25 ISVs You Must Know12:00 AM EST Mon. Jul. 09, 2007
On the one hand, Microsoft maintains what it calls an "integrated stack" from the server and client operating systems, up through server applications and middleware to client apps. And for building/customizing apps, there's Visual Studio.
On the other hand, the company says there's plenty of room for third-party ISVs to add value, in terms of vertical capabilities and in filling in the "white space" above and within the stack itself. Such white space is key to Microsoft's ability to boast of a vibrant ecosystem of third-party developers.
Many ISVs in the Microsoft camp—no fools they—maintain the company has done a good job of balancing those two apparently conflicting goals.
Ask any of the VARs or solution providers in Microsoft's orbit what their favorite third-party tool is and they often will start with the default: "We use Microsoft tools." But they then reconsider and tick off a number of tools, utilities or foundation software they use to augment and supplement the Microsoft bits.
For George Brown, CEO of Database Solutions, Cherry Hill, N.J., go-to testing tools include those from big players Mercury Interactive (now part of Hewlett-Packard) and IBM's Rational group to XML Spy. The latter, an XML debugging tool by Altova, is a crowd-pleaser among many VARs interviewed.
The sentiment about XML Spy from independent tech consultant Mike Drips was: "I can't believe Microsoft doesn't just buy that and be done with it. It's so much better than what they have."
Other favorites in Brown's tool chest are SoftArtisan's Excel Writer, which bridges the world of Excel front ends and SQL Server databases and Infragistics' NetAdvantage for .Net that provides UI objects or controls that VARs can slap right onto the browser page without coding. "They do a lot of cool stuff with UI templates," Brown said. "It's much better to buy those bits than to code them."
Other fan favorites in the database and development realm are CA's Erwin and Quest Software's Toad. "There are a slew of database analyst tools that are very helpful, especially if you play in a mixed Oracle and SQL Server environment," said Richard Warren, CTO of Channel Blade Technologies, Virginia Beach, Va.
Bedrock Managed Services & Consulting, Neenah, Wis., uses Level Platforms, not Microsoft Operations Manager, to monitor client systems. "We also use VMware instead of Virtual Server because it's faster and better for production environments right now. We also use Quest tools to help migrate customers [from Novell or IBM Notes/Domino] to a Microsoft platform. And we use some of NetPro's software for [Active Directory] reporting/auditing," said Mark Bakken, CEO of the managed service provider.
Matt Mountain, managing director at Lucrum, a Cincinnati-based IT services firm, is a fan of Bluespring's new BPM Suite. These business process management tools work with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) to streamline and automate more complex workflows in a way that SharePoint alone cannot, he noted.
"SharePoint is good at workflow as long as you stay within SharePoint. If I want to implement a time-sheet system, I fill it out in Excel and it notifies the next person that the sheet is ready for approval—well, SharePoint can do all that. But if I fill out the time sheet, it goes to you for approval and then you want that data to flow over to the payroll system—well, then, you need something more," Mountain explained.
Bluespring, Cincinnati, and K2, Redmond, Wash., both bring additional and more complex workflows to the SharePoint realm. Colligo, Vancouver, British Columbia, was cited by several VARs for its technology that brings offline capabilities to SharePoint.
Indeed, there is a whole ecosystem of ISVs around MOSS that can serve as a microcosm for the overall Microsoft universe.
Among VAR developers, there is still a loyal following for CodeGear (aka Borland) IDEs such as Delphi and JBuilder.
Jeff Swisher, director of consulting services at Dunn Solutions Group, Skokie, Ill., said the CodeGear IDEs preserve developer and user investment in tried-and-true technologies and the training investment that's been made to use them. "We need to find ways to preserve older code that works," he said. He's a big fan of both Delphi and JBuilder franchises. He said Dunn also uses a variety of third-party "code profilers" to check out code performance.
Robert Martinez, software architect at Boston-based Au Bon Pain, is a fan of tools from Telerik and Developer Express. The latter company's controls for Visual Studio, Martinez said, offer multiple user interface abilities such as drop-down calendars and list controls that the Microsoft grid does not.
Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) partners say that even there, where Microsoft is building full ERP and CRM stacks, there is room for innovative tool providers. Yacov Wrocherinsky, CEO of Infinity Solutions, New York, said his company uses Qliqview from Qliqtech International to build dashboards atop Microsoft CRM that tap into a wide range of back-end data.
"It's a very good tool that adds a lot of functionality to Microsoft CRM in terms of dynamic dashboards, views into key performance indicators," Wrocherinsky said. Infinity uses it to glue together data streamed from disparate sources and consolidate it on screen.
"We often use Qliqview, SharePoint and Microsoft CRM with Qliqview providing most of the business intelligence," he noted. "It eliminates the need for reports; the interface is very intuitive and user-friendly."
Several other MBS partners also sited C360's add-on utilities for mail merge, report authoring and other functions as key to the success of their Microsoft CRM business. Several, who requested anonymity, said C360 actually made the early Microsoft CRM release—which they said was barely functional—usable. (In April, C360 was bought by CDC Software and is now part of that subsidiary of CDC Corp.)
Next: Bolstering The .Net/Windows Server Platform
Solution providers and consultants advising customers on boosting transaction-intensive applications using standard and non-pricey hardware laud Digipede's distributed computing technologies that bolster the stack's support of fast-paced applications.
West Monroe Partners, a Chicago-based consultancy, is fully aboard. "The ability of this product to accelerate application performance for our customers is tremendous," said Nathan Ulery, technology solutions practice leader at West Monroe Partners.
The consultancy's first implementation required two days of training and a day of setup at the customer site. In that time, they "grid-enabled" the client's component that performed myriad complex transactions. Digipede lets the customer "linearly scale" the application simply by adding nodes. "By adding another server, you cut the transaction time in half. You add another server, and you cut it in half again. That's powerful from our perspective because [with] the Microsoft platform you can already multithread the application, but it requires larger and larger servers. Now we just add additional blades or servers, or use other underutilized servers already in the environment, and you see huge improvements in performance," Ulery said.
Digipede's initial pricing starts at around $4,000, he said, with additional five-grid nodes then costing another $500 per node processor after that. All prices are per year, but compared to buying 16-processor servers, it's a huge price advantage, according to Ulery.
Mark Brazeau, principal at Blue Thread, an Ann Arbor, Mich., enterprise content management specialist, cited K2 workflow as key to his business. Blue Thread trades on the ECM expertise of its principals, who came out of FileNet and Documentum. "We understand that [content management world]. Where most Microsoft partners do rapid development or work with Dynamics ERP or are systems integrators, we do other stuff.
"We look at the stack and figure out what it needs [for ECM]. And what it needs is workflow and data capture, and we need to tie that all together with the UI. We present the content and the work to the user in a way that makes sense."
He agreed that Microsoft provides basic workflow in Windows SharePoint Services, but not much more. "Windows workflow is not an engine. Iit really isn't. It's a DLL. It'll give you the constructs, but it needs to plug into something else."
Even the higher-level workflow in MOSS is limited. "If you want to route a Word document from Point A to Point B and do maybe 10 of those a day, then Windows workflow is fine for you. But if you want more robust capabilities, it is not enough. You could build all that from scratch, but that would be maybe a million lines of code. At that point, it's a buy vs. build decision," he noted. Clearly, he thinks buying is the smart option.
It is Brazeau's view that Microsoft will remain a platform company and thus will continue to leave white space for third-party ISVs. "Look, everyone worries about the gorilla eating them. I'm just not sure Microsoft wants to be in the solutions business as a mainstay. I see them as an infrastructure provider. There are so many solutions out there, Microsoft can build 80 percent of the stack and get the last 20 percent supplied by partners. They support partners and partners support them. If they went higher than that, it would be like eating their own."
He acknowledges that Microsoft has to go into some markets long held by partners—antivirus is an example where it had no choice, since people were attacking its OS.
The Exit Strategy/Risk
There are lots of creative, nimble ISVs scurrying around the Microsoft stack, plugging holes, filling gaps and finding creative ways to make money off the mighty M's infrastructure.
But virtually all of these players realize that they have to keep ahead of Microsoft's own development plans and be prepared to climb the stack ahead of the software giant or perhaps be buyout fodder for it.
Microsoft continues to show its propensity for acquiring companies that fill a need. Several VARs long lauded ProClarity, citing its ability to offer better dashboards for SQL Server than Microsoft itself. So what happened? Microsoft bought ProClarity. So much for that particular ISV. A few months ago, Microsoft likewise snapped up Office Writer from SoftArtisans to bolster its Office BI arsenal. It also bought Softgrid to help in its virtualization efforts.
There is no doubt that Microsoft will keep filling in gaps to its stack either by internal development or acquisition. And it will build up more functionality in Office and Dynamics applications. That could mean that these ISVs get acquired for their expertise or are forced up the stack as Microsoft bolsters its own offerings.
Next: They're Ready, Willing And Able