For a company that makes software for a living, having suitable application lifecycle management (ALM) tools is pretty much essential to ensuring a quality outcome for clients.
But for Powerlan, its rapid acquisition of other software developers earlier this decade had left it with five separate software development teams all working with different tools and languages, and with little integration between them.
According to Powerlan's chief information officer, Alistair Bates, the situation had gotten so bad that at one point one of its biggest clients, American Express, had threatened to walk away.
-We had a really bad release, and they got to the stage where they said if this next release was the same, we were gone," Bates says.
That message helped catalyse Powerlan towards adopting an integrated ALM suite, to integrate software development and provide consistent processes across the five development areas (now four). ALM refers to a process of delivering software as a continuously repeating cycle of inter-related steps, covering definition, design, development, testing, deployment and management.
-Each of these businesses did things differently, and we needed to have some kind of understanding about what people were actually doing," Bates says. -So a big part was centralising the processes and getting them all the same. We could report on things, but a report from one group may be different from another group."
For example, one group was developing in Java and .NET on Oracle, another in .NET on Microsoft SQL Server, and a third was developing in the Progress 4GL. Source code was scattered throughout the various divisions, posing a potential business risk to the company.
Bates says each of the Powerlan businesses also had different levels of maturity. For instance, in some businesses the testing side was lacking, but in others the problems lay with requirements management or change and configuration management.
Powerlan investigated several products, including the suite of ALM tools from Rational Software, before settling on Borland. Bates says the breadth of requirements at Powerlan led it to seek a suite of integrated ALM tools which could still improve each of the various process areas where Powerlan was experiencing difficulty, rather than integrating a series of best-of-breed tools.
Under the new system, when a client asks for a new module for a Powerlan application, the company takes those requirements and puts them into Borland's Caliber tool for detailed analysis. Once those requirements are signed off, each becomes a single item. The code is then written against those requirements, with each chunk of code linked to a requirement. At the same time testers begin writing test cases, again linked to the requirements.
-We can tell with much more clarity what state the project is at, without guessing, based on the requirements," Bates says. -Prior to doing this we would have no way of understanding whether a requirement had code written for it, or whether those requirements had been met in the code.-
Another advantage is that much of the work is automated. Under the old system some projects had a ratio of one tester for each software developer. Installing the Borland SilkCentral Test Manager software automated much of what was being done, taking that ratio down to seven or eight developers for each tester, hence reducing headcount and cost for each project.
Bates says however that if there has been any disappointment with the experience, it has been that the tools have not proven to be as integrated as Powerlan had hoped.
-We found that the tools weren't as mature as we though they were so, we had some problems in integrating them," Bates says. -We went with Borland because they were one single vendor with integrated tools, but we found they weren't as integrated as we thought they were. But I think even if we had gone with Rational, we would have found that same thing. This whole end-to-end integration is not quite there yet."
Bates says Powerlan should also have worked harder to ensure that the relevant software development processes were in place, as the tools themselves do not enforce process.
-They'll optimise the process, but they won't enforce it," Bates says. -So because some of the business didn't have a process, we put a tool on top of that, and it did nothing. There is a lot of work with CMMI and ITIL, and the industry is focused on that kind of improvement. And the tools are just starting to catch that up."
Ultimately however the use of ALM has led to a dramatic increase in software quality. In the case of American Express, Powerlan was able to use the Borland tools to focus on the testing component of software development. He says the turnaround was significant.
-With the next release, which was two or three months later they praised how good it was," Bates says. -We couldn't have done it without the tool, but a lot of that was the process as well."