Infor is one of those vendors I'd pretty much written off as a company that might be interesting. Rolling up a rag bag of distressed software vendors is not my idea of innovation but of financial engineering where you usually have to carefully watch the bang per buck coming out of the maintenance stream. It doesn't help that Infor is owned by private equity interests and so getting behind the financials is not easy. Perhaps that assessment is overly harsh.
The last couple of days, I've been immersed in Infor briefings following the upcoming announcement that Sun Systems, a financial suite that in many ways defined the single ledger approach to accounting is being SOA-enabled. What? Anyone care? Why would you do that?
It turns out that Infor is roughly half way through a six year program to service enable all of its applications at a budgeted cost of some $350 million. That's over and above the 12% of revenues it allocates to R&D. Eighteen teams in nine locations are working their way through the process which will see Infor offering interoperability across old favorites like Baan, System 21, Sun Systems, XPPS, iSeries (Infinium) and MSA.
The idea is that customers should be able to take upgrades and enhancements at their own pace rather than go through a technical forced march. It also means that products like Baan 4.c.4, last sold in 1998 according to Infor will be just as capable of enhancement as later versions 5 and 6. This has to be good news for customers, especially as the SOA components are included as part of the company's maintenance arrangements.
While many of my colleagues see the current environment as one where innovation could make a positive difference, the last thing any CXO wants to do is break or destabilize computing environments that have stood the test of time. Infor's approach breathes new life into older applications while allowing customers a safe way to automate processes that might otherwise languish. Andy Birch of Infor Global Solutions summed it nicely: "CFO's have a new title, Chief Risk Officer and even if they want new functionality, they don't want anything new rocking the boat."
I was curious as to why Infor should have stuck the SOA moniker onto this project. As an industry we've been talking about SOA as a topic for years, yet finding business value that CXO's can understand has been elusive. Bruce Gordon, Infor's CTO agrees: "No-one cares about beautiful technology, they want business value but service enablement is something we can explain," he says.
Infor has taken an 'open' approach that avoids proprietary hub and spoke architectures, instead focusing on peer-to-peer as a way of ensuring that processes can be broken up into sub-processes but still capable of being consumed logically, regardless of the receiving application. "If we're building for the future then we have to recognize that customers need to own their own environment. Lock-in is no longer an option," says Gordon.
The burning question: will it work and will it be accepted? "On average it is taking something like two days to install in test environments and in some cases we can get to production in four days,' says Gordon. That sounds impressive, especially in heavily customized environments but in truth the company has yet to roll out the whole set of Open-SOA components. A full SOA-enabled financial suite won't be available until Q1 2010. Similarly, while Infor is developing regression testing scripts, it will be customers who vote.
In the meantime I am impressed with progress so far. This is one of those few occasions where I can see how SOA will deliver business value. After years of brain deadening discussion that has oscillated between technical architectures, componentization and the promise of re-use, it is a refreshing change.
By its own admission, Infor has hardly been a model of outreach to the media the last few years. Given the work it has completed and the fact it seems to have prodded SAP into declaring market share wins, I suspect that might change. Making SOA-enablement optional and included as part of maintenance is certainly noteworthy.