Life in the Trenches of the Recession

I haven’t blogged for some time, and returning to this site I browsed some old posts (somewhat embarrassingly, I have to admit I’m a bit like Snoopy, who says in one of the strips: “I’m a great admirer of my own writing” 🙂 ). Reading posts from last spring, I realize that they were written in a completely different climate. Since then, the world has gone from euphoria to depression in a few short months.

We did indeed have a few rocky turns during the fall, but now we’re back on track, with a healthy batch of new customers lining up. Why is this?

Well, when we started up Zystems in 2001, we actually had a similar (albeit less dire) situation. What we focused on back then were cost savings and ROI, and we generated loads of business with that message. Then, when the good times rolled a few years later, we lost focus of this message, basically since it didn’t apply to our customers. It took us some time to get our focus back, but once we did, the same magic reappeared, and customers listened again.

So now, with a message of structured EAI and SOA, with a focus on quick wins and cost cuts, we’re back on track. As an old Swedish proverb goes: “Shoemaker, stick to your last”, meaning do what you’ve always been good at.

The Larger Picture

Just over the last couple of weeks, interest and queries from customers have prompted us to dust of a start kit that has been waiting for action in the marketplace for a couple of years. The start kit in question is the Integration Center Start kit. Apparently what is happening (finally, if you ask me) is that people who have been struggling with getting their ESB and SOA initiatives of the ground are gathering momentum and  experience, and many find themselves in a position where they want to get a bit organized and maybe start applying some governance to increase the value of their investment. We are experiencing a lot of interest in our approach, again focusing on clarity and simplicity, like with all our start kits. Now, if an ESB is complicated to get up and running, it is nothing compared to an Integration Center. An ESB is a technical thing, and mastering it is within the reach of most skilled software engineers. Architecting solutions is more complicated, but can still be fairly formalized. Stepping up to the organizational level, we start engaging with people, a notoriously difficult species, steeped in power struggles and politics as they are.

What we are offering in our start kit is a realistic map which our customers can use to get off in the right direction. We do stress the fact that their particular road will be unique, but if they get a map and a few tools to survive the trekk, their chance of getting to a place where an Integration Center starts paying off will increase, and they will get there quicker.

We have some really juicy prospects lined up, and hopefully will land some of them in the near future. Hopefully I will be able to post som war stories soon, so check back!

More on WSRR

Today we finished our week long workshop with the Hursley guys. I really feel we got a good grip on the capabilities of the WSRR. Yesterday I showered praise on the product, so today, being a Libra, I will rant a bit about some drawbacks, before I end on a more positive note.

My main concern with the product is that it still pretty raw. A lot of the configuring goes on in XML and properties files, and functionality is tweaked using Java plug-ins. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it is flexible and standards based. A weakness, because it makes it really easy to get lost in all the config files. I’m not sure it is a big problem for our customers – after all, that’s why they hire consultants 🙂 . But I sure would love some tooling that could simplify some of the more routine tasks, such as customizing the navigation tree.

But at the end of the day (which it literally is – I’m awaiting a late night flight to Finland), I feel very positive about the possibilities with this product. A different story is the one about the learning curve for both us and our customers when it comes to implement governance from a people’s perspective. I think I’ve quoted this before, but i do it again, because it illustrates the core problem: Everybody wants governance, but no one wants to be governed. We will have to strike a balance with our customers between too much procedural rigor and too little. Most will likely come from a history of no governance at all, so we will have to find ways to introduce sufficient, yet pragmatic processes, especially when we start using tools to enforce procedural compliance. This will require other skills than the purely technical ones required to install and configure WSRR. It will be a most exciting journey!

My hope is that we will soon have a first version of Baseline implemented for WSRR – I’ll keep you updated in this space.

Digging Into WSRR

I’m in the middle of a very stimulating and uplifting exercise together with some colleagues an two brilliant chaps from IBM’s Hursley Lab. We started the week with a 2 day crash course of the product. Yesterday was spent modeling the objects we want to put into WSRR to implement the Baseline Service Documentation model. In preparation for this we did some homework around updating our existing model to better reflect the experience we’ve had with trying to build truly reusable services, something that the old model only partly supported. Also, we wanted to align us more clearly to WSDL’s, something which is necessary if we want to play with WSRR, since all it understands out of the box is WSDL.

Today we finally started putting the pieces together. We learned about Protégé, a free tool to to edit ontologies. Within a couple of hours, we had a first draft of an OWL-file (defining our model, with objects and relationships). Once imported into WSRR, magical things started to happen. Stuff we’ve been dreaming of, but have not been able to realize, include:

  • Automatic dependency analysis, meaning that we can instantly ask things like “If we bring down this machine, what services and service consumers are affected?”
  • Automatic name generation, meaning that we can enforce our naming conventions much better than before
  • Automatic GUI generation based on the model, complete with links to add related object, so, for example, while creating a Service, we automatically get a link to add Operations

We’ve also seen the relative ease by which you can create java plug-ins to enhance the out-of-the-box functionality of WSRR.

It does look really promising so far! Check back soon, I’ll wrap this up with some more thoughts.

Back From Vacation

I’m slowly trying to pick up speed after a summer that was really hot and mostly spent looking after horses. Yes, horses, don’t ask! Anyway, back here at the office the sales team have really put in a higher gear. It looks like a very promising autumn. I will focus on trying to put together our new Start-kit portfolio. Soon, Zystems will be delivering the following start-kits:

  • Baseline ESB Start-kit, focusing on WebSphere Message Broker and WebSphere ESB
  • Baseline BPM Start-kit, focusing on WebSphere Process Server and WebSphere Business Modeler
  • Baseline DataPower Start-kit
  • Baseline WSRR Start-kit, focusing on WebSphere Service Registry and Repository

I will keep you posted on any progress regarding content as well as success stories.

Stephan is Staying!

With a jolt of happiness I received the news that our support guru Stephan will not leave us after all! Not only will he stay, he will head Zystems’ legendary support team from now on. This will be truly exciting. Stephan alone is holding approximately half of all the 100+ certifications awarded to Zystemites. I’m kidding, but only slightly 🙂 !

Welcome back, Stephan, even though you never really left!

New Stuff

As I’ve talked about before, we have a concept called the Baseline Start-kit. It is basically a combination of a set of well defined services combined with reusable Baseline assets, such as naming conventions, document templates and software components.

Last week me and a couple of colleagues spent 5 days putting together a Baseline Start-kit for DataPower. It was the first time we made such a focused effort, and it was great fun, as well as efficient. In the past, Baseline artifact have been harvested piecemeal over longer period of times. Now we feel that the Baseline Start-kit framework, as well as the existing Baseline structure is solid enough to work as a template for new products and domains. In the pipeline, WSRR and BPM are awaiting similar treatment. Check back!