takes a lot of companies by surprise," he said.
Kalido was incubated by Shell Services International and Shell International, which have together invested $20m (£13.7m) into developing the product. The company is seeking other investors and expects to become profitable by the end of 2002.