Tag Archives: Application Platforms

The 3 U’s of Business Technology

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I attended yesterday the annual customer event of Creativ Software, and was dazed to see Business Technology at the down-to-earth level.

Creativ is a small ISV with a big part of the Swiss market for non-profit organization management software. Their customers are non-nonsense people who do not care much about technology, and the nature of their business forces them to run a lean operation with a very compelling and personalized attention to their constituencies.

Yesterday, I witnessed some 100 such users express “wows” and “aha!” and wide smiles when the Creativ team showed them their new “OM V10” product. It was not about the visual design, which is great. It was about the small things that you wish every day were done with more insight into your work. It starts with context persistence across the board, and reaches as far as automated background updates of the contact addresses via third party services. All of that, of course, without having to install anything on your workstation or device…

You may ask at this point where Business Technology comes into this. In my view, that IS Business Technology. It is the intimate and extended use of technology that performs parts of the business. Creativ’s solution is a useful and usable part of the NPO business environment and it is also used – in personalized and fit for the purpose variations – not only by a few subject matter specialists but by the broad community of stakeholders.

How did Creativ achieve such a feat?

About two years ago, when I worked with Magic Software on the elaboration of
the uniPaaS RIA platform, I met with Andy Schwengeler – Creativ’s CEO – to get his reaction to Magic’s new offering. Andy was adamant about usability and architecture. He told me that he was willing to go as far as to redevelop his entire solution if he could achieve a rich user experience as well as the latest flashy and intuitive designs, with zero Client management (or in other words a Cloud based RIA architecture) and a SaaS capability. He finally chose to work with uniPaaS RIA and the Extreme Programming methodology, and brought into the loop one of his most demanding customers as a watchdog. I heard very little from him until a few weeks ago, when he surfaced and invited me to the event.

I had the opportunity to chat a bit with some of the developers and get their take about this achievement. What they said further confirmed the blurring of the distinction between business and technology. In fact, technological advancement further challenges solution vendors for line-of-business expertise.

So there are some things that stay the same even in this age of accelerating change. The well-known recipe for success is still a valid one. If you want to be a successful solution vendor, you must know the relevant business practices better than most of your target customers. Because in order to achieve Usefulness, Usability and Usage, you will have to deliver a solution that embeds and abstracts much of the particular processes and practices which are the fundamentals of their business.

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Cloud Computing – Hype or Reality?

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Last week I spoke about this theme at the CON.ECT conference in Vienna with the same title. I found it a pretty representative sample of the present perception and market situation. Here are a few highlights.

There is a very live interest in Cloud Computing. This event managed to convince some 40 C level and Team Managers to spend most of a day learning more and getting acquainted with this topic.

Most of the effective projects are essentially hosting of traditional applications in a virtual hosting environment, driven essentially by cost savings and a measure of on-demand infrastructure features.

Google, Amazon and Microsoft were perceived by the audience as the key players in the foggy space of Cloud Computing. My presentation of effective Cloud based core applications and implementation examples, and the technical architecture required for such, raised a lot of interest and surprised many attendees. I was in turn surprised by the almost total unawareness of the architectural/technical issues related to the deployment of Cloud applications (as opposed to Cloud Infrastructure).

Another intriguing and highly demanded topic was the legal angle. Data Protection and Privacy legislation impose quite specific responsibilities and liabilities on IT operators and providers, and the multi-tier settings of data storage in the Cloud create potential liability exposures that must be assessed and dealt with before a business implements such a solution.

My conclusion – there’s still quite a lot of fog and hype surrounding Cloud Computing, and the industry must continue to educate and communicate in order to enable the potential it holds.

I’m keen to have more opinions on this.

The Extended Enterprise – from vision to reality with Rich Internet Application technology

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In the past year I wrote frequently about the manner in which enterprises approach Rich Internet Applications (RIA’s) and Cloud Architecture. I’m happy to see now tangible evidence of this. During the last couple of weeks I received several case descriptions of productive systems, and I’d like to share a couple of particularly interesting cases. For some reason, the more interesting stories come from the Netherlands – I did not figure out yet what’s behind this, but the first RIA example that I described in “More about Enterprise RIA in practice” also originated in that country.

The “Flower Shop” solution is an Enterprise RIA coming from a joint venture of Extendas (ISV specialising in eCommerce solutions) and Van Delft International (one of the leading suppliers of cut flowers in the Netherlands and award winning early adopter of mobile software technology). This application spans the entire supply chain from the FloraHolland exchange through the flower trader (such as Van Delft) to the flower shop. This is an Enterprise Class application, requiring a rich user interaction and transactional capability that is beyond browser based applications. Implemented with uniPaaS, the application is available simply via a URL and login credentials. It is presently being rolled out and is expected to be used by some 1500 flower shops, streamlining the short-lived flower trade, accelerating logistics and reducing overhead.

Another amazing customer of Magic Software is the VanDrie Group, the World’s largest veal producer. VanDrie already had a browser based application, VealVision, providing the full historical details about your piece of Schnitzel from the farmer to the supermarket. This has been now replaced by a fully interactive RIA, enabling each party in the supply chain to feed the system directly – streamlining the short-lived veal trade, accelerating logistics and reducing overhead

As Redmonk analyst Michael Coté commented on these stories, Enterprise RIA’s bring the “boring back-office applications” to the Web era and the usability level which the millennial generation expects from IT. They also remind us the Cloud Computing is not only infrastructure on demand, but has a far reaching business impact and that its adopters already gain a lot from it.

About application developers, platform licensing and bananas.

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I took the time yesterday evening to catch up with my reading, and came across some great posts about Application Platforms. Forrester’s Mike Gualtieri was inspired by Michael Jackson’s “Man in the mirror” and posted “Do Application Developers Need To Change Their Ways?”. He makes four recommendations to application developers – Understand the business in your bones”, “Be a developer not a coder”, “Use new technologies, but only when they make a difference”, and “Become Architects again”. As someone who evangelizes the abstraction of technological issues as a way to facilitate quality application development with a focus on the business solution, I am fully in agreement with Mike’s post. My recent post about A broader perspective on Google’s CHROME OS is very much along the same lines.

Another entry that I found highly relevant is John Rymer’s “Developers Want Unrestricted Downloads” (also on the Forrester blog). John relates to the recent work he did with Mike on CEP platforms, and forwards the argument that Platform vendors should offer unrestricted downloads for developers, in order to encourage them to adopt the platform and use it in production projects. And as far as survival goes, those vendors would collect revenue “as serious shops come back for deployment support including paid licenses”. We have the same passionate discussion time and again at Magic Software, in each licensing and pricing policy meeting. It is much easier said than done, in particular when your core product is the Platform. Megavendors such as Microsoft or IBM can and do promote much of their development technologies as lost leaders, compensating the freebies via (sometimes hefty) licenses on other parts of their technology that are required to complement the application environment. Most pure play vendors cannot afford that luxury, and in order to continue and innovate and support their operations they need to get revenue from almost any value added activity they perform. And when it comes to Open Source, the harsh reality is that there are very few vendors in this space who manage to survive independently for an extended period – most flare and then are either acquired or just fade away.

Let’s take both posts together – after all, it’s all about application development and John and Mike jointly report about it. Paraphrasing on Jackson’s song, Mike asks “What if application development professionals look in the mirror? What changes would you make to develop better applications?”. They also report that “Developers consistently tell us they want unrestricted platform downloads — no time bombs, no forced contacts with the vendor’s sales staff, no limited-function versions”. Let me take this reasoning boldly further. In other words, those developers who want unrestricted free platform downloads should be willing to do their own development work for free – hoping that their employer would find their work useful enough to pay them for subsequent support! Or maybe they should look in the mirror, and apply the same criteria they’d like for themselves to their fellow developers who develop platforms.

There’s also something to be learned from the banana merchants and the Max Havelaar foundation (incidently, the original story is related to Java – the island…). The foundation promotes fair trade and pay, and certifies that a minimal fair portion of the revenue from agricultural products from developing countries reaches the farmers who produced it. In the supermarket, Max Havelaar branded bananas are a bit more expensive than the non certified ones, yet they are very popular and sell well.

Would you rather buy Max Havelaar bananas? How about seriously evaluating a non-production version of an application platform that supports Mike’s recommendations?

More action in the Cloud with VMWare+SpringSource – and ISV’s getting encouraging results

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The proliferation of “everything-as-a-service” acronyms is often confusing, and merits an explanation and simplification. The VMware acquisition of SpringSource is an excellent illustration of the architecture. At the infrastructure level we find Operating System resources, which VMware encapsulates and virtualizes, offering shared hardware multitenancy but very limited elasticity. In order to increase the resource elasticity – which is the key factor of cost savings – virtualization needs to extend to the application level. That is the next layer, and I would expect that a tight integration of SpringSource with VMware would in fact provide this for Java based applications.

 This evolution has a lot of similarities to Microsoft’s move with Azure. Whereas Azure offers Cloud enablement for .NET applications, VMware+SpringSource would do the same for Java applications. However, in both cases this applies rather to newly developed applications – existing applications need to be redesigned in order to take advantage of the virtualization and resource abstraction features.

As I have noted in other posts, ISV’s who want to extend their portfolio and take advantage of the growing demand for SaaS need to work across multiple deployment models, where development and maintenance costs can double if they need to create the same application in more than one format.

 So the main challenge for most ISV’s is to manage an extended solution portfolio, continuing to service their current customer base with current deployment models while driving growth through Cloud Based deployment. VMware+SpringSource will facilitate this for Java oriented ISV’s, as the announcement states support for both traditional JEE deployments as well as Cloud based deployments.

 An alternative to the bottom-up approach of system infrastructure vendors such as VMware or Microsoft, comes from some Application Infrastructure vendors such as SalesForce.com or Magic Software. These vendors provide for some time already PaaS and SaaS/Cloud Enabled Application Platforms (SEAP), which deal with virtualization and elasticity by abstracting system resources from the applications, so that XaaS can be achieved at conventional data centres.

 Today I came across an account of a UK based ISV whose been there and done that – successfully, even in the present economy climate. Take a look at the story of FactoryMaster and how they manage take advantage of the new platforms.

A broader perspective on Google’s CHROME OS

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Following the Chrome OS announcement by Google and the hype it generated, I was asked be several people to comment on it. If you lean back and take a certain perspective, it is fascinating to realize how well it fits into the long term technology lifecycle evolution. Having hated History classes as a student, I’m becoming increasingly impressed by the insights it can provide as years go by…

What we see in computing technology is that initially, new features and products are delivered as independent products. Features that become successful and ubiquitous evolve in functionality and become more generic, often ending up as an infrastructure or Operating System option. One of the most dramatic examples that I experienced was the Image Viewer (that is today part of Windows) for TIFF images. In the early 90’s, when Document Imaging was introduced, you could only scan and view documents using specialized hardware accelerators (a dominant vendor was Kofax). The extra cost to support TIFF viewing on a PC was close to $2000, plus an expensive monitor. Many Document Imaging companies (mine included) made a lot of revenue developing and selling Software viewers, reducing user costs by half. Finally (about 8 years later), Microsoft purchased the TIFF viewer that Wang developed and incorporated it for free within Windows.

The evolving Internet now brings about Cloud Computing, and many new features and products are gaining wide adoption (I refer to this in my “living in SOA” post). The Browser was very material in making that happen. The Browser can be considered as a window to the internet. But as more and more users expect to use net-native applications and devices, the Browser is clearly outdated and underperforming. After all, it was designed to display information – not to contain and execute business logic.

What users want now is a door to the internet – designed for bi-directional exchange and more, not just for browsing. Some vendors with extensive web application experience already understood that, and have come up with alternatives to the Browser that support Rich Internet Applications – such as Adobe Air, Microsoft Silverlight or Magic Software uniPaaS RIA. These are very compact engines (the uniPaaS RIA Client is only 2MB) that are designed to execute net-native applications, where the application code resides “in the cloud” (like portals) yet the user gets a rich interactive desktop experience (unlike portals). As I describe in “A battle royale for RIA market” however, developing applications for most of these “new doors” is pretty complex. A handful of vendors started addressing this hurdle, led by Magic Software with uniPaaS and maybe followed by Microsoft with ‘Alexandria’

Google Chrome OS seems to be right in the same evolutionary line. From the scant information I was able to get, it is trying to move all those hurdles down into the OS level and abstract them from users, so that users and application developers would be able to once again focus most of their effort on business logic and user experience rather than on underlying technologies. But we have to be patient and wait for it to become available. And then wait a few years for it to mature.

In the meantime, why not go ahead and use what’s available? After all, history also shows us that those companies who used the early Document Imaging products and systems did gain competitive advantages and developed their business, independently of what became possible later.

How about a “Personal Cloud”?

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Mike Gualtieri recently posted “Cloudmania: Developers Need A Personal Cloud”, which I find very pertinent and descriptive of developer’s views. I must say that  I do not know professional developers who entertain the idea of their development baby being hooked with an umbilical cord to another mother (such as a hosted PaaS). But they certainly want the ability to test it whenever they want in the target environment.

One thing that probably contributes to the confusion is the almost non-existent distinction between situational applications and core applications. Mike evoked in the past the emergence of “enlightened developers”, who produce situational apps with highly abstracting Platform as a Service environments. But what he is discussing here are not those type of apps and developers but the more professional breed, that develops Enterprise Applications.

I am still perplex at the reasons that made the Application Development community regress from the productive 4GL platforms that emerged in the early 90’s back to 3GL environments such as C and Java. The increasing technical complexity of the Cloud finally halted this and is a fertile ground for the revival and emergence of Metadata Driven Application Platforms, which abstract the technical constraints by pre-programming optimized engines, which feed on Metadata based business logic. And we have to distinguish here very clearly between platforms designed for situational applications, with coarse grained widgets and services, and platforms designed for enterprise applications, that offer the entire granularity spectrum from application and process templates down to embedding code snippets.

Salesforce.com showed the way with Force.com, but it is still Cloud only and pretty much tied to the basic CRM environment. uniPaaS from Magic Software is leveraging its past 4GL experience to provide probably the first Application Platform that corresponds to what you describe as “a Personal Cloud that would allow them to configure their local environment in multiple way and take it with them wherever they go”. My recent interactions at industry events such as RIA World and with many enterprises and ISV’s confirm the growing interest and adoption of these platforms. That’s good news for us all.