In a novel approach to afford software application vendors the chance to express their views directly on such topics as market trends, platform approaches, and mid-market issues, we compiled a series of questions inspired by industry events we recently attended. Infor and IFS, two upper mid-market, stalwart vendors, were the first to respond to this unique questions-and-answers series. Following are their insightful responses to our inquiring minds. For further elaboration on the questions we asked below, please see part one of this series, Two Stalwart Vendors Discuss Market Trends.
Questions and Answers
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?
IFS: Our view is that the stacks do more or less the same thing. There is, of course, differentiation in the products' guts from the major players. These differentiations tend to be important to software vendors and developers building applications that use these stacks. Looking at these stacks from the "inside out," the services and features the stacks offer are important in terms of how well they suit the needs of the applications that ride on them. The differences are much less significant to consumers of these applications, who are looking for solutions instead of technologies. To these users, the stacks are a means to an end, and what the provider of that application recommends is what they will use. Looking at these stacks from the "outside in," they all (should) support standard protocols and adapters for interconnecting applications that tend to mask any underlying differences.
Infor: We should take a step back and look at this from a customer perspective. No customer that we're aware of has actually asked for a particular SOA stack per se. Our customer feedback on research indicates that what customers really want is
- flexibility and agility to quickly respond to evolving business demands over time;
- business solutions rather than complex, costly middleware platforms and technology projects;
- sound technology strategy to support a long-term investment horizon of ten to twenty years;
- product road maps without major reimplementation efforts in order to stay current; and
- coexistence with their existing information technology (IT) investments, and choice in products and technologies.
SOA is the common vehicle for delivering on these customer needs, but Oracle and SAP are seemingly taking an "inside-out" technology approach to sell customers on the proposition of their stacks. Microsoft has no clear SOA strategy and is trying to position its existing technology stack in this context. Infor, on the other hand, took an "outside-in" approach to develop an SOA strategy to enable and support customer objectives as the overriding priority. Customers tell us they want solutions, not middleware, platforms, or technology projects, because
- Most companies have enough experience with software implementations to know and expect that their vendors will deliver a packaged solution that addresses a specific business problem. They have rightly become wary of purchasing technologies that require them to undertake large internal development efforts before any true business value is achieved. Instead, they expect that the packaged software they purchase will include the necessary enabling technology.
- Further, most customers are equally wary of working with a software vendor that imposes the complexity and implementation costs on its customers. While "do it yourself" (DIY) may be the marketing mantra of some software companies, this is not in the best interest of the customer. Instead, companies want software solutions with built-in functional capabilities that meet their specific business needs. They want to engage in DIY projects only when their needs cannot be met by standard software or when the initiative will improve their differentiation in the marketplace.
Infor addresses our customer needs with business-specific solutions, whereby technology enablement is built into our solutions. The idea here is to leverage commodity and standard technologies to give our customers choice and control. With Infor Open SOA, service-enabled capabilities are being built into all major product lines, and will be available to customers at no charge as a result of standard product upgrades and the delivery of maintenance services. Infor Open SOA is a pragmatic approach that doesn't require customers to undertake a large software reimplementation feat that necessitates replacing existing solutions that still meet current and near-term requirements.
Moreover, customers rather need to differentiate themselves with their own innovations, and today's packaged software won't typically address every customer's needs. Customers will continue to find new ways of differentiating themselves through their own business processes and [by] tweaking their packaged business systems. Thus, the question shouldn't be based on platform, stack, or technology, but rather on the inherent design and architectural flexibility and adaptability of the business application to support their differentiation and evolving challenges over an extended time period. Infor will continue to focus on interoperability standards to allow customers the choice and control to choose the right mix of solutions and technologies to solve their problems in support of their differentiation and challenges for the long haul.
Question 2. 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)?
IFS: IFS believes platform choice is good, and [that it] ultimately benefits the customer. It also protects vendors that offer choice, since the technology industry has a nasty habit of changing direction on a periodic basis. One can look at previous generations of technology "battles,"—operating systems (OSs), as an example—to see this in a historical context. At one point, the OS one chose was considered critical to the success of the IT investment. Yet today, many of the then-leading operating systems are all but gone, and the ones that are left largely all do about the same thing. Software vendors that offered choice navigated those changes with relative ease, while those that locked in suffered badly (as did their customers). One can make the case that current debate over technology stacks will ultimately resolve itself in a similar way. Vendors that offer choice, offer customers the best long-term investment protection because they [the customers] will always gravitate to the survivors that offer the most cost-effective solution.
Infor: Most vendors have jumped on the SOA bandwagon to create a customer lock-in strategy for their solutions via business process platforms [as SAP has done], or database and middleware [as Oracle has done], or client and server technology [as Microsoft has done]. Who is thinking about what the customer really wants? That's where the Infor Open SOA strategy is specifically designed with customer choice in mind—to enable the customer ecosystem rather than to try and lock [the] customer into a vendor ecosystem. Infor's customer ecosystem is all about evolving existing solutions and technology with no platform or technology lock-in because
- Most customers today use a very diverse mix of technologies to support their business-specific needs. Their hybrid IT infrastructures are comprised of multiple solutions, platforms, and technologies from different vendors. Infor Open SOA not only supports, but embraces this heterogeneous, customer-specific ecosystem by providing interoperability with all of their enterprise solutions, including any custom solutions and those from Infor, partners, third-parties, and trading partners. Infor Open SOA is not a convergence platform because we understand that "one-size-fits-all" is not the preferred approach by enterprising customers. As a result, Infor Open SOA doesn't require customers to move off their existing platforms onto a common technology platform as a prerequisite for leveraging SOA. Instead, customers have choice and control over the solutions and technologies they support and when they upgrade their IT infrastructures.
- Furthermore, a hybrid environment is actually where Infor solutions thrive. A majority of Infor's 70,000 customers has a mixed environment with Infor and other third party solutions. Our customers say the reason they selected Infor is because we have the best solution to solve their business-specific needs, whereby our best-of-breed solutions are often implemented side by side with the competition. And whereas most of our competition is trying to take control of their customers by making them deploy their large, costly technology platforms and [to] convince customers to deploy only solutions that are certified on their proprietary vendor platforms, we support the customer ecosystem that includes a number of technologies and products. In fact, we welcome that environment, because in the open market, without vendor lock-in platforms, we feel our solutions will beat out any of our competitors.
In fact, Infor Open SOA is core to the Infor Customer First product strategy and to the overall long-term corporate strategy. By using Infor Open SOA to service-enable current and future Infor solutions, we are creating the framework through which customers can deploy best-of-breed software components, regardless of technology platform, to more rapidly, easily, and cost-effectively meet their business-specific needs. We have taken the delivery of business-specific solutions to a new, higher level by developing solutions blueprints for each of the vertical industries we target. This will enable customers to more quickly address specific business problems as they occur as well as develop innovations that will differentiate them in the market place.
Question 3. What are your views with regards to the "wrap-around vs. rewrite" dilemma? Will any products in your family of offerings be completely rewritten in managed code?
IFS: All existing vendors face the challenge of moving their legacy codes to a service-oriented architecture, but that's just the start. The investment is large, the risk high, and it's a crowded market when you get there. Most customers are more interested in solutions than underlying technologies and architectures, which makes it difficult for new vendors with a good technology story but immature product to enter the market. This allows space for established vendors to migrate their codes over time. The real question is the level of granularity (services) you need to have an effective solution. If you have an application made up of highly granular services (such as IFS), you don't have to completely rewrite your code to start exposing existing functionality as consumable services. Vendors of legacy applications not architected with high granular services have a much more difficult time of making the transition.
Infor: Our strategy is to offer customer, business-specific solutions with industry experience built in versus one-size-fits-all. Some vendors are working on converging their applications onto a single technology platform and code base. The problem with this approach is risk—no one has ever successfully done this. Even Microsoft, with the deepest pockets in the industry, couldn't make Project Green work. Businesses can't afford to take the risk on unproven solutions, and yet some of our competitors are actually rewriting their software, which is opening up opportunity for bugs and functionality gaps as certain logic conditions were overlooked. Bugs are a natural component of software development. No software vendor can claim to have bug-free software, which is why evolutionary enhancements are so important. [These enhancements] allow the vendor to catch any software bugs before they become [so] significant that [they] severely impact the customers' ability to run their businesses. Instead of rewriting all of our proven business-specific software, we are leveraging it as is and applying SOA-based technologies in an evolutionary way so that customers of all sizes can benefit, and the incremental adoption reduces their risk.
Delivering the right product with proven solutions is more important to customers, since there is too much risk in deploying brand new solutions for most customers. Instead, they want proven solutions with years of experience built in. Such business-specific functionality—[which] is addressed at the core of the solution, not through many add-ons offered by third parties—requires much less need for customizations. Also, as new enterprise solutions' maturations take years to complete, early adopters assume significant risk to their businesses with unproven software. Conversely, Infor solutions have years and years of use by hundreds of customers in production environments, and we believe that customers that select other vendors are taking on more risk than if they select Infor. [At] Infor, we are delivering proven solutions with deep business-specific functionality built in, which allows customers to deploy solutions much faster and with less cost than unproven horizontal convergence platforms that try to be everything to everyone.
Infor has been proudly customer focused. We have 70,000 customers—more business application customers than SAP and Oracle combined. We also have one of the highest customer retention rates in the industry. Our customers believe in our products and made a conscious decision not to buy from the competition. Why? Because we have the best solutions, the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO), and we are customer-focused within certain industries and market segments. Also, our SOA strategy is less invasive than the competition's, allows customers to take advantage of it when their businesses require, costs significantly less to deploy and maintain, and ultimately creates less risk for customers. We are going to continue to protect our customers' investments as part of our customer-first strategy, since
- Customers want to avoid vendors that impose new technology investments every few years that lack tangible return on investment (ROI) and that are dictated by a vendor's artificial product obsolescence program.
- We are not focused on deriving revenue through technology churn, requiring customers to invest in new technologies and reimplement their software time and again in order to gain next-generation value.
Infor Open SOA also supports our long-term corporate strategy to acquire companies that complement existing Infor solutions and help us address the unmet needs of our customers. The architectural design of Infor Open SOA makes it possible for Infor to rapidly integrate newly acquired software capabilities and newly developed Infor software into our comprehensive offerings of out-of-the box, interoperable solutions. Because Infor is not consolidating products to a common technology platform, interoperability of existing and new solutions can be achieved with much less development effort and disruption. This, in turn, supports the Infor corporate goal to provide customers with every capability they need to meet their specific requirements without disrupting their normal course of business.
As for Technology Evaluation Centers' (TEC's) statement "Products that are totally rewritten will be great SOA-based solutions largely for the "green field" sites…," Infor believes that even customers that deploy new solutions for green field sites are leery of unproven software solutions. Further, TEC's opinion that SOA-enabling existing enterprise solutions is "putting lipstick on a pig" applies to some, but not necessarily to all. Infor believes that one should be careful about what to call a "pig." The reality is that some of the most mature and stable enterprise solutions out there are based on older technology. That makes a solution business-ready with experience and maturity built in, not necessarily a "pig." These solutions have and will continue to serve their markets with extremely high customer satisfaction. By SOA-enabling our solutions, we open new opportunities for customers to realize new extended capabilities and agility.
Question 4. What of vendors deemphasizing major upgrades, turning rather to vertically oriented and optional value and service packs? Do you have any plans for a similar change in this area? That is, what will be the "quantum leap" versions of your products?
IFS: IFS made a commitment to a flexible, service-oriented architecture long ago (long before it was called SOA) with the express purpose of avoiding "quantum leap" versions. IFS believes quantum leaps are for vendors struggling to get past a legacy architecture. Once in a modern SOA architecture, major upgrades are largely passé, since incremental updates become much easier to develop and introduce to the market. IFS will continue to package and release major updates because it's what our industry is conditioned to expect. However, we are seeing a continuous flow of product improvements throughout a version life cycle, and we expect this trend to accelerate.
Infor: Customers tell us they don't want major reimplementation events. Our Infor Open SOA strategy is explicitly designed to service-enable and deliver the SOA technology as part of a product's regular release upgrade cycle. We do not anticipate any major reimplementation events for our customers. With some products, such as Infor ERP LN and Infor ERP LX, we already provide "feature packs," which customers may choose to implement (or not) according to their needs.
This is part two of the series Two Stalwart Vendors Discuss Market Trends. The remainder of Infor's and IFS's answers to our questions will be presented in part three.