In-Depth

The push for process heats up

In the aftermath of the 2002 acquisitions of Rational and Starbase by IBM and Borland, respectively, the evolution of software configuration management (SCM) tools was hastened from its original niche as somewhat arcane utilities to a central role in corporate enterprise development operations.

SCM tools first emerged in a big way on the mainframe when several technology firms like Serena Software and Business Software Technology (BST) burst onto the scene in 1980 and 1984, respectively. The mundane task of initiating a development process gained the attention of Wall Street as BST's Endevor product line generated significant revenue for BST, its acquirer Legent and Legent's acquirer, Computer Associates. By the early 1990s, venture capital was spent heavily on CM makers like Atria (eventually acquired by Rational), Starbase, Telelogic and Sage/Intersolv/Merant, among others, that aimed to extend development processes to midrange and client/server systems, and later to the World Wide Web.

Process became important to many IT executives, although it met resistance many times at developer levels, experts say. "There are still mixed feelings on the part of developers," said Jim Duggan, an analyst at Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. "Particularly two or three years ago, there was fairly strong resistance. People said [development process] was administrative nonsense. Now [many] realize that there are a lot of moving parts to put together over and over again."

Duggan credits Rational and the success of its configuration management software, testing tools, modeling tools and processes with initiating the effort to convince developers that process is a key to development success.

As change and configuration management offerings move up the food chain, SCM tools are slowly being re-categorized into the broader bin of change management products. Along the way, the tools start to gain and finally may enforce specific processes for development. This is a trend not without controversy, and the many makers of SCM tools are not bashful about stating their positions on the SCM evolution.

Many SCM toolmakers began by selling a single product, like a defect tracker offering a unique process that was useful to specific users. The surviving vendors usually added more tools that were often bundled into suites that offered significant technical and cost advantages to large users. The changing world of change management has attracted testing tool and performance management firms like Mercury Interactive, especially with last summer's acquisition of Kintana Inc. and its so-called business optimization tools. Start-ups like Newmerix continue to see significant potential business for change management tools that offer new twists.

All or nothing
Some say the growing list of products, integrated or not, has caused confusion in the corporate user base. "The industry has done itself a disservice by [interchanging] terms" like change management and configuration management, said Dave Martin, vice president of product management at MKS Inc., Waterloo, Ontario. "From our perspective, there is not so much of a segmentation. It's all about managing the development process -- making sure everything is assigned, tracked, measured and audited."

According to Martin, organizations need both change and configuration management tools for process improvements to be effective. "There's no need for one without the other," he said.

Mike Knott, a systems specialist at the San Diego-based Union Bank of California, said his firm looked at several CM tools in a search for a large enterprise system and found many traits in tools that could appeal to a variety of requirements.

Knott said the bank was looking to replace a PVCS-based source control management system "that was more of a workgroup-type solution; it didn't run on a central server. Each group had its own copy of PVCS, and each group had its own way of tracking defects and changes. Some were using Lotus Notes, some were Web-based" and there were other processes in place as well, Knott said. "That caused a problem for us. There wasn't an easy way to audit and change source code in different environments. We had to trust that developers would update the spreadsheet with changes."

As the earlier system became more complex, Union Bank sought to replace it with a more flexible process that allowed incorporation of existing processes, as well as integrated version and source control. They selected MKS because "for the most part, we could use our existing processes."

Certified processes
Software configuration management for Computer Associates (CA) customers has evolved over the years to focus on overarching change management of processes. The firm's greatest challenge has perhaps been to bridge software intended for mainframe change management (Endevor) with more Unix-flavored software (Harvest Change Manager) -- software obtained in both cases by acquisition. CA made some steps forward in building that bridge.

CA sees benefits to processes that are standard, said Greg Clancy, the firm's business manager, marketing. Last year, CA gained in this regard when its Harvest product was verified as compatible with the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) process frameworkProcesses are key to collaboration on a global scale, Clancy said. In a world where trade-offs are to be made between developer independence and process governance, CA may be said to reside in the latter camp.

"Management has to understand the process, and manage and control each phase of application delivery," Clancy said. "The question is how you are going to make applications work across development environments."

For its part, Serena Software, the other leader in mainframe-style change management, made a significant step to expand its platform presence and improve the visibility its system offers into corporate processes last year when it purchased TeamTrack, maker of an application request management system. In November, the company announced Serena TeamTrack Version 6, a key deliverable in its upcoming Serena Application Framework for Enterprises offering. Like others, Serena sees potential in the industry-wide movement to achieve Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, as well as various CMMI certification and HIPAA compliances.

Pioneer moves on
At Merant, officials say many IT organizations begin implementing change and configuration management tools at various points in the development life cycle. "You can implement both [tools] separately and people are doing that," said Ashley Owen, director of product marketing at Merant. "People typically start with defect tracking and issue tracking. Others start with version management and configuration management."

Merant's predecessor, Sage Software, became the top supplier of low-end SCM tools in the late 1980s with its acquisition of Polytron and its PVCS toolset. PVCS has extended both to the high end via the Dimensions change management product, and to the low end with configuration management tools like Merant Professional, Merant Tracker and Merant Version Manager.

Owen said Merant is "starting to see some sort of merging of change and configuration management between development and IT production."

He said IT executives are pushing to end the "throw it over the wall" mentality by creating "a more rigid deployment cycle, a better handover. The key is to coordinate the process, to coordinate change processes. It's incumbent upon an organization to at least try to implement best practices."

A lighter form of process
Envisioning new configuration-related software remains a somewhat arcane art. It usually becomes a product when a home-brewed tool becomes useful to ever wider numbers of people. As it becomes a product and the inventor-vendor branches out into other tools, a suite of complementary software may take shape. But which figures one toggles on or off remains the user's decision.

For their part, Seapine Software principals adapted techniques honed on Mac tools when they brought out test software for Windows developers. In December, the company released upgraded versions of TestTrack Pro and Surround SCM that include productivity enhancements and improved integration with each other.

Seapine represents part of a trend today that sees mid-price SCM products with additional features that buyers may or may not use to implement a lighter form of process.

Coming out of the Mac world had its benefits. "Most of the competitors grew out of [the] DOS world and out of database design products like Dbase," said Seapine President Richard Riccetti.

Riccetti said Seapine's version control product can become something of a change management product when integrated with Test Track Pro and a QA wizard. "Our focus is on providing point solutions around the entire development process," he said. "If tools can show tangible benefits, developers will embrace them. But they don't like added steps in a process."

Sometimes developers resist the change a configuration tool represents, noted Rich Clyde, Seapine's vice president of product development. So the ability to tailor product to setting is key.

A CASE for change
Visible Systems, which made its name in the world of CASE a couple of decades past, has evolved via acquisition into a provider of development processes and change and configuration management tools. Like other early players in the business, Visible has integrated change and configuration management tools into a suite and aims to provide mostly change management solutions, said Mike Cesino, president of the Lexington, Mass.-based firm.

"We're looking to focus on change management, and [move] away from the idea of a design and development orientation," he said. "People have to understand the need to reuse, what reuse is and the whole sense of managing change."

Cesino said Visible does sell its Razor SCM tool separately when requested, but while it is "an effective configuration management tool, it does not touch the broader subject of change management. Buyers will pick what they need."

The next generation
The need for process continues to attract start-up firms looking to bring new ideas to change and configuration management. For example, executives from packaged app makers like PeopleSoft and Siebel along with alumni from Mercury Interactive joined to form Newmerix Corp. and set out to build a product that can "adjust the optimization of apps with automated software quality and change management," said Edward Roberto, president and chief executive of the Superior, Colo., toolmaker.

Roberto said Newmerix was formed with the belief that there is a "bifurcation between custom development and packaged apps. Our products are uniquely designed for the packaged app. Mercury has built a fantastic business out of the custom world, but this is different."

Newmerix CTO Niel Robertson said the firm's Automate toolset, whose automated test manager component began a gradual rollout of the full PeopleSoft product set late last year, treats applications as a business-critical component of the enterprise. "We can track changes as they flow through the systems," he said. A change management component will ship this summer.

Mother of invention
Will change management evolve naturally out of configuration management? Perhaps, but not right away.

"Analysts like to see a big unification wherever they look, but we don't see overarching change management," said Christopher Seiwald, president, founder and CTO of Perforce Software. "Yet it is something people want to buy and see, but it isn't there."

The gap between configuration management and change management can be characterized as the gap between managing files, and managing the people that create the software. But it is not a gap that all want to span.

"The problems we solve are the nuts and bolts problems of managing software as it develops," said Seiwald.

While managing software is a known path, said Seiwald, "managing people is not such a well-worn track. There are many kinds of developers -- many who don't want to be told [how to do things]."

Some organizations have swaths of programmers, and want to enforce their process more than they want to empower developers, he said. Other organizations are interested in innovation.

"We sell to those who cater to developers rather than process," he noted. "If you have a tool that works well, you don't need quite so much process to keep them from mucking it up. We believe that."

Seiwald said the characterization that larger organizations are cold to developers and, in turn, "process-happy" may be due for updating. "It turns out even the larger companies are appreciating the value of their developers more," he said.

Like others, Perforce has something of a push on for ease and visibility. The firm just released Version 2003.2 of its Fast Software Configuration Management System, featuring a plug-in for Windows Explorer that gives one-click access to Perforce SCM functionality when developers use Windows Explorer to browse files and folders.

For its part, TechExcel Inc. is at work on enhancing its DevTrack defect and project tracking software in ways seen to better enable users to manage and automate the software development life cycle. An improved Web interface and an Offline Edition were added with the recent release of Version 5.6.

The company, in fact, is looking to apply workflow and process management techniques it has honed in other products within the DevTrack interface. TechExcel illustrates how diverse the software in a portfolio can be and, perhaps, how aspects of configuration management, bug tracking and enterprise software packages may come to meld. Besides offering DevTrack, TechExcel offers help desk and customer relationship management software.

Gartner's Duggan suggests that the quest for development processes will grow stronger as organizations search for cost control opportunities in a changing economy.

"Now they think they can get there by doing less re-work. Years ago it was a push for quality, and people said to work harder. Now the pitch is for the same tools to work more efficiently to get more done in less time," he said.

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