For almost a decade, Sydney-based software developer Just OnePlace (J1P) had been a loyal devotee of the IBM/Lotus platform. But following the strategic review that commenced two years ago the company made a strategic switch to the rival Microsoft .NET camp. According to chief executive Winston Teperson, things have never been better.
J1P develops software for dynamic workflow and product life-cycle management in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, helping companies such as Country Road, Portmans and RM Williams manage the entire process of designing, manufacturing and delivery of a wide range of products.
The aim of the software is to reduce errors and inconsistencies, while streamlining the process of getting a product from the concept design stage through to being ready to be sold at retail. The J1P application itself is split into two key parts: a workflow engine and product life-cycle management feature, sitting above a database.
Teperson had founded the business in 1996 and chose the IBM platform of Lotus Notes and Domino to provide the workflow and database engine. He subsequently left the business in 2001, but returned in March 2006 to lead the strategic review, with the goal of determining whether IBM was still the best choice.
The four month review drew together a committee from within the business with the assistance of an external consultant. Key issues for the evaluation of various platforms included speed of development, robustness, scalability, and what it would mean in terms of cost-of-ownership for J1P’s customers.
“I looked at what was happening on the competitive landscape, at what IBM, Microsoft and Oracle were doing,” Teperson said. “We felt that with regard to the space that we are in — that of collaborative technologies and collaborative solutions that enable our customers more effectively in their supply chains — that Microsoft had the best offering.”
Teperson says the decision was helped by the transition of Lotus architect Ray Ozzie over to Microsoft. He says the company has also been gratified by the level of support it has received from Microsoft since making the shift.
“We strongly feel that when it comes to supporting the partner community, from both a technical and a sales and marketing perspective, that Microsoft offers the best out of all vendors out there.”
J1P project manager Stephen Peters says it also helped that every single customer of J1P also runs a Microsoft environment, making integration between the application and existing systems much easier.
“That was a key component to enable us to really deliver features that we felt would suit our customers well,” Peters said. “For example, with ASP .NET we were able to take the ribbon-bar metaphor from Office 2007 and model that within our application.”
Peters says the prevalence of Microsoft amongst its clients also weighed against J1P choosing any of the open source alternatives. The wide array of open source technologies conspired to make it difficult for J1P to envision creating an integrated solution.
“The [open source] ecosystem is not as consistently presented and as consistently managed to enable rapid productivity for teams building on top of it,” Peters said. “By way of comparison, the .NET ecosystem is better considered from a developer’s perspective. You have maybe not as many choices as in the open source framework, but that’s probably a better thing in my judgement. You have the same power, and are able to be more productive more quickly.”
Peters says J1P was especially impressed with the Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF), which forms the basis for the workflow component of the software.
“The workflow component allows our users to create and modify their own workflows, attach access rights to each task, receive notifications, and integrate this with rich document management features,” he said. “We have a graphical workflow design environment that helps users visualise their workflows, and this is critical benefit for our predominantly non-technical users. No other competing solution has such a rich, intuitive user interface built on top of a very flexible workflow engine.”
Peters says having access to generics in the C# language has also made life easier for developers, and are now used in almost every project in the development group.
“It makes the code more robust and with a little less maintenance overhead because you can use the language features to reduce the overall amount of code we would have had to write in the past,” Peters said.
The result has been savings of 30 percent to 40 percent in development and testing time for each class that is used.
“In the old way we would have to hand code a lot of them, whereas with C# generics you are able to infuse a lot of the language features to remove a lot of that overhead. For example, we have a generic data persistence layer which can accept a generic business object as the input. Moreover, generics are used for strongly-typed object collections and anonymous delegates as well.”
J1P has also taken advantage of the LINQ (Language Integrated Query) project, which extends C# and Visual Basic with native language syntax for queries, and provides class libraries to take advantage of these capabilities. The company has been working with LINQ since the first community technology preview in early 2006, and Peters says it provides a more naturally bridge the rich set of data entry screens across to the database.
“Previously, if you want to use an object-oriented language and a relational database you have a mismatch and are always trying to reconcile the two differing worlds. LINQ helps us contend with that by bringing data access language right into the application language.”
One of the key technology drivers for J1P’s customers is having a centralised, server-based operating model, so that they can sidestep maintenance and support responsibilities.
“They are able to centrally administer and manage the application via ASP from a central server,” Peters said. “And that is key for our customers, because they are not heavily literate IT users. They are customers that want a solution that is going to work and they can rely on it and use it for any machine via a browser.”
The migration itself meant taking nine years of development and shifting it from one platform to another using Microsoft Visual Studio. External experts with familiarity with .NET were brought into the organisation, and existing Lotus experts were retrained, with some team members sent across to Microsoft’s headquarters. J1P was also chosen as one of only a few companies globally to be early adopters of the workflow technology.
Peters says use of Visual Studio Team Foundation Server is now leading to automated enforcement of standards and policies, integrated unit testing, better life-cycle management, and support for distributed teams.
Teperson adds that it is also important to understand the importance of the application to customers in terms of both availability and security, as much of each client’s intellectual property relating to their products and their manufacture is contained within the software.
“They can’t afford for them to be down for a minute — they need to operate 24/7, 365 days a year,” Teperson said.
Peters says J1P is now working with ASP 3.5, particularly relating to Ajax, server-side integration and membership services. He says there are several improvements they experienced migrating from ASP.NET 2.0 to 3.5.
“From a user experience point of view, we made use of richer Microsoft Web controls such as ListView and DataPager, improving the user interaction through a faster, more responsive user interface with AJAX control extenders.”
The company is also looking at Silverlight and Expression Web for the redesign of its user interface.
“The attractiveness of that is it enables us to go to the next level of building a very attractive graphical user interface that we feel works more natively across different platforms,” Peters said. “Even though you have all these Web standards you still need to go out and test them thoroughly on every single platform. Silverlight will help us manage some of that problem a little more easily, as well as being a very powerful graphic framework as well.”
Teperson says J1P is also continuing to innovate within the application itself, and is using Silverlight to add “range management” capabilities into its list of functions. This enables companies to visualise how their products will look on the shop floor, by cutting and pasting different designs onto a template.
“Our Range Planning feature will allow range planners (especially in FMCG industries) to graphically arrange and rearrange their product lines by dragging and dropping images of each product into the appropriate place in their season line up. Using Silverlight allows us to integrate changes in product lines to be immediately reflected in the product life-cycle.
To date Peters says J1P has yet to find any reason to regret changing platform, and is not impressed by the latest developments coming from IBM around Lotus Notes and Domino.
“IBM still makes a big noise about Lotusphere but there’s nothing happening there at all,” Peters said. “It’s kind of a dead end, and they are putting more effort around Java and WebSphere.”