Tuesday, December 30

2009: It’s time to get your Ox-on

The Chinese symbol of the zodiac for this coming year is the Ox. The Ox is a sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work. Expecting this year to be one of prosperity seems ambitious, bordering on ludicrous, given the deteriorating economic situation. But displays of fortitude and hard work have always brought prosperity through good times and bad. I am reminded of a favourite adage: the harder I work, the luckier I get!

I am not qualified to provide personal coaching or career development advice on this blog, but I do know about how businesses can best use Information Technology to optimise their efficiency and gain a real competitive advantage. We just witnessed a period of irrational exuberance that was punctuated by many excesses. Executives were paid more than the sustainable value of their creations. Families brought more stuff than they needed and then kept replacing (upgrading) all this stuff for no good reason. Speaking of upgrades, I have seen many I.T system replacement projects be undertaken for no discernible business reason. More often than not such projects are simply following the fashion of the time or are follies that massage the egos and résumés of so-called I.T professionals.

Thankfully that bubble has now burst and business decision-makers are more circumspect about the projects they approve. System replacement projects should demonstrate a tangible, short-term ROI and the expected benefits must align with business imperatives like improving customer satisfaction and lowering operating costs. The truth is that, in my experience, such projects often involve more cost, risk and effort than is factored into the original business case and the resulting benefits are usually soft (looks and feels more modern) rather than hard (processes sales orders 25% faster).

A legacy of my time living in Silicon Valley is an unfortunate tendency to spout American colloquialisms. I try to stick to plain English wherever possible but there are some phrases that so succinctly capture an ethos; an example is sweating your assets. This is one piece of advice that executives should be mindful of in 2009. When applied to the question of "what to do about our legacy systems?" this ethos can produce unexpectedly potent results. The fact is that these unglamorous, workhorse-like systems are what power your key business applications today. These systems are not perfect [no system ever is] but if you are buying, manufacturing or selling goods and services profitably, and in high volumes, then your core systems take some of the credit. If you buy a software package, from say SAP or Oracle, to replace a legacy system there is every probability that you have paid to reproduce 80% of the same base functionality – and where is the business sense in that? Invariably you can carefully craft additionally capability onto and around your core systems at a fraction of the cost and risk of the big-bang approach.

It seems to me that there are many similarities between these legacy systems and the Ox that symbolises the coming year. The Ox is the sign of a born leader, being dependable and possessing an innate ability to achieve great things. Like their animal namesake, the Ox is unswervingly patient, tireless in their work, and capable of enduring any amount of hardship without complaint. An Ox is never going to be a sexy creature but then the engine room of an enterprise is a place for brains and brawn, not style.

So my planning advice for 2009 is to recognise the inherent strengths of your Ox-like core systems and to invest in their future by selectively enhancing, extending and integrating their capabilities and reach throughout the enterprise and beyond. By doing so you will avoid being overheard next Xmas saying “the boss is having a damn cow again because we wasted the year on another failed I.T project”.

Sunday, December 21

Get reach, get rich. Get real!

A quest for dominance in the technology to enable Rich Internet Applications (RIA) is causing a veritable feeding frenzy in vendor land.

The RIA space was, until last year, a relatively obscure and over-looked segment of the enterprise software market. The granddaddy is undoubtedly Adobe Systems (née Macromedia) who took the popular Flash rendering engine and evolved the design-time environment from a timeline-based movie editor to the beginnings of a programmatic IDE with the launch of Flex in 2004. The only challengers at the time, and for several years after, were AJAX-based solutions like General Interface (acquired by TIBCO) and OpenLaszlo (which morphed from being a product from Laszlo Systems to an open source project). Each of these solutions broke the mould of drab HTML user experiences in a Browser and got us several steps closer to combining the benefits of web-based computing with the rich graphical user interfaces of Windows or Mac.

In early 2007 Microsoft threw their hat into the ring with the release of Silverlight. This technology is much closer to the Adobe Flash/Flex model then it is to the AJAX approach. Industry watchers now had this pegged as a three-horse-race with each contender - Adobe, Microsoft and the AJAX community - packing a mighty punch in its own right. Adobe clearly owns the hearts and minds of the design community and the Flash Player is ubiquitous (estimated 98% penetration of internet-connected PCs). Microsoft has sway over the direction taken by millions of programmers from the ISV community to the hoards of in-house coders and web developers. Let's not forget that open-source has lost none of its sparkle and that AJAX is the technique of choice for developers who are committed to the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack. So it was a straight three-horse-race with enough choice to satisfy the whole community and to stimulate competition but without the kind of fragmentation that drives the industry nuts.

But someone came along to spoil the party, or at least muddy the waters. Who might be last to the party again? Sun Microsystems, which is odd when you consider their original Web 1.0 credentials and Java's claim-to-fame as the language of choice for serious web apps. This month Sun announced the release of Java FX 1.0 that is designed to lure the Java community away from proven solutions like Flash/Flex and AJAX. If there was ever a time to roll-out the cliche too little, too late then this is it! I caught a video of Johnathan Schwartz's announcement speech on the TechCrunchIT site. OMG - what is he thinking? The line about Silicon Valley mantra being 'get reach, then get rich' just left me cringing. I blogged a few weeks ago about Sun's current difficulties and pondered why Sun has never been able to properly monetize Java. Are we expected to believe that Java is a prime example of 'get reach, then get rich' and, if not, why even tar JavaFX with this brush? I plan to attend the launch of JavaFX 2.0 wearing a tee-shirt screaming 'Got Retched'.

While I am beating-up on Sun for being inexplicably late again, and this time so far behind as to be irrelevant, let's ponder their naming convention - JavaFX. I can't be the only person to have read that phonetically and come up with JavaF**Ks? Is this the admission that many of us having been waiting such a long time to hear?

I would like to give you a considered and thoughtful analysis as to how this late entrant compares with the other runners & riders in the RIA race but I can't figure it out and a quick surf around sun.com left me none the wiser. It's almost as though they are ignoring the fact that three alternative solutions exist and
already have considerable adoption rates and community support. Positioning is the most vital element to get right in enterprise software marketing and Sun have given me no clues to go on.

NOTE: Purists will pull me up for not throwing Google's hat into this ring with their recently publicized work around Chrome and Native Client. Google is clearly focussed on making JavaScript faster, more powerful and certainly more useful for serious apps than it is ever been. They are not, thankfully, yet-another flavour of RIA technology but in fact the most prominent flag-waver, and heaviest investor, in the whole W3C, JavaScript, AJAX, open standards approach. So that is why I am not singling them out for special attention.

My statement above - that I can't figure out the relevance of JavaFX - will no doubt be seized upon by Java purists who will lambast me for offending their God. So at this point in the proceedings I should establish my bona fides and point out that I do know a thing or two about designing and bringing commercial-grade Rich Internet Applications to market.

Back in 2003, while I was serving as Vice President of Marketing for MITEM Corporation, I had the privilege of overseeing the development and launch of the world's first enterprise-class application with a 100% Flash-based client. This product for the healthcare industry - called Blue Iris - was acknowledged by Macromedia as truly pioneering work and they made us a beta site for a product code-named Royale that became Flex 1.0. That year we were nominated for an award at their annual MAX conference and Information Week covered the story with great enthusiasm.

We thoroughly eval
uated all viable RIA technologies at the time - including General Interface and Laszlo - and settled on Flash because of its proven reliability, cross-platform support and because we trusted Macromedia to take the solution in the right direction and stick with it. It was a good decision to choose Flash and no exaggeration to say that Blue Iris redefined popular perception of what Portal applications could deliver in mission-critical situations.

It will come as no surprise to learn that generating Rich Internet Applications is planned for the
LANSA platform and so I have recently found myself back in the thick of this subject area. There is a need in the IBM midrange market for RIA's that are suitable for even the most demanding 'heads-down' user while remaining thin enough, and with sufficient cross-platform capability, to be easy to deploy and support throughout the application life cycle.

I obviously can't reveal our specific product plans but I can say that there is a lot of goodness to be found in the mature flavours of RIA technology available today and we will be delivering some groundbreaking new functionality in the not-to-distant future. Oh, and you can be confident that we will not be touching JavaFX with the dirty end of somebody else's barge pole.

Friday, December 12

A-head in the Cloud

If you have an internet connection and any sensory perceptors then you can't have missed the recent cacophony surrounding so-called Cloud Computing.

It's my natural inclination to ridicule this kind of hyperbole, particularly when the Cloud is so obviously just a remake of 'B movies' like the Application Service Provider (ASP) and Software as a Service (SaaS). In my metaphor the 'B' stands for 'bit-part' because these approaches have never quite made it into the mainstream. There are pockets of commercial success, like salesforce.com, but the vast majority of people still run their own instances of various software products on-premise. I should confess that we [LANSA] have a 50+ user subscription to salesforce.com and it's a fantastic solution that has enabled us to roll-out an integrated and closed-loop CRM system on a global basis without up-front cost or risk. But salesforce.com is not necessary right for everybody and certainly not every enterprise application lends itself to this deployment or commercial model.

But the main reason why I should avoid ridiculing this hyperbole is because my company and it's customers and business partners have actually been doing what is now called Cloud Computing for some while - and it's very successful for all concerned. Whilst I had all the facts floating around in my head it took an article from our friends at Rippe & Kingston to make the penny drop. I can commend you to read Thom Davidson's article - LANSA & Cloud Computing - for many reasons but my favourite part is his conclusion that "LANSA and Cloud Computing is a marriage Made in Heaven". So if the Cloud really does take-off we will become billionaires because we are already ahead of the wave!

I will leave you on a salutary note more along the lines of some financial services small print: participation in the Cloud is not for everybody and your income may go down as well as up. This article tells of a 'little British battler' CRM firm, smartFOCUS, who has hit the double-woes of moving to a SaaS model during a market downturn. This example from the ISV community demonstrates how important first-mover advantage can be. How do you compete with an established 800lb gorilla that sells a really good service for £5 per user per month and eeks out a decent profit with margins of only 6%? A lot depends on your time-to-market, agility and keeping the costs of adapting your software solution to run in the Cloud as low as possible - especially while the new revenue stream builds. If you read the case studies in Thom Davidson's article you'll gain an insight into how some visionary companies have done just that.

Sunday, December 7

Redchester is the new capital of Switzerland

I may get 'berned at the steak' by Swiss federalists for spouting hearsay but I've just heard some stories that I must share.

Those clever Swiss folks learned long ago that being 'neutral' can have considerable political and economic benefits. Why choose sides when you can carve out a profitable niche in the middle? This lesson can be equally well learned and applied to making I.T decisions. 

I often find organisations defining themselves as an AS/400 or a .NET shop as though these are mutually exclusive identities. It's true that Rochester and Redmond are at almost opposite sides of the country, but their technology stacks can come together to form a happy place that I have christened Redchester.

Redchester is a place where teamwork produces better results than solo endeavor. In plain english, it's where the power of IBM's midrange systems meets the personal productivity benefits of Microsoft's product suite. In Redchester data flows freely but securely between systems so that each citizen always has the information they need where and when they need it. 

The best news of all is that Redchester is not a fictional place, although, I confess, it is not the new capital of Switzerland. During the past week I came across a couple of real-life customer stories that brought the benefits of unifying the IBM and Microsoft stacks into sharp focus for me.

A vehicle manufacturer runs their ERP system on an IBM i server but uses Microsoft .NET technology for shop floor automation. They need to exchange data and call programs in real-time as vehicles move down the assembly line. A unique VIN number must be generated and stamped on the vehicle and then all corresponding vehicle data must be uploaded and stored against that unique reference. Any system failure could halt the production line and the data captured must be 100% accurate or else servicing the vehicle throughout its life could be fraught with problems. We not only addressed this integration issue with an 'industrial strength' solution, but we did it in such a way that the two tribes of IBM and Microsoft experts did not have to encroach on each others turf. Everyone is happily worshipping at their chosen altar, safe in the knowledge that our middleware keeps the assembly line running.

Another great example of IBM and Microsoft technology working together in perfect harmony is an e-commerce solution for one of our other manufacturing clients. They had outsourced the development of their B2B web site to external consultants specialising in e-commerce solutions. Their on-line product catalogue - containing images, PDF documents, how-to videos - was built on an ASP.NET web server with data stored in SQL Server. The site is very functional and gives customers and dealers on-line access to an array of rich media. But their ERP system runs on an IBM iSeries server and all master customer, product and dealer records are stored in DB2/400. By providing real-time integration between these incompatible systems we have been able to enable the straight-through processing of sales orders (no re-keying of data) and also ensure that all price and inventory information on the web site is bang up-to-date.

Redchester is well worth a visit and if you need travel advice then just hollah. I know the guys who can take you there.

Thursday, December 4

Why must you be passionate about software today?

I wrote my first proper computer program - an educational video game - in 1984 and proudly published it as Shareware on the Micronet800 (Prestel) service using my shiny new Hayes Smartmodem 1200. I've had a love affair with great software ever since.

My career has taken me via electrical engineering, hardware, networking & data comms and IT services but I came back to focus exclusively on software in 1994 and have never looked back. And I have never been more positive about the business and consumer value of great software products. We now all expect hardware to get better, cheaper, faster and smaller and having IT skills is no longer the preserve of the men in white coats. But software ... aaahhh my beloved software ... can still surprise you and change the world.

I was motivated to wax lyrical about software again by reading this post on MIX Online: A Bright Future for Software. I can't make the key points any better than Joshua Allen did so I commend you to read his piece. Whether you are a fan of Microsoft products or not, I find it heartening to discover a bunch of guys inside Fortress Redmond that are passionate about providing a great user experience. Let's hope their enthusiasm spreads around the place because I still struggle with parts of Microsoft Office!

What do the experts (don't laugh) on Wall Street say about the outlook for the Software industry? The only one of that crowd that I know well and trust is John DiFucci at JP Morgan. His team recently published a research note entitled 'Come Again? Yes, Buy Software'. They make a series of strong arguments, supported by hard stats, that suggest why the Enterprise Software segment, in particular, is well positioned to not only weather the storm but to outperform other sectors.

You can tell that I love great software products and it's the industry where I choose to make my crust. If you want to prosper during this recession then I've given you some reasons why you should to.