From Software Futures, a sister publication. The repository has been hyped to the heavens as the gadget to right all wrongs in team development. Susan Amos meets German company Softlab, risen from the ranks of mainframe software vendors, who claims it’s got just the thing for the modern day project. If Kenny Rogers, that stalwart […]
From Software Futures, a sister publication.
The repository has been hyped to the heavens as the gadget to right all wrongs in team development. Susan Amos meets German company Softlab, risen from the ranks of mainframe software vendors, who claims it’s got just the thing for the modern day project.
If Kenny Rogers, that stalwart of the Country and Western scene, came out with a rap song, what would you think – would you buy the CD? What would he have to do to convince you that he was now a rap artiste? Grow a goatee beard? Shave his head? Turn his baseball cap the wrong way round and put a gold chain round his neck? You’d still be thinking: nah, what does he know about hanging with the homeboys – the guy is usually more interested in duetting with Dolly Parton. Changing the way you look is easy, what’s not so easy is convincing people you really mean it and can succeed at it. Things are much the same in the software industry. What do you do when your company is filed under mainframe CASE company – dispatch your products to their final resting place in the sky with IBM’s AD/Cycle? Remarket old tools under the ’90s label enterprise client/server application development environment? Invest millions in research and development dollars for a new product line? There are not that many ways to go, but a decision has to be made all the same. You could do worse than what one German mainframe developer tools company, Munich-based Softlab, has done. Softwho? you cry, (unless you are a CASE connoisseur). Any relation to Software AG, that other worthy but dull German stealth-marketing expert? No, but it is intimately related to German car manufacturer BMW who acquired it in 1992 and now plays the role of sugar daddy. Softlab, whose name imaginatively comes from some software in a lab, is busy stepping into the ’90s, re-inventing itself as an object-oriented repository company. Having quietly earned its crust since the ’70s from its Maestro development environment for the mainframe, the company is now trying for a cut of the much-hyped object oriented development market. It was clear it had to take a new tack. In an industry where you’re not doing well unless you post a record revenue year-on-year, go global or at least crack the US market, the company’s progress has been modest. Sales of Maestro and revenue from its consulting business, which is mainly home-based (Softlab claims it is a household name in Germany) grew a modest 4%, up from $108m (DM167m) in 1994 to $121m (DM173m) in 1995. And listen to t heir chief executive Dr. Ulrich Fahr when you quiz him on whether his company is profitable or not: We do not show profit. We’re investing every penny we make in R&D. (Expenditure on R&D is currently 20% of revenue.) A report earlier this year in German investigative magazine Der Spiegel suggests Softlab made a loss last year, this is brushed off by the company as some figures were interpreted wrongly. Softlab doesn’t publish P&L figures, it remains, confusingly, a private company, without shareholders, while its parent, BMW, is public.
WHAT’S THIS OO REPOSITORY?
Customers liked Softlab’s mainframe tools because of the repository, OMS, Object Management System. Softlab’s game plan is to keep its Maestro development tools ticking over, for those who want to use them to maintain legacy systems, and skim off the repository and port it to modern, mass-market platforms. Once the repository runs under Microsoft’s Windows NT and Unix, hey presto, it gets a new lease of life for development in the non-mainframe, open systems world. For those of you who collect codenames, the creamed-off repository will be called Partitur (pronounced party tour), which means musical score in German. It is a variation on a musical theme we first noticed with the name Maestro. It will run on Microsoft’s Windows NT, and several flavors of Unix: IBM’s AIX, Hewlett-Packard’s HP-UX and Digital Unix. He explains that, rather than betting the business on Windows NT in the way that other companies are falling over each other to do, Softlab is going to stand back and let Unix and NT slug it out. Softlab hopes to popularize its repository as an enterprise-strength product for teams of developers, achieving the mass sales and US penetration that eluded it with its mainframe product line. Maestro has just one major customer in the US – Principal Financial Group. In fact non-German business accounts for only 29% of the company’s total business. To give the company a US face, and accent, Softlab has snagged Kopcke from OLAP (online analytical processing) company Pi lot Software, based in Boston, Massachusetts. (Pilot is owned by Dun & Bradstreet Corporation.) He will help raise the company’s (some would say non-existent) profile. While its strength is its repository technology, marketing certainly is not a strength. A repository is not easy to advertise, as it is not an end in itself. It helps other things, such as object-oriented tools, work better. Kopcke realizes he is not going to put up billboard posters shouting Partitur is it. Nobody wants to buy an open repository, they want to buy tools to solve problems, he says. You will never go into a high street shop and be able to pick up six boxes of Softlab software, it will be up to reseller partners to blast the product out to customers. He also hopes success stories – when they happen – will spread the word. And just why a team of developers needs a repository in the first place is spelt out by Kopcke: Making sure people don’t lose track of the source code, making sure the right thing is on the right desktop, getting the right release out to the right desktops – all motherhood-and-apple-pie concepts. He has coined the phrase repository-enabled development environment. It may be the first time you’ve heard Kopcke’s buzzword, it won’t be the last. One company that intends to blast repository-enabled development environment round the planet is UK object-oriented analysis and design tools company Select Software Tools. It has jumped at the chance of building Softlab’s repository into its client/server design tool, Enterprise. With Select’s own (current) repository you can only have a maximum of two hundred programmers in a team, whereas with Softlab’s 800 can join the party, claims Ed Holt, UK director of sales and marketing at Select Software Tools in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. A bonus for Select is that configuration and process management are built into the repository, so the modeling tool does not need these features itself. Analysts say, ‘maybe you shouldn’t call it a repository, because you’re doing more than that,’ boasts Kopcke.
Customers buying Select’s tools will get Softlab’s repository bundled with it. The extracted repository is to be embedded in the next version of Select Enterprise, Version 6.0, scheduled for beta test at the end of the year. Kopcke’s strategy is to sell it to developer tools companies, creating a brand, Softlab inside. No developer tool is complete without it! If Select sells a lot of its embedded version, this will signal a green light for the Softlab Inside mission. Other tools companies will be approached to join the Partitur party tour. Undeterred by the fact that Platinum Technology has its own repository or two (one acquired from Brownstone Solutions, Inc, one from RelTech), Kopcke plans to deliver the specification for Partitur to Platinum to get its modeling tool Paradigm Plus (acquired from Protosoft) talking Partitur’s language. I hope they go along with it. In an ideal world the customer could take a Platinum tool and a Partitur repository. His ideal world does als o not take into account the fact that Select Enterprise has just knocked Paradigm Plus out of Softlab’s product catalog. The company has stopped reselling it, because plans to integrate Paradigm Plus with Maestro for modeling came to nothing. Incide ntally, Paradigm Plus has also fallen out of favor with Digital Equipment Corporation, who, until recently, resold it as Object Plus, but has just thrown it out and replaced it with Select’s modeling tool Enterprise. Kopcke plans to take Partitur much further than to tools companies. We’re not just talking about storing Visual Basic and C++ code here, what about the mini-applications power users come up with? More people are creating mission-critical stuff in Excel, but the IT department has no idea what’s going on. Application development is oozing out of IT into marketing. IT has no idea whose spreadsheet they’ll bring down when they make a change to the data warehouse.
ONE SATISFIED CUSTOMER
One customer that is looking forward to the release of Enterprise Version 6.0 is the Bank of Scotland, a UK high street bank, with over 18,000 staff in 420 branch offices. The bank has been working with Maestro and Softlab’s Object Management System (OMS) repository since the mid ’80s, using it to store project documentation and systems information. The bank has 300 IT staff at its Edinburgh headquarters. It is training up analysts and programmers in Select’s design tool to build a telephone banking system. For now the data models created with Select are stored in file servers, later, when Version 6.0 comes out with Softlab inside, models will be stored in the repository. It will be more robust and appropriate, said John Liggat, technical consultant, in development services for the bank’s technical architecture. Robustness is important, since Liggat’s staff work beyond normal business hours and need higher availability. The repository is needed for around 20 hours a day, so it ca n’t be tied up for a seven or eight hour back up session. He thinks Softlab is stepping up to that level, as it is currently working on faster backup. A more robust repository will mean programming models can be shared across the enterprise by more IT staff. At the moment we only have shareability within a single project, he explains. Another project might be similar, there could be commonality, you don’t want to do things over again. We’re using object modeling techniques in various projects, and in future more systems will require it. We will need to share more data. Softlab’s repository’s built-in configuration management gets the thumbs up from Liggat. You want the repository to handle CM, instead of you having to do it manually . And it’s quite configurable, you can set it to do things automatically. So while Softlab leads its repository towards greener client/server pastures, Software Futures wonders whether it will find anybody else camped out on the territory when it gets there.
WHAT ABOUT MICROSOFT’S REPOSITORY?
Gates, Inc and partner-in-crime Plano, Texas based-Texas Instruments have been working for two years on a joint design specification for a tools-independent repository. They’ve finished working on the design, but the specification is not ready. Hmm. Looks to us suspiciously like the two have parted company. Microsoft will implement the technology for its own platforms, confirms Dan French, TI Software UK’s business development director. And the next release of [our tool] Composer will suppo rt TI’s repository due out at the end of the year. In other words, two companies, two products. Microsoft has nothing to announce yet, apart from the fact that it has a design for a basic repository engine, and that Microsoft, TI and other third parties are designing tool information models to plug into it. The repository will be an OLE/COM-embedded object layer on top of a SQL database. Don’t ask when the Redmond Rampager’s product is due out. You will start to see key elements of Microsoft ‘s repository technology appearing in our development tools [Visual Basic and Visual SourceSafe] over the next product release cycles, is as much as you get from Mike Pryke-Smith, Microsoft UK’s Internet and developer tools product manager, based in Wokingham, Berkshire.
Software Futures wonders whether Microsoft, very close to Select Software these days, is looking to trash its work with TI and adopt Softlab’s repository instead. Should we conclude the answer is no, since Pryke-Smith hadn’t even heard of the company? Soft who? he asked. Like the rest of the company he’s been far too busy working on the Internet side, as Microsoft tries desperately to make up for lost time in the market it didn’t see coming.
CONCLUSION: CAN SOFTLAB PULL IT OFF?
TI’s French thinks the Softlabbers are on the right track, embedding their technology in other people’s tools, because they don’t own competitive tools themselves (unlike TI). Softlab’s Kopcke thinks his company is in the right place at the right ti me with Partitur. If other repositories hit the market – particularly from Microsoft, it can only be a good thing. I’m excited about Microsoft looking to get into this area. It will legitimize the market. And after all, Softlab has a pedigree in l arge scale enterprise development, while Microsoft has yet to address this area. Contenders smaller than Microsoft pose no threat, thinks Kopcke A small company with a great idea could be blown out of the water by the arrival of Microsoft or Oracle. And anyway, why does Softlab need to worry? it can always fall back on its sugar daddy. Kopcke says: BMW would like to see Softlab as a $400m company. The Partitur orchestra is tuning up for its world debut. Will it get a standing ovation or just polite applause?