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PaaS to the future at Progress Exchange 2013

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed October 9, 2013
Summary:
Can an enterprise software company dating back to 1981 become an unlikely leader in the emerging PaaS (Platform as a Service) category? I went to Boston to find out.

Philpeadprogress
President/CEO Phil Pead

Can an enterprise software company dating back to 1981 become an unlikely leader in the emerging PaaS (Platform as a Service) category?

Progress (commonly/formerly known as Progress Software) certainly thinks so. The nearly 1,000 orange-clad attendees at Progress Exchange 2013 also seemed persuaded. But what about the rest of us? I went to Boston to find out.

You can't get a handle on Progress without shedding a few misconceptions. In April of 2012, Progress made a fateful decision to become a specialized platform vendor, selling off close to a dozen software assets in the process. Instead of pursuing a direct competition with enterprise software incumbents like SAP, Orace, and Microsoft, Progress made the intriguing (and financially necessary) decision to get lean and build a next generation app platform instead.

A Forrester note dated April 2012 says that Progress was lowering its sights, but I'd put it differently: rather than trying to win a round where the cards were already dealt, Progress decided to take its chances on a whole new game. Overseeing that not-small transition was President President and CEO Phil Pead, named to the position in December 2012.

Doubling down on PaaS

In June 2013, Progress doubled down on their PaaS intentions with the purchase of Rollbase, another leg on the table of their new PaaS offering, officially dubbed Pacific.  Newly-minted CTO Karen Tegan Padir and Chief Product Officer John Goodson (both appointed June 2013) were amongst those tasked with the beefy challenge of rolling out Pacific without losing the buy-in of long-time customers and partners.

As I walked the convention quizzing attendees, several questions were on my mind: What did the faithful think of these moves? Would the new Pacific platform allow Progress to win net-new customers? And - last but hardly least - are customers ready for PaaS? As in: does PaaS solve real business problems or is it PaaS on its way to the buzzword hamper?

Existing Progress users are not as disrupted by the changes to the platform as I would have expected. That's because Pacific includes components ISVs are already familiar with, OpenEdge and DataDirect. in addition to Rollbase and business rules management system Corticon (see product slide via TEC's Bob Eastman). During a sit down, Michael Benedict, VP and GM of Pacific Cloud Platform and OpenEdge, told me there were about 350 existing DataDirect ISVs and 1600 OpenEdge ISVs.

I interviewed a number of these ISVs, some on video, who reinforced these points, but did admit they came to Boston to make sure the Progress they had invested years (or decades) in was heading in a direction they were comfortable with. Keep in mind that with Progress' repositioning, they are essentially refocused on the SME space, which means the partners who have built apps for those markets using the OpenEdge platform and the ABL application development language are already somewhat in line with where the Pacific PaaS platform is headed (OpenEdge now supports Javascript, but continues to support ABL also).

The ISVs I spoke with were only tire-kicking on Pacific at this point. Each had some interest in an aspect of Pacific, but typically it was an interest driven by customer needs. A couple partners noted the benefits of web-based user access and subscription-based pricing they felt Pacific would excel in. Their Pacific intentions seemed to come less from Progress' orange-drenched PR efforts and more from their own customer base.

One partner's story

Charlie McGougan, Director of Information Technology at Bluebird Auto Rental Systems, told me a story captured these themes. In his case, changes in the car rental industry are impacting Bluebird's software. Technically speaking, Bluebird has been providing (ahem!) 'cloud' access to their customers via Windows terminals since the late 90s (and yes, a few customers are still using those terminals).

In 2007, Bluebird undertook a major transformation project, detaching the business rules in their software from the UI while heading towards a cloud-based business model. Today, almost 70 percent of Bluebird's customers are using their auto rental software (built on Progress OpenEdge) via hosted systems. 90 percent of new customers are buying systems hosted by Bluebird. As McGougan put it: 'Our customers are in the car rental business, not the IT management business.'

Bluebird's customers are also rethinking fundamental aspects of the customer experience, which in turn is driving Bluebird towards the mobile capabilities Progress had added to the latest versions of OpenEdge. For some of Bluebird's customers, the impersonal visit to the car rental counter is being rethought. The use of tablets to walk the customer to their car and personalize the rental experience is on deck - that means Bluebird is naturally compelled towards cloud and mobile delivery as well.

Multi-tenancy purists will be encouraged, perhaps alarmingly so, by McGougan's expressed interest in the multi-tenant capabilities of the latest versions of OpenEdge (and Pacific). 'It will make our maintenance a lot easier. We monitor and backup 300 databases every day. With multi-tenancy, we can reduce that a lot, and also reduce server resources.'

Does Pacific hold water?

jennifersmith progress
CMO and VP Jennifer Smith

Hmm, I guess that's both a bad pun and a rhetorical question. At most cloud shows, PaaS is still an afterthought, a few booths relegated to whatever space isn't gobbled up by IaaS and SaaS players. That's starting to change. By steering clear of the PaaS label in its product title, Progress is clearly trying to position platforms in a more business-friendly context.

With deep expertise in business rules engines and a newfound commitment to great user experience (which meant hiring outside UI experts for the Pacific UI), Progress wants customers to think about disrupting their own industries by moving from 'cost-center IT' to building and deploying apps with business impact.

While PaaS adoption is hardly explosive, on the plus side there isn't an established player keeping others at bay. The flavors of PaaS include upstarts/pure players like CloudBees and Engine Yard. OpenShift and Cloud Foundry get frequent mention, as does just about every cloud provider from IBM Smart Cloud to AWS. For a PaaS built around a SaaS product, Force.com is clearly far out in front. SAP and Oracle are convinced they can get into the PaaS game also.

When I broached the topic of competitors, the Progress executives I spoke with were most likely to mention Force.com, but they see plenty of green field. You could argue that developer tools are stronger with Java or .NET development.

Progress would tell you their platform is intended to minimize hardcore coding via browser-based point-and-click/drag-drop, complete data connectivity with cloud and on-premise systems, and easy deployment via public clouds, private clouds, or on-premise options. Add in their business rules framework, and you have an argument for building savvy business apps that are easily consumed and updated.

As a statement of intent, that sounds pretty appealing - not to mention in line with the increasing aversion to maintaining heavy-duty IT landscapes for the purposes of building apps. That's certainly the modus operandi of the smaller vendors and startups Progress wouldn't mind partnering with. But what will the market say?

Final thoughts

As a closeted PaaS evangelist, I'm not a hard sell. Customer adoption remains the sticking point. I see apps platforms as a solution to the near-disastrous problem of over-customization of the on-premise code base. But until customers buy in, we're still in a bit of wait-and-see mode. Requirements for quick deployments and the kinds of web-based use cases I noted point towards these kinds of solutions - in the long run. But then you have a market timing issue.

The most underrated of the raft of press releases Progress issued at the show was a new deal they signed with Macintosh Retail Group (MRG). The part that jumped out at me? MRG chose Progress instead of upgrading their core ERP, point of sale and logistics systems. As one MRG executive put it: 'We were looking for a reliable and cost effective solution to renew our ERP system. We are pleased that Progress is assisting us to realise our cross-channel strategy within a short period of time.'

To take advantage of cloud features, most ERP providers require some upgrades to core systems first. If Progress can allow companies to leave existing systems 'as is' while building next-gen apps that tie their processes together, that's a nifty approach that opens up plenty of prospects who have been reluctant to shell out for the latest ERP releases.

Progress is going to have far more of a marketing problem than a product problem. Though I'm always skeptical about plug-and-play data connectivity claims, overall the notion of a data-driven apps platform seems like the right product at the right time. The mobility emphasis also makes sense, though I had some debates about Progress' hybrid approach to mobile app development with executives (in particular I wonder about iOS-dedicated shops finding platform-agnostic mobile apps acceptable).

But the product debates are quibbles versus Progress' monster marketing challenge. Those who know about Progress generally have the wrong - or at least an outdated - idea. Those who don't know - don't know. In an era where buyers are increasingly narrowing their options via their own research and peer consults, being unknown is a serious problem.

Progress is counting on its 2,000 partners to carry the Progress message via a 'Powered by Progress' campaign. The problem there is the well-known partners with the marketing legs to carry such a campaign (Quicken Loans, QAD, Tata) are more interested in pushing their own brand. Smaller partners are more interested in Progress pushing them along marketing-wise - several told me as much.

Marketing is now as much about building trust through genuine engagement as it is a branding exercise. These are re-inventions for Progress every bit as significant as a product overhaul. I see some good signs: releasing every single conference presentation in one-click PDF format was clever. But there is work to do.

Since I don't have a PaaS adoption crystal ball, I can't tell you exactly what happens from here and how Progress will benefit. But I like the ambition of dropping the PaaS label, doing without the tech hyperbole and going straight for the business benefit. I'm also a big fan of keeping things humble and doing a frank self-assessment.

President and CEO Phil Pead did just that in his opening keynote. Explaining the context of their big decisions, Pead acknowledged, 'Along the way, we lost our focus a bit.' Then he laid into the sluggishness of the industry: 'Why does it take so long to bring a product to market?'' And the kicker: 'No matter where we are, someone is building something to disrupt us.' If things go right for Progress, they are about to return the favor.

Photo credits: Progress Exchange 2013 photos by Jon Reed.

Disclosure: Progress paid most of my travel expenses to attend Progress Exchange 2013.

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