Cloud, Mobility, and Big Partners

IBM recently announced new PureSystems and PureFlex hardware for inhouse cloud deployment. The good news is, as Frank Scavo notes

For some reason, Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM are able to make life easier for small developers.

Thus HarrisData achieved certification on the PureFlex platform for its entire suite of products with little fuss.

For a comparison, Scavo looks at SAP as it rolls out Mobility technology and encourages its partners to develop apps for customers.

But for a hint of what it’s like for a small developer to work with SAP, take a look at this blog post (on SAP’s own SCN community site!): Why Does SAP Make This So Complicated?

I am pleased HarrisData competes with SAP and partners with IBM.

The other interesting commonality between the IBM and SAP announcements is that Cloud and Mobility are now re-energizing hype by merging into one giant hype machine. Big partners provide lots of development tools and the hype, while small developers provide the apps that actually do anything related to the cloud or mobility. While mobility makes sense in certain applications (mobile payroll or accounting seem odd), and cloud makes sense for some companies and not others (buy vs rent), the combination is presented as more global than either alone. This misses a key point: mobile (now in the form of tablets rather than smart phones) is preferred because the touch based user interface is easier to learn and navigate than mouse based point and click interfaces. Very few modern ERP functions involve lots of keying (thank the growth of e-commerce like EDI, web based sales, and ACH plus scanned employee time and inventory transactions). Many of these functions are a natural fit for the tablet. This is especially true if the mobility is within the walls of the company office, and much expensive PC infrastructure is no longer needed. That the tablet still works outside the walls is a bonus. HarrisData is developing our software to take advantage of this increased ease of use.

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Cloud Security, Full of Holes and Bugs?

Maybe not full of holes, but certainly the Cloud requires us to think carefully about what we are doing. Mel Beckman addresses the top 5 vulnerabilities of the cloud:

Each of the three cloud service models has at minimum one unique security vulnerability, and cloud services in general share a couple of serious security risks. I’ve found five vulnerabilities that are significant because they’re so often overlooked, even when they’re easily addressed.

Mel cites inadequate passwords and the need for multifactor authentication, a problem which hackers are all too ready to exploit. Add the need for encryption of the cloud conversation (including authentication) using something like SSL 3.0. Then there are factors only your cloud vendor can control, but you need to confirm: the virtual server “snapshot problem” where others have access to virtual memory pages including all encryption keys; backup redundancy (does your backup provider back up its own datacenters and how well); and treatment of API keys as data rather than keys to be secured. For the full explanation of each vulnerability and how to address it, please read the full article.

Charles Babcock finds a security bug caused a major cloud service outage at Microsoft.

A process meant to detect failed hardware in Microsoft’s Azure cloud was inadvertently triggered by a Leap Day software bug that set invalid expiration dates for security certificates. The bad certificates caused virtual machine startups to stall, which in turn generated more and more readings of hardware failure until Microsoft had a full-blown service outage on its hands.

The bug was part of a customer workload, reminding us that in the cloud your neighbors’ bad habits affect you. Given the nature of the bug, any regression test from the Y2K days should have captured it. One customer neglected this old standby quality requirement impacting Microsoft and many of its customers.

Art Wittmann puts it all into perspective regarding what to consider before using the cloud, before wrapping your head around the above risks of using the cloud properly and safely.

If you’re a weekend warrior and you need a tile saw, jack hammer, or concrete chainsaw for a small project, you go rent one, even though you know that a single weekend’s rental price is probably a quarter of the price to buy the tool. But if you lay tile for a living, you buy your own tile saw. The point is that for very infrequent use, the price of the rented tool almost doesn’t matter. You need it when you need it, and you don’t want to own it under almost any circumstance. If you have computing needs like that, the cloud is for you.

He identifies very creative use of the cloud for development and proof of concept activities prior to moving production in house, as well as using the cloud for “burst mode” capacity needs for a limited timeframe. The idea is to be flexible and creative about using the cloud, but do not forget about the advantages of on premises for your day to day workloads.

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Welcome to a New Partner

Thank you to Tom Kempster and ABC services for their fine introduction to our new partnership.

“Our partnership with HarrisData will free our ERP customers from the chains of their existing ERP software, allowing ABC Services to deliver new high performance IBM Power solutions to these customers,” said Hal Schwartz, Vice President of ABC Services.

ABC Services shares our focus on the cutomer’s end results, and will help package hardware and technical services together with HarrisData software to deliver modern technology to our customers for a lower cost of ownership, faster implementation, and more predictable benefits and ROI.

Be sure to visit ABC Services blog for up to date explanations of IBM Power Systems technology. A good place to start is Tom’s explanation of cloud computing.

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Multitenancy: Panacea and Problem

Multitenancy is a buzzword getting a lot of attention these days. Over at ZDNet, Eric Lai started quite a conversation looking at what he felt were Four Big Problems with Multitenancy from an enterprise application space. Frank Scavo replied that the post was a Mischaracterization of Multitenancy in his blog.

Multitenancy is an interesting word. You won’t find it in a dictionary (unless you use Wikipedia’s definition as your dictionary – and even that definition is still considered suspect by the Wikipedia editors almost two years after first appearing). It’s a word that conveys an obvious meaning on a vendor’s or expert’s slide, and probably shouldn’t need a strict definition. But we’re in the technology business, and folks like to debate what words mean. Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) definition of cloud computing contains only one reference to ‘multi-tenant’, and it’s only used in the definition of the term ‘resource pooling’. Multi-tenancy and cloud computing looks at the definition of multi-tenant by starting with the definition of a tenant – in which there is some ambiguity. Let’s ignore the strict definition of the word multi-tenant and use a more pragmatic definition. A multitenant solution allows two tenants to share resources with the express desire to lower cost.

With that background, here’s three things to ponder when considering the next claim that a product is or isn’t great because it is multitenant:

  • Business requirements matter
    I’ve commented on this before, noting that Multitenant ERP Solutions are a fundamentally bad idea. Multitenant is a great cost saver for the technology end of the solution, but cannot afford to ignore the impact of SOX and other regulatory bodies on the pace and timing of change in ERP systems at real businesses. A vendor simply can’t force a SOX-compliant company to change their business processes just because one of the other tenants is now ready to change theirs. On the other hand, HR/Payroll solutions are ideally suited for multitenancy. Regulatory changes imposed by Federal, State, and Local authorities are not optional and must be deployed to all users of the HR/Payroll applications (i.e. all tenants) as quickly as possible – ready or not, here comes the regulatory change! Processes that are not subject to the rigors of auditing paralysis like ERP or to non-stop mandatory updates like HR/Payroll can be viewed through the narrow technical lens of technical costs. Sales Force Automation and CRM solutions can be ideal candidates for multitenancy because there is nothing preventing them from sharing the same applications, and most users will want access to the new features as quickly as possible.

    Bottom line: Multitenancy is not a panacea – business requirements will drive whether multitenancy is appropriate for a given application (and to what degree).

  • End user prices are market-driven
    There are many pundits who will claim loudly that multitenant solutions inherently cost less to end-users than single tenant applications. These pundits who truly believe that cost and price are related in every market skipped some days in their economics class. Commodity markets like platform-as-a-service are largely driven by price. To the extent that two software applications are virtually indistinguishable from a feature/function standpoint, the price will be the deciding factor, margins will be squeezed, and the low cost provider (who can, by implication, offer the lowest cost solution) will win. This logic breaks down quickly in application software markets. First, enterprise applications are still highly differentiated – even if only by brand. Customers are willing to pay more for one solution than another – price is rarely the deciding factor in a solution purchase (despite the claims of software sales professionals). Second, the assumption that price and cost are connected is proven invalid when end-users no longer pay to use the software. Consider, acquired by Intuit, who provides a cloud-based solution with substantially the same functionality as Quicken, but at no cost to the end user. Business models emerge to help companies turn their assets into profits. New business models may leverage multitenancy to save money and increase profits, but are not dependent on adhering to any strict definition of multitenancy to make money.

    Bottom line: Multitenancy, where it can be leveraged, lowers costs for vendors. The impact on the end customer depends more on the market and the business model.

  • Economics requires choices
    A multitenant implementation of a software application may be just as easy to secure as a single tenant application using the same tools, but the risks associated with deploying an application as multitenant are undeniably higher. In the most extreme case, Payroll data combines names, addresses, salary and financial information, and Social Security Numbers in the database. A large, multitenant HR/Payroll application may be just as secure as a smaller, single tenant HR/Payroll application. But from the risk standpoint, I’m reminded of Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, he replied ‘that’s where the money is‘. By putting all of this data into one giant database with one encryption key and one super-user password, we make it all that much more attractive to hackers. The best way to keep hackers out of your HR/Payroll database is to run HR/Payroll applications on computers that are not connected to the Internet in any way. I’m not recommending that this is an appropriate solution (see my comments about the advantages of HR/Payroll as a multitenant application above), I’m only noting that buyers with different risk profiles will see the alternatives differently. We know from Econ 101 that there are buyers with different preferences. Ideally, the application is fundamentally the same (from the end user standpoint) whether it is delivered in the low-cost cloud-based multitenant mode, or in the hyper-secure unconnected on-premise single tenant mode.

    Bottom line: Customers have varying preferences, with varying tolerances for risk competing with varying appetites for growth. Some people drive cars, some drive trucks. Mutitenancy does have different risks, and is not appropriate for all applications at all customers.

Our take: We believe multitenancy creates cost advantages for ISVs like HarrisData, and intend to leverage multitenancy in whatever forms provide the most value to our customers. However, a religious commitment to multitenancy ahead of real customer requirements is just pandering to investors.

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The End User Training Arms Race

What conclusion should we reach from SAP answering Oracle’s investment in training technology? That the big ERP players care about the successful use of their products? While that spin may work for technology and financial analysts, the role of end user training in successful ERP implementation and ongoing production use deserves a deeper look.

that significance is tempered by the sorry state of training content and the unfortunately legitimate attitude of many a CIO that spending big on training is wasted.

Given the state of end user training offered to ERP users just about anything can be viewed as an improvement. The specific problems as training is delivered today include:

most training content doesn’t match implementation reality, training only happens at the initial time of implementation, and training is usually dumped into user’s heads during mind-numbing day-long classes, which means that it is forgotten the moment the class is over. Not to mention the fact that few companies refresh their end-user training during the enterprise software lifecycle, nor do they bother to train new hires.

Thus ERP customers appear justified in concluding that end user training as delivered is not worth the cost.

So are the Oracle and SAP investments in training technology about increasing the value of end user training?

with the similar goal of driving advances in training into its customer base, and thereby building a solid training revenue base. Those goals have largely been dashed in the ensuing three years, not because UPK isn’t a good product — it most fundamentally is, and enjoys a significant penetration in the SAP customer base as well as the Oracle customer base. The problem is that the value of training has never been elevated to meet the technological advances

Not that anyone can tell. More likely these investments are a continuation of the technology acquisition arms race aimed at increasing revenues streams and mollifying technology and financial analysts. They are a continuation of the big footprint / me-too strategy followed by too many technology firms. Acquire more functions than your competitor, acquire more services teams than your competitor, acquire more BI than your competitor, and now acquire more training technology than your competitor. This is a strategy that focuses on analyst and stock market perceptions exclusive of value delivered to customers.

This leaves open the key question: is anybody actually improving the value delivered in training? HarrisData is doing just that.

For example one major component of implementation costs is end user training. End user training is provided as a last step before going live. For customers with multiple locations to be trained, end user training may be repeated at each location. Post implementation, end user training is repeated as employee turnover impacts the user base. Additional end user training is required for specific topics tied to infrequent activities (e.g. year end payroll processing). Over the life of an information system end user training is a big need. How then can the cost be brought under control? HarrisData is developing a library of end user training chapters to be provided on demand to our customers. The library will include suggested (or custom) syllabus complete with course tracking by individual user. Subscriptions to the library will allow customers to ensure that their users are trained as needed for predictable (and affordable) cost.

A strategy focused on partnership with the customers to the exclusion of analysts increases value to customers.

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US Labor Costs Lower Than Elsewhere

More good news for US manufacturers as per unit of output labor costs decreased by 13% while increasing everywhere else. James Hagerty and Kate Linebaugh (Wall Street Journal, “In U.S., a Cheaper Labor Pool”, 1/6/12) report on manufacturing cost trends since 2000, and they are positive for US manufacturers.

Though the U.S. is hardly a low-wage country, it has become much more efficient, making it more attractive for global manufacturers. U.S. wage growth has been minimal, and manufacturers have found ways to use more-flexible work practices and increased automation to make the same amount of goods with far fewer people.

Other positives for manufacturers include a weaker dollar, and lower energy costs from the shale gas boom. High US taxes remain a problem. The authors predict a growing manufacturing sector with stable manufacturing employment.

This article confirms trends we have seen elsewhere – manufacturers are looking at the total cost of getting products to their customers. That means balancing low cost per unit / low wage imports with low inventory costs of lean production in local high productivity factories. Investment in automation is the key to high productivity – and that includes modern machinery as well as modern ERP software.

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2012 Could be a Good Year

Boosted by productivity gains and higher costs in competitors, including China, U.S. manufacturing exports have grown at their fastest rate since the late 1980s.

As we close out 2011 and start thinking about 2012, US manufacturing is getting positive reviews in many places. Joel Kotkin ranks the cities best prepared for a manufacturing recovery. Joel credits improved competitiveness for a return of manufacturers.

Randy Myers looks into the reasons for the ongoing resurgence of manufacturing, providing some details behind the improved US competitiveness. First he cites annual wage inflation in China of 15-20% for closing the gap on labor costs.

While wages account for only a fraction of the total cost of many goods, that still means the ultimate savings from outsourcing to China will, for many products, fall to the single digits.

Next up are IP theft concerns – with manufacturers finding Chinese partners adding their own plants to produce competing products with purloined designs. Subsidizing the competition is a tough cost to calculate, but one now considered more frequently in deciding where to produce.

The final factor is the largest. Transport and inventory carrying costs now exceed labor savings from offshoring.

found itself having to carry more inventory once it started manufacturing in China, just to account for the six weeks it took for new product to reach its warehouses… [vs] as little as two to three days of inventory for many of its products. It also has dramatically pared transportation costs.

TM Lutas expands on the benefits of local production versus offshoring by identifying a new path for US Manufacturing growth.

Methods used by “catch up” countries to do technology and expertise transfer from the US are not one way processes. We can do it in the other direction.

In his example, find something not manufactured in the US, start in China to learn their process, then duplicate here. In all US manufacturing can expect to grow from increased competitiveness, return of offshore production, and onshoring production of new goods. Further, this growth could generate 2-3 million jobs and a much brighter 2012.

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Thoughts on a Customer Service Rant

After having wasted hours on a typically crummy support line of a cloud vendor, I can be quiet no more, I need a moment to rant.

A nicely written rant by David Taber got me thinking. Why is it that software executives so often fail to learn from other industries? Are we so busy telling others how to be modern and efficient that we assume they have nothing to tell us?

Let’s get to the substance of David’s rant with the understanding that what he writes applies to all vendors, not just those on the cloud.

There’s a phenomenon that economists describe as a “race to the bottom,” where vendors compete by undercutting in price, which leads to a reduction in quality and service… Unfortunately, the customer support function of many (most?) software and cloud vendors is very vulnerable to this effect.

He notes that support department metrics contribute to the problem rather than solving it. If the goal is cost reduction, measure cost per call. That generates the typical “RTFM” or “restart, reboot, reinstall” responses that get you off the support line quickly. Shorter calls means more calls per support rep and lower labor costs. It further generates a move to low labor cost countries to provide this low skill level type of support.

A couple decades ago Deming showed all of us how to escape this race to the bottom. Targeting manufacturers Deming showed that increased quality costs less – not more as assumed in a race to the bottom environment. The software industry needs to learn this lesson as well. It starts by measuring the correct things, is the customer getting business value from the product? Then you leverage the customer experience to improve the product, thereby improving the customer value received and customer experience. Repeat as often as possible. The Deming Cycle leads to a positive spiral. Results follow a clear direction of causality: investment in high quality support leads to redirecting development resources to produce quality product which results in better partnership with customers and lower support costs.

HarrisData is not alone in learning this lesson. I hope David keeps ranting, and that my colleagues and I keep listening, thinking, and acting on his rants.

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A Skeptic’s Take

Whatever your view of the cloud, a little perspective goes a long way.

Cloud computing? “I think it’s a lot of hype,” he says during a recent interview in the company’s midtown Manhattan office. “Time sharing made a lot of sense when computers cost $3 million in 1970, but now they’re commodity items that anybody can buy.”

I went straight from college into the timesharing business. It was a license to print money until PCs arrived in the mid 80s.

Yes, but with the likes of IBM, Oracle and Microsoft joining Amazon in the public cloud game, won’t that kind of processing capacity be available cheaply and on demand? “You can buy one of these servers for $500 and have it under your desk,” Goodnight responds.

Note that is much cheaper than the typical $2-5,000 PCs cost in the 80s. Of course hardware isn’t the main cost anymore. The big money is in the application software, and the really big money in the professional services required to make application software work.

Jim Goodnight is a CEO with more than 30 years in the same job, he recognizes hype when he sees it. The hype is that cloud is somehow new and magically cheap. It really is timesharing packaged under a new exciting label. The true cloud play has to do with price – the old rent versus purchase choice. If you live in New York City, parking costs more than the price of the car – rental may be a better option. If you live in the suburbs parking is free, rental is not as good an option. When you consider your cloud options, be a skeptic with Jim Goodnight and evaluate the true costs. For example data backup and the need for offsite storage / retrieval of backups may make cloud backup services a better option. ERP with a 7-10 year lifespan and the need to control your data may make on premises deployment a better option. At HarrisData, we are happy to provide both cloud and on premises options to our customers. The customers, not the hype, determines which option is best in each instance.

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Cloud Computing is not a Pricing Model

Try searching for “cloud computing is cheaper” and you’ll find no shortage of opinions that support the notion that by going to the cloud, you will will save millions of dollars. Cloud Computing is full of hype and marketing over-reach. The most common overreach, in my opinion, relates to pricing. According to the true believers, there is a magic to Cloud Computing that instantly lowers your costs. The web site Cloud Computing Defined is typical, claiming that “… because users pay only for the resources that they use, cloud computing is cheaper.” This is not to say that cloud computing cannot be cheaper – many cloud computing resources are even free. But Cloud Computing is not inherently cheaper – because Cloud Computing is not a pricing model.

In September 2011, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published a paper titled “The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing” including the following definition:

Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.

The NIST goes on to discuss five essential elements of Cloud Computing, and four distinct deployment models. However, search the entire NIST document for price or pricing and you’ll be disappointed. Pricing is simply not part of the definition. In fact, the “cost” of Cloud Computing can be cheaper, the same, or more expensive than alternatives, depending on the pricing models used and the specific circumstances.

Many erroneous claims that Cloud Computing is cheaper come from the perception that subscription-based and/or pay-per-use pricing models are inherently cheaper than an up-front purchase. A quick example shows the folly of assuming that one pricing model is inherently superior to another. You need a car for transportation. Which is cheaper, renting, leasing, or buying the car? Renting at $50/day sounds cheaper than leasing at $500 per month, and both sound a lot cheaper than buying a $25,000 car. Plus, when you rent a car, you don’t have to worry about servicing your car, and you get all of the latest cool features (because you get the new model year when it’s available). The Rental Car companies get much lower prices from the manufacturers than consumers, and can share the fleet to keep costs down. It’s almost CaaS (Car-as-a-Service)! If you find yourself away from home for a week or two, you rent a car. So why doesn’t everybody rent a car all of the time? Because even if you only rent on weekdays, you spend $50 * 250 days/year = $12,500/year. If you can by a car for $25,000, and you expect to use it for more than two years, you wouldn’t rent it (especially if prices go up over time!).

Economics 101 starts by teaching us that different people have different preferences. Pricing on the cloud is no different. As Frank Scavo notes in his blog Cutting Through the Fog of Cloud Computing Definitions, “how the customer pays for the service has no bearing as to whether the service is cloud computing.” A perpetual software license (a license purchase) can be delivered over the cloud as effectively as a pay-per-use model, and in some cases may be preferred. With ERP software lasting 7 years or more at most organizations, a perpetual software license model delivered through the cloud may offer all of the advantages of the cloud, with a pricing model that better meets the requirements of the business.

The Latin phrase caveat emptor loosely translates into “let the buyer beware,” and applies to anyone who accepts the marketing hype without inspection and automatically assumes that Cloud Computing is cheaper. Just because the label says Cloud doesn’t mean the solution is inherently cheaper – look at the price and compare to your other alternatives. Often, Cloud Computing solutions are cheaper – sometimes dramatically so. Just make certain you know what you are buying before you sign on the dotted line.

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