COMMENTARY -- Jeffrey Walker makes some seemingly outrageous claims. The iconoclastic founder and CTO of TenFold asserts that business users can build high-end enterprise applications ten times faster with his application development platform than using other development platforms. A salesforce.com-like CRM application can be created in "less than the time it takes to watch a movie," according the company's marketing literature.
Walker is not a crackpot. He was the founder of Walker Interactive, where he built the first modern financial applications, and later sold the company to Oracle, where he managed the company's initial application division and served as CFO of the company during its run up to over a billion dollars in revenue in the early 1990s.
"Imagine any Excel spreadsheet in the world. Everything you type is nothing more than a parameter. TenFold is already programmed for every application in the world."
-- Jeff Walker, CTO TenFold
Walker has been working on the Tenfold platform since 1993. During the Internet bubble, the company did custom software development and services and went public in 1999. During its peak, TenFold has 800 employees and reached $77 per share. Today the public company has about 75 employees, trades at under 40 cents (TENF.OB) and has settled into conventional software licensing business model, along with support and maintenance services.For the last 12 years, Walker has been a bit of a Don Quixote, trying to reinvent the process of software development and the notion of programming. "The industry is in trouble," Walker told me. "We haven't had the tools to build complex applications." With a replacement of legacy systems underway, Walker believes the time is right for a new, more efficient software development models, and his company's Enterprise TenFold platform is the answer.
EnterpriseTenFold is to enterprise applications what Excel is to spreadsheets, Walker said. "Imagine any Excel spreadsheet in the world. Everything you type is nothing more than a parameter. TenFold is already programmed for every application in the world," Walker boasted. "We have a grandiose scheme, it just happens to be a reality. It's been secret so long because we got crushed in the industry nuclear winter."
Despite the collapse of his company when the dot com bubble burst, Walker persisted in his dream of building his "next-generation" development environment. EnterpriseTenFold is a proprietary solution that includes tools for describing and entering applications requirements. The tools are a set of applications built in the TenFold environment, with security, concurrency control, auditing and other features. A relational database stores and manages the application's description. Each database record describes a part of the application, such as menus and associated behaviors, transactions, business rules or interfacing with Web services. A rendering engine, which Walker said is a set of 47 loosely coupled layers of functionality, deploys the application that the database describes across Unix, Linux and Windows systems.
TenFold consists of five major components--TenFoldTools, TenFoldClient, TenFoldServer, TenFoldKernel, and LogicXpress. New features, interfaces and connections can be added without major tweaking. TenFoldServer, for example, consists of TenFold ServerManager (an applications server), TaskEngines (server process management and thread management), TenFold Scheduler (batch and workflow management), TenFold Network Library (portability across different network protocols), and TenFold Message Library (support for middleware messaging technologies).
There is no compiling or code generation--the applications run in the same way a spreadsheet runs within Excel, and with higher quality than other programming environments, according to Walker. "Any spreadsheet built with Excel is better than a spreadsheet any programmer can build," Walker said. Because the description of applications reside in a relational database, making modifications, such adding transactions or altering the database design, is trivial, he added.
TenFold is portable across Oracle, DB2, Sybase, SQL Server, and MySQL, as well as 32-bit and 64-bit systems and popular Web servers. The environment also handles load balancing and server clustering. Other features include reports, auto-testing through the application lifecycle, system performance and management tools, and interfaces to external systems. It includes a scripting language for describing complex application logic and reports.
EnterpriseTenFold supports multi-server installations, and is certified for Microsoft Windows XP/2003, Red Hat Linux, and Solaris. EnterpriseTenFold is licensed on a per processor or user seat basis. Pricing per processor depends on the environment, and per seat one-time licensing is $1000 per user. A single-user version, MyTenFold is $5000. Is TenFold all that Walker claims it is? A cursory review by PC Magazine in December last year concluded that "with some innovative proprietary technology for building and running enterprise applications, TenFold earns points for letting business managers take control of the software development life cycle." The review dinged the product for quirky non-standard menus and a lack of visual customization tools.I asked TenFold customer David Homan, CBP program director at Vertex, a UK-based business processing outsourcing firm, for his impressions. In an e-mail he wrote:
"In terms of a software tool, I have not experienced any in all of my career (27 years) which has proved to be as stable as TenFold. We have had many problems with our traditional software and firmware products, which have required numerous patches throughout the past two years. We have not had any noticeable patches required for TenFold, and certainly none which have caused any downtime or delay. As a development methodology, we have found this to be far more effective than traditional techniques and the initial development proved to be a major success in terms of productivity…We have in fact fewer errors now than with systems that have been 'operational stable' for 20+ years."
In a further e-mail exchange, Homan responded to a series of questions I posed:
What application did you build with TenFold?
We built an application/product that we named Alto. Alto is a customer-centric billing application that includes functionality to manage the complete customer lifecycle. Although the product has been built to be generic and reusable, we initially targeted the utility industries (electricity, gas and water), for implementation.
Can you build sophisticated transaction-based, enterprise-class (security, governance, Web service integration, etc.) applications that scale?
The application that we have built is most definitely large, complex and sophisticated, using a selection of integration techniques, including Web services. The TenFold technology allowed us to easily build a secure and scaleable application, meeting all of the UK data protection requirements. Our current implementation is providing an online service to 1300 users with a customer base of 3.4M. We also have a nightly batch process that runs within six hours. Example throughput we see here is a calculation of 3,000,000 charges per hour and cash receipts of 400,000 items per hour. We have also performed some benchmark testing, which was based on 6M customers, 8.4M accounts and 2,400 concurrent users. The database was loaded with two years of historical data. The test confirmed that the technology and our application did indeed meet our performance requirements, scaled reasonably linearly and did not demonstrate any scalability constraints.
What was it replacing and what other alternatives did you consider?
Vertex initially built the application with TenFold based upon our vision for the competitive marketplace. This program commenced around year 2001. We did trawl the market place on several occasions to try and find a product /technology that could provide our requirements, but could not find one that met our needs as closely as the TenFold technology. In addition, TenFold provides a set of pre-built and implemented functional components that can be configured and leveraged in your application. This provides a stable and pre-tested foundation for your application. We currently use 12 of these building blocks. The initial build was completed within 12 months. The first implementation was for a water utility. This program commenced at the start of 2003 and involved major system integration and data migration work from two mainframe- based billing engines. We first went live (on plan) with this implementation in February 2004.
How do you quantify the cost savings and time saving of using TenFold compared to other application development solutions? Note: the founder claims TenFold is 10x faster than other tools for app development.
We have found that development productivity is higher, and the time taken to develop functionality has been reduced compared to other development tools that we have in our portfolio. We have been impressed that the code/deliverable is always very stable even from the early days of development, which allows for a RAD [Rapid Application Development] type of approach to be adopted, which in turn produces a business-focused application, which is correct first time. We believe in a strong solution and user acceptance testing regime before implementation. In many cases this cycle does take longer than the actual development. Turn around of defects is much faster using this technology.
Do non-technical business people build and enhance the applications? How would you rate the development tools?
No. In our case we have a large, complex application, which is tuned for performance and usability. We need to keep it generic and platform-independent and as such we have implemented coding standards etc. Therefore, we have found that suitably trained and experienced IT professionals provide us the least risky and most efficient option here. We have found that we can cross-train business resources into the IT team easily with this technology. On a smaller, dedicated application we do recognize the ease by which and the advantages of allowing non-technical business people to build and enhance the application.
How would you rate integration technologies of the platform?
All the standard techniques/technologies are supported. We have used file-based, XML, Web Services, MQ Series, etc., so we have not experienced any problems in this area.
Are there any glaring deficiencies in the platform? What features are missing?
All platforms have small deficiencies and this technology is no different. The main differentiator here is that as far as we are concerned all of these have acceptable and documented workarounds and no way effect performance, stability or productivity. We don't believe that any features that we require are missing, however we would like to see the configuration and release management side of the tool developed and enhanced further.I talked to another customer. Prov Inc., a Salt Lake City firm that provides exam testing for various industries, developed a sophisticated testing and administration application in a matter of a few weeks, according to company CEO Henry Sorensen. As a development environment, TenFold is a black box compared to the alternatives, including the .Net and various Java development environments. It's more extensible and capable than the emerging application platforms such as salesforce.com, and includes everything from reporting and broad integration facilities to testing and verification tools and built-in transactions. However, rather than an evolving development ecosystem spawning new tools and features from third parties or an open source community, TenFold customers are dependent on a proprietary technology and a single company, which has been struggling. Revenues for 2004 were $17.6 million (98 percent services fees, rather than licensing), with net income of $3.4 million, but with the current cash burn could exhaust cash balances in next few quarters, according to the company's latest financial filings. The TenFold historical customer list includes Barclays Global Investors, Bonneville Power Administration, Cedars-Sinai Health System, Enron, JP Morgan Chase, Oppenheimer Capital, Hedrick & Struggles, SBC and Veritas.
TenFold CEO Nancy Harvey acknowledged that the company is focusing on marketing efforts to generate sales leads and at the same time the company is seeking to raise additional capital to fund future business activities. She has taken the company through a rough patch, after joining in July 2000. In the post bubble era, from 2001 to late 2003, Harvey said the company was immersed in cleaning up liabilities--such as hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate leases, IT equipment obligations, assuaging dissatisfied customers and shareholder lawsuits, and a SEC investigation.
In 2004, the downsized TenFold reintroduced itself to the market but has been hampered, according to Harvey, by a lack of marketing funds to compete with companies pitching .Net, J2EE and Web services. "We have a little company with proven, powerful technology, but we have to get enough visibility for people to find us," Harvey said. She attributed part of the problem in communicating the TenFold story to the disruptive nature of the claims. "If we were slightly different or little bit more than what is out there, it would be easier to chat about us, but our claims are so bold that it is almost too daunting to speak about easily," Harvey said. Making claims about 10x faster development for sophisticated enterprise applications does bring out the skeptics.
Based on impressions from a limited sample of two companies, both recommended by a TenFold representative, the software environment does perform as a rapid application development environment that can crank out, or render, scalable, lower cost, high quality enterprise-class applications. With its database-centric model for describing and building applications and high-level of abstraction, businesses with modest technical resources can develop and iterate applications without racking up hours of highly paid programmer hours. But is it ten times faster than working with Eclipse, Microsoft Visual Studio, Java Studio Creator, IBM Rational Rapid Developer, Borland, etc. to build a complex application?
It's fair to say that there is merit in Walker's pedigree and claims, but as yet no extensive base of do-it-yourself application builders can provide validation. I don't believe that Walker has been tilting at windmills over the last 12 years. TenFold has many of the attributes that business and technology people have outlined as desirable in the next phase of application development--making computer programming accessible to mere mortals, as well as more reliable, interoperable and less costly. If EnterpriseTenFold had elements of an open source project or was delivered behind the marketing budget of a larger software company, it would get more attention. For now, TenFold needs to prove that it has a sustainable business or to sell the company to one that has the resources to evangelize and further develop the technology and business model. Otherwise, TenFold will be just a footnote in the history of computing.