IBM's Rational Head Details New Development Philosophy, Previews Jazz

In his opening keynote on Monday, Rational General Manager Danny Sabbah detailed the product and development process changes his group has made to improve performance, scalability, ownership costs and ROI (return on investment) for its product line of software development and governance applications.

"My marketing team wasn't particularly happy with me about this particular portion of the presentation," Sabbah said, before launching into a critique of Rational's problems with product complexity and sluggish response to customers' enhancement requests.

Sabbah took charge of Rational in mid-2005, inheriting a company with stagnant growth -- Rational's revenue rose 4 percent that year. Last year, it apparently did notably better. While IBM doesn't break out Rational's sales in its annual report, it said the division's revenue showed year-over-year improvement in 2006 and posted double-digit sales growth for the last quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007.

Part of the turnaround came from revamping Rational's development to better align products with customer requirements, Sabbah said in an interview at the conference, being held in Orlando.

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"I was told it was a black hole -- you could put in requests for enhancements and nothing would ever come out," he said. "I felt we needed to address up-front that kind of an issue. If we don't maintain our overall focus on quality, on delivering what customers are asking for with reasonable performance, they'll go elsewhere. We can't take them for granted at all."

In that vein, IBM announced a host of product updates this week optimized for performance and reduced administrative overhead. Faster packet transfers, reduced memory demands, and support for more users per server are some of the improvements found in the latest releases of IBM's Rational ClearCase, ClearQuest and BuildForge tools.

Other new offerings, like the IBM Rational Asset Manager registry software that will ship in late June, are carefully tailored to address customers' pain points.

"We started listening to our customers and we started being a lot more response to what they felt were the directions that would help them. We started pouring more resources and energy into address those focus areas," Sabbah said. "I think that fundamentally, that has a lot of people looking at Rational a lot more seriously these days. It's been a tough market ever since 2000, 2001. You really have to focus on ROI and business outcome."

Rational's new focus on aligning with customers' direct requests also helped give rise to the intriguing new effort IBM plans to discuss in greater detail on Tuesday: the Jazz project and its first product, Rational Team Concert, which will release its first beta this week.

Hatched in IBM's research wing nearly three years ago, Jazz is an evolving set of technologies and specifications aimed at easing collaboration among geographically dispersed software development teams. As it did five years ago with the Eclipse development platform, IBM hopes to seed an industry standardization effort around a thorny development challenge.

Rational Team Concert is a collaborative portal with developer-friendly features that aim to improve productivity and remove collaboration obstacles for medium-sized teams of programmers following agile development practices. In a postmodern twist, IBM is using the evolving Jazz framework to craft its Jazz products, testing new features internally and with select early-adopter partners before integrating them into Rational Team Concert and other fledgling products.

The company also plans to craft Jazz tools more publicly than it has any previous product line. While Rational Team Concert will remain a proprietary product that does not allow redistribution, customers will be able to download the software's source code, interact with its developers through the portal, and track the progress of bug reports and enhancement requests.

"We are basically opening up our software develoment lab at Rational in a transparent way so that customers can participate in the development of the product," said Scott Hebner, vice president of marketing and strategy for Rational. "It's very much modeled on what we've seen happen on the Web, with continuous beta."

IBM is slated to demo Jazz and discuss the project's development philosophy and community building plans in Tuesday's Rational conference sessions.