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Rewrite or Wrap-Around Old Software? Part Two: Extending to the Web and Challenges

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: June 8 2004

Event Summary

There is a small group of vendors with brave and fresh ideas, which are by no means the prerogative of the biggest and the richest. This group has chosen to rewrite their applications on a new, possibly future-proof application framework. The intent of these visionary vendors is to address the ever increasing market awareness of the following facts:

  1. That almost every business changes, and that software must change with the business (see What's Wrong with Application Software? Business Changes, Software Must Change with the Business.);

  2. Even small businesses are really unique—one size can never fit all, and, thus, custom software is a requirement for many enterprises, even for the smaller ones (see What's Wrong with Application Software? Businesses Really Are Unique—One Size Can Never Fit All);

  3. The high cost of development, support, and enhancements in term of money, time, and quality limit the ability of installed legacy software to meet many demands of business (see What's Wrong with Application Software? It's the Economics).

At the same time, these vendors have been maintaining or improving their functionality, although some observers may contend that their "bold" moves have been a virtue made out of necessity.

This is Part Two of a two-part tutorial.

Part One presented and situation and initial steps to deal with it.

Extending Applications to the Web

The next stage, which has begun fairly recently, is to extend the enterprise applications themselves to the Web, where they can be accessed and run by outside trading partners and mobile employees. These web-based applications are hybrid in form, bringing together proprietary legacy elements, either host-centric or client/server, with thin client, browser-based interfaces. The catch is to bring to the Web the advanced functionality of ERP systems, but broken into components and without the need for an additional layer of wrapper architecture. Some vendors have also begun to add mobility hooks into their suites so that ERP sessions can be accessed via wireless devices. In order for traditional ERP systems to be Internet ready, they will have to be

  1. Fully browser enabled.

  2. Redesigned to be available to all corporate users, not just the special few.

  3. Redesigned to be available to trading partners (such as customers, resellers and suppliers).

  4. Redesigned to use standard data interchange language, most likely XML, rather than proprietary protocols.

To do this in an appropriate manner, ERP vendors have to completely redesign their applications for a true e-business environment, on a standard-based Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) or .NET-compliant application server, which, as stated earlier, takes serious resources and commitment. The resulting application will then have been designed from scratch to be accessed over the Internet by a Web browser, and to be extendable by additional components, and managed by an application server with built-in security and integration features. Some vendors recognized the need early, while the vast majority waited until the trend was more obvious and are now engaged in a frantic catch-up race. These latter vendors face the possibility of losing the market share.

In addition to the revolutionary approach of Intuitive Manufacturing Systems (www.intuitivemfg.com), a number of vendors deserve to be mentioned here owing to being somewhere between both the evolutionary and revolutionary strategy—they have either completely rewritten or have released the pieces of new product releases on commonly accepted frameworks like J2EE or .NET, but have been burdened with a large customer base still running on a slew of older product that support now possibly obsolete technologies. Intentia International (see Intentia: Java Evolution From AS/400), IFS (see IFS to Be at Customers' (Web) Service), Epicor (see Epicor Claims the Forefront of CRM.NET-ification), SYSPRO (SYSPRO—Awaiting Positive IMPACT from Its Brand Unification), and former Frontstep (now part of MAPICS, see Frontstep Ups the .NET Ante) would be some worth pointing out.


Nevertheless, as long as the "old" software is meeting business needs, new technology is not the change driver, which makes building replacement products on a new framework a higher risk strategy. The product functionality still matters and, while it is important for enterprise applications providers to implement the latest computer science "quantum leap", there is no guaranteed correlation between first-to-market and the ultimate success in the market (In fact, based on many experiences, one could even argue that the correlation might be inverse).

A good example is SAP. While it has not been known for speed, its holistic and meticulous approach to new product delivery may give customers some breathing space between adopting new software standards and solutions, while, at the same time, upgrading and maintaining custom legacy environments. Oracle, the former J.D. Edwards and PeopleSoft, on the other hand, gained market shares with their respective groundbreaking technologies a few years ago, but have felt the displeasure of client bases that were far from being ready to make a significant technological leap. Hence, these vendors had to backpedal and rethink their older product release discontinuation strategies.

As a result of this evolutionary approach, customers should be able to modify, enhance, and adapt individual Web services without changing other software components, thereby mitigating the need for huge, disruptive platform shifts and upgrades of the past. This should, in principle, allow companies to protect existing investments and add new functionality that can be reasonably easily designed, built, deployed, accessed, and combined with existing Web services and syndicated across division, company, and geographic boundaries.

Still, while the evolution strategy might be safer in the short run for both the customers and the vendor because it minimizes both investment and disruption, the evolutionary strategy has limits in how much can be accomplished. The existing product becomes a limit on the amount of innovation that proves practical. There are no definitely right and wrong answers at this stage, and every vendor has to conduct its own soul-searching and justification exercise for the direction it chooses.

A Case When Risks of Complete Redesign Might Be Worthwhile

In Intuitive's case, had it stayed within its legacy technology and just worked on functionally improving the product, it will have likely not have been able to release as much new functionality as it has in the 7.0 product release. That might become even clearer over the next twelve months or so, as the vendor has been very carefully redesigning each section of the product as it moves to .NET, and the new planning, sales and customer relationship management (CRM) portions of the product are notably more functional than they have been before. The vendor claims to be selling and winning lately mainly based on functionality, and not necessarily on technology. Ironically, that functionality would likely not have been there if the vendor had not moved to the.NET Framework.

There is always the aspect of the future of enterprise applications, where winning products need to interact with people and, more importantly, with other enterprise software more effectively than anyone ever considered possible just a few years ago. Users will eventually need to be able to run their applications on devices like a smart phone, or to be able to process transactions automatically with their trading partners. Infrastructure-heavy electronic data interchange (EDI) is eventually going to be replaced by secure transactions between systems that no longer need that "money drain" in the middle. As we move closer to these realities, technology architectures are going to make a huge difference in whether one is able to provide these new capabilities or not, and how quickly, easily, and therefore, inexpensively one can do so.

Still, Intuitive will have to carefully introduce the remaining pure .NET software components into Intuitive ERP through the normal sequence of upgrade releases, whereby the current customer base would gradually migrate to .NET as the Intuitive ERP product will gradually be transformed to pure .NET. The transformation, which entails converting or rewriting every single line of software code and modifying the Intuitive ERP architectural design to leverage the many touted benefits of the .NET platform will not likely be painless for the install base. However, it does not necessarily have to be very painful either. Upgrade challenges generally consist of two major things: database changes and modifications the customer has meanwhile made that need to be upgraded to the new product release level. For example, had Intuitive made significant enhancements to the sales modules in its older release on legacy architecture, it would have had the same upgrade issues as with the 7.0 release. However, since the vendor was able to do so much more with the new architecture, it will have eliminated the need for modifications in a lot of areas that its customers had modifications in the past.

Yet, Intuitive might have limited success convincing prospective and existing customers to go for the Intuitive ERP version 7.0, until the entire product is 100 percent rewritten in .NET, supposedly by version 8.0. One could think of only a few compelling functional enhancements at this stage that would justify users opting for the product at this stage. In other words, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mindset might likely work against Intuitive at this stage. As a matter of fact, ironically, the product currently does not have the same look and feel, given that the .NET parts indeed feature the touted snazzy XP features, whereas the rest of COM-based chunks of functionality (such as purchasing, manufacturing, etc.) still exhibit the "boxy" Windows 98 metaphor.

Indeed, .NET technology makes it easier for developers to produce rich, vividly colorful user interfaces, since .NET makes it easy to use the new richer-detailed 48 x 48-pixel icons, color gradients that fade from one color to another, and rich and finely detailed graphs and charts. Also, .NET software is inherently speedier, especially when accessing Microsoft SQL Server databases, but it is not very likely that these will be compelling reasons for ordinary, non IT-oriented users to embark on painstaking migration path. Therefore, prospects may rather wait for the completely rewritten version 8.0 or later.

Intuitive will thus have to direct the prospects' attention from only looking at the major new features of the 7.0 release and ignoring the hundreds of small functional enhancements that have also been made. Namely, the vendor has taken all of the feedback for enhancement requests from all of the years of user group meetings, e-mails, phone calls, etc., which it has then diligently logged and tracked, and consequently included a vast majority of them in the design of the 7.0 release. For instance, there have been 267 enhancement requests in the Sales Order Form alone, whereby Intuitive accepted 243 of those in the new 7.0 Sales Order Form. This combination of both functional and technological enhancements might be the order winner.

Competition Is Fierce and Muddling the Message

The competition is also flying from many directions: the mid-market peers, the tier 1 vendors storming down the market, and even Intuitive's quintessential technological partner, Microsoft's well-publicized intrusion into the enterprise applications market (see Microsoft Keeps on Rounding Up Its Business Solutions). Therefore, much scarcer financial resources, still developing global channel and brand recognition, and formidable competition within the market will be the challenges for the likes of Intutive to fend. The trouble might not only be in terms of market share, but also in terms of diluting the .NET message, given that an army of these, more visible vendors have been swearing by .NET lately.

Not many users are savvy enough to realize that the systems that have added Microsoft code around an old technology core have to deal with translation between the old and new layers, data typing, formatting, interface, and performance issues, version compatibility dilemmas, and other subtle problems. Even if some prospects might take it at a face value, they might still find comfort in opting for a better-known solution, particularly by renowned vendors that have embarked on major projects to converge disparate functionality within several acquired product lines to create a new generation of business applications. While these undertakings are still largely a lengthy work-in-progress, the promise is within unified modern architectures that should allow resellers to sell extensions to the applications, while preserving the migration path for the foundation accounting or back-office components. A recent example would be Microsoft Business Network (MBN), a web-based communications network that allows transactions to be exchanged between trading partners via XML or EDI, tied directly into MBS' ERP applications of Microsoft Office applications.

The ironic thing is that as soon as Microsoft sales people start talking about their enterprise applications' future roadmap and timetables, it becomes evident that they are still years away from their .NET-based versions. But, the critical thing with the likes of Intuitive is not to try and sell on technology, but to rather remain focused on selling and winning with product capabilities.

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