Over the last several months, we have attended numerous vendor events and user conferences, and have witnessed an avalanche of press releases and announcements about these vendors' respective strategies, their products' long- and mid-term road maps, immediate enhancements, and so on. While it is only natural that every vendor will claim its strategy, moves, or product offerings as differentiating, the general perception in the market is that most of the above are reaching parity. However, our curiosity and inquiring minds have forced us to try to discern at least some distinct, thought-provoking initiatives—that is, to find "differentiation needles in a haystack of vendor hype."
To that end, we have decided to try a different writing tack. Namely, rather than writing our opinions and analysis and then giving the vendors in question a chance for factual review and feedback, as we customarily do, we have attempted to solicit vendors' input and views. Below are the questions we asked, most of which were inspired from the events we attended. Occasionally, we took the liberty of expanding the focus of a question with a few additional questions pertinent to our observations. Articles that have been published earlier on our site, and that may shed more light on a given topic, are mentioned as recommended readings.
Here are the questions we asked:
Question 1. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) stack approaches (wars)—are they all converging to virtually the same thing, or might there still be some differentiation among them?
One can point out many similarities among the stacks of Microsoft .NET Framework (Biztalk, SQL Server, SharePoint Server, Windows Workflow Foundation [WF], business intelligence [BI], etc.), Oracle Fusion Middleware (database, application server, business process execution language [BPEL] engine, portal, data hubs, enterprise content management [ECM], etc.), SAP NetWeaver (exchange infrastructure [XI], web application server, enterprise portal, master data management [MDM], etc.), and IBM WebSphere (almost everything as Microsoft and Oracle, except for comprehensive in-house applications). Salesforce.com's Apex (the provider's software as a service [SaaS] platform), while not offering the depth of the on-premise development environments and platforms listed above, at least conceals from users and developers the databases, servers, engines, etc. that are running underneath (see Software as a Service: Not without Caveats).
Thus, is there any particular differentiating factor a single vendor offers that other vendors do not—even if merely a noble concept or approach? Could perhaps SharePoint be that future "killer" application set that nails it well for Microsoft (that is, that nicely ties up the applications with infrastructure)? The familiar user interface (UI) role is often used by Microsoft in its SharePoint Server, which provides collaboration and intranet services and offers document storage capabilities, among other features. Microsoft also claims to use SharePoint to develop composite applications, in which the portal enables users to draw data from a variety of different applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, and accounting software. Or, is the notion that users go for platforms and stacks based on their preferences and scalability perceptions (that is, Java 2 Enterprise Edition [J2EE]-based servers for larger customers vs. .NET for smaller ones—see Understand J2EE and .NET Environments Before You Choose) still prevalent? Even SharePoint is still considered by some as a "poor man's groupware" solution (and there are open-source equivalents, such as JBoss).
Question 2. Platform choice or lock-in?
While it is apparent that Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle (and maybe even Fujitsu too) will each push its own databases, BI, and application server (AS) platforms, SAP will profess some platform choice for its clients. Epicor Software and QAD will continue to offer Microsoft SQL Server and Progress database choices in their stacks. IFS, 3i-Infotech, and IQMS use Oracle database only. Lawson Software now offers the IBM WebSphere AS only, and a number of Microsoft-centric vendors have long been using SQL Server only.
Possibly the most ambitious of these new offerings is Infor's recently unveiled Infor Open SOA blueprint, which will be based on an event-driven architecture (EDA). With EDA, users can deploy and upgrade interoperable applications and software components with little or no disruption to other enterprise systems. Infor's middleware will remain platform-independent by adhering to industry standards such as the extensible markup language (XML)-based open applications group interoperability standard (OAGIS) to accommodate even the most arcane legacy environments, such as that of Computer Associates' OpenRoad. Infor claims that customers will be able to create their own ecosystems of "Infor" and "non-Infor" software components, without having to rip-and-replace systems to conform to proprietary middleware technology.
However, these new benefits remain to be seen (Infor Enterprise Service Bus [ESB], for example), since Open SOA will only be delivered as incremental product update releases over time, although they will come at no additional cost to customers (which is a refreshing change). Product updates over the next several years will also include business process components that can be mixed and matched to suit customers' varying needs.
Any comment regarding pros et contras for both the platform choice and rationalization (that is, a lock-in situation, and constantly waiting for the moving parts to be in synch)?
Question 3. Converged, fused, and completely rewritten SOA product, or not?
All vendors are claiming that SOA will be as earth-shattering as the cure for cancer or the solution to world hunger, but what is the real, tangible benefit from SOA for both users and vendors (see SOA from a Management Perspective)? Also, what are the potential problems with SOA and the concerns that vendors or users may have, and what are vendors doing to address these issues and concerns?
While it seems like a good idea to retain existing Microsoft Dynamics GP, Microsoft Dynamics SL, SAP R/3, JD Edwards World, PeopleSoft, Siebel, etc. for customers (with their varied instances) and to let them move forward at their own pace, what about the "pure SOA," rewritten super-products of the future, such as Oracle Fusion Applications or Lawson Landmark (the rewritten Lawson S3 Human Capital Management [HCM] product is reportedly slated for release later this year)? Lawson Landmark's approach of leveraging pattern-based language to generate the code and to make sure that new Web services are viable (that is, that there are no conflicts or interdependencies with what is already there when developers copy or reuse one component to create another similar one) is intriguing. Also, separations between the upgrades to the platform stack (Lawson System Foundation [LSF]) and application layer should come in handy for future migrations.
To be fair, the SOA concept does indeed facilitate standardization, allow for a measure of integration (even with legacy products) and improved user experience, and accommodate customization. But it is not a panacea (or cure-all)—at least not in its current state. It is unreasonable to expect the mere concept of SOA to turn rigid products written in ancient code into flexible, change-accommodating business tools almost overnight. To radically change, the underlying product architecture has to either be properly designed from the ground up, or it has to be totally rewritten in new, modern languages and technologies. Without true modernization of underlying applications, SOA becomes—and our apologies for the crude metaphor—no more than "putting lipstick on a pig" (dressing up inferior products to make them more appealing to the buyer). Needless to say, the impending task of rewriting product code will be a gut-wrenching effort for all vendors (see Microsoft .NET-managed Code Enablement: Examples and Challenges).
Products that are totally rewritten will be great SOA-based solutions largely for the "green field" sites, but how many virgin sites are still out there? Furthermore, if that future uber-product will be so good, why would anyone accept the current, intermediate products? Why not wait for the rewritten product of the future (Oracle Fusion or Lawson Landmark, for example, given that other major vendors have apparently stopped short of a total rewrite)? Is there even a compelling reason for moving to Fusion or Landmark if existing products are working well?
Hence, what are your views with regard to the above dilemma? Will any products in your family of offerings be completely rewritten in managed code?
Question 4. What of vendors deemphasizing major upgrades, turning rather to vertically oriented and optional value and service packs?
In the case of such solutions as SAP ERP 6.0 (formerly mySAP ERP 2005), Infor ERP LN 6.1, Lawson S3 9.1, etc., these are the "quantum leap" versions that users have to upgrade to (as strongly recommended by the vendors). Therefore, these solutions must become SOA-enabled. Once this is done, these vendors can supposedly ease up on forcing major future upgrades on their customers, and focus on a pick-and-choose manner of providing value and service packs to them instead. For more information, see How One Vendor Addresses Support and Maintenance Issues.
Do you have any plans for a similar change in this area? That is, what will be the "quantum leap" versions of your products?
Question 5. Microsoft desktop supremacy—"solo," "duet," or many can still play at this game?
Is there anything special coming up within your product line (unbeknownst to us) with regards to UI? Certainly, portals can provide role-tailored personalization too. Is it that Microsoft's partners can further leverage snap-ins and such, and create their own intellectual property and revenue streams? If so, then what about structured support and maintenance, which seems to be spelled out to a degree in Duet?
Question 6. Incidentally, what about partners? That is, independent software vendors (ISVs) and value-added resellers (VARs)?
Namely, Microsoft, Sage, Exact Software, SAP Business One, and All-in-One have long been all about partners (see Innovative Approaches in the Free-for-all World of Value-added Resellers). Is there anything differentiating in your practices to reward, attract, educate, certify, etc. partners that hasn't been seen (or emulated) by others?
The fact that SAP now has a dozen endorsed ISV providers for the upper end of the market (including MCA Solutions, Visiprise, Vendavo, SmartOps, Callidus, etc.) that are even on its price lists, with joint selling and profit-sharing efforts, is really impressive (like Microsoft's Industry Builder). While Oracle will point out that it too has a number of partners, these partners are still largely those that leverage the technology stack, while it seems unclear as to whether these partners are involved with joint development of applications with Oracle.
Is there anything similar (or more impressive) on your side with regard to the above?
Question 7. What about going mid-market vs. defending it?
It is apparent that SAP needs the mid-market, but there is so much confusion with SAP ERP, SAP All-in-One, SAP Business One, and the recently announced, upcoming, SaaS SAP A1S product (not to be confused with the steak sauce brand). Overall, SAP seems to be losing some ground (and not only in the mid-market), while Oracle's and Microsoft Dynamics' momentum seems to be steady, but who knows for how long (especially since maintenance, and not new licenses, is the major applications revenue generator at Oracle). Oracle needs the mid-market too, and we are not sure what exactly the vendor is doing about maintaining its position in this market. It is too early to judge the most recent Oracle Accelerate effort (however a rejuvenated and reformed program it might seem on paper) while there is still a number of disparate solutions and an amount of confusion or anxiety among partners and customers.
What, to your mind, will be the key success factors (KSFs) in this market, and what have you been doing to better position yourself there?
Question 8. Microsoft SureStep, Lawson QuickStep, Oracle Accelerate, and others—breakthrough implementation methodologies, or merely "baby steps"?
Every vendor claims its solution has some advantage over the competition's that helps ease and speed up implementations, but these offerings all seem to ring the changes (employ alternative methods): best practice templates (that is, limited customization and functionality for the sake of speed) and modeling-driven implementation, configuration, and migration methodologies and tool sets designed to make tasks more predictable (see Fast-path Implementations—Are They Good or Bad?). Maybe Lawson QuickStep and Lawson Opportunity Analyzer (see Aligning Information Technology with Corporate Strategy), or SAP All-in-One for Chemicals (see SAP for Chemicals: A Packaged Solution for Mid-market Companies) offerings differ with the industry-specific methodology and acceptance by partners and customers, with all the functionality necessary (albeit pre-configured, but not turned off or "dumbed-down").
Are we missing something earth-shattering in your offering in this regard?
Question 9. At the end of the day, who do you think is in a better position to ultimately win in the market? Or do you think there will be no single winner, and that everyone will remain at the current, equidistant positions?
The above questions were disseminated to numerous renowned enterprise applications vendors. These vendors, if interested, were instructed to take their time and respond at their convenience. Our first two replies came from the two upper mid-market, stalwart vendors Infor and IFS, and before delving into their responses, some background on these vendors is in order.
Infor (http://www.infor.com) is a privately held provider of business-specific software for businesses of all sizes. The vendor's products enable businesses to be more enterprising and to adapt to the rapid changes of the global marketplace. Formed through numerous recent acquisitions, Infor has more than 70,000 customers and well over $2 billion (USD) in revenues. For more information, see An Unusual Human Capital Management Suspect.
IFS (OMX: IFS) is also a global enterprise applications company which was founded in 1983, and now has about $300 million (USD) in revenues and 2,600 employees worldwide. The vendor has pioneered component-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) software with IFS Applications—now in its seventh generation—whose component architecture provides solutions that are easier than most others to implement, run, and upgrade. IFS Applications is available in 54 countries and in 20 languages, and the vendor has over 500,000 users across 7 key vertical sectors: aerospace and defense; automotive; high tech; industrial manufacturing; process industries; construction, service, and facilities management; and utilities and telecom. More details on IFS can be found at http://c.technologyevaluation.com/qm/u=/cp/tec_article_20070629_al.asp/amp/cl=1/amp/i=4182/amp/c=205/amp/channel=Web_Link/amp/l=2.htmland in Resilient Enterprise Solutions Vendor Displays Sociability and Pragmatic Product Development.
To better understand these vendors' responses, one must remember from which standpoint these vendors come. In the recent past, IFS has abstained from major competitive acquisitions, and has been offering a single product line focusing on Oracle database and J2EE-based middleware only (see Why Database-agnostic Enterprise Applications Are on the Way Out).
Infor, with its multitude of acquisitions and a plethora of disparate technologies, logically has to opt for a more open and diverse technology road map in order to accommodate the dissimilar needs of its customers without forcing mandatory migration paths and abandoning tried-and-true (albeit antiquated) technologies, which could eventually lead to the alienation of its existing customers.
Still, the two vendors—direct competitors in certain industries—tend to agree on many issues.
This is the part one of the series Two Stalwart Vendors Discuss Market Trends. In the next part of this series, Infor's and IFS's answers to these questions will be presented.