, Jan. 16, 2001 — Imagine that you’ve been the regional sales manager for a large manufacturing company since the late 1980s. Chances are that when you took over, your businesses processes were managed almost entirely through the exchange of paper forms. Communication centered on telephone calls and face-to-face meetings. Business intelligence arrived as typewritten reports summarizing events in your industry over the previous quarter, or even the previous year.
Today, by contrast, comprehensive up-to-the-minute information about your company, your customers, and your competitors is only a mouse-click away. Much of the job of keeping in touch is handled with a quick email. Business process automation software has nearly eliminated the blizzard of typed forms and handwritten notes on which you once relied. Now, everything from order processing, to contact management, to scheduling and bookkeeping occurs automatically, powered by database-driven applications. In recent years, the ability to quickly and cheaply customize those applications to meet the specific business needs of your organization has helped streamline operations to a degree that was once unimaginable.
The rise of the Internet offers a host of new possibilities for the way people do business. Chief among them is the chance to move business process automation onto the Web, giving sales staff access to the power of back-office computing any time, any place and on any device.
But while there are plenty of choices for prepackaged Sales Force Automation applications for the Web right now, there is also a problem. Customizing them to conform to an organization’s unique procedures is prohibitively time-consuming and expensive.
With today’s announcement of a new Web application customization technology, called Visual Studio for Applications (VSA), Microsoft is delivering the ability for companies to easily customize their Web-based applications.
“Corporations are sharply limited in their ability to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Web because there is no easy way to extend their internal business logic in distributed applications,” explains Robert Green, Microsoft’s lead product manager for Visual Studio. “There are ways to do it today, but they are all hugely unattractive. Either your software vendor has to be willing to expose its source code, which they typically don’t want to do, or you have to hire a consultant to do the work, which is expensive and doesn’t scale. Least attractive of all is having to build your own application from scratch, which just is not a viable option for any but the largest organizations.”
VSA builds on the concepts first developed by Microsoft with Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), which made it possible for independent software vendors (ISVs) to offer their customers a powerful development platform that included a feature-rich desktop application along with simple tools that allowed for quick and easy customization through the use of scripting.
VSA extends this approach to the Web by giving ISVs the ability to build in seamless, secure, controlled access to an application so that customers can modify it to reflect their own organization’s ever-changing business rules. Utilizing a powerful design-time environment, based on Visual Studio.NET, for writing and deploying custom code and a high-performance, lightweight runtime engine for executing that code, VSA allows ISVs to pick features that organizations might want to customize and then add code that opens that functionality to almost limitless adaptation.
“Before VSA, you had to either settle for canned functionality or build it yourself,” explains Green. “Now, with VSA an ISV can provide entry points for customizing its feature set. The customer can do the final coding to make the application meet their real-world needs. Suddenly, Web applications have the same flexibility that enterprise customers have come to take for granted on the desktop.”
This represents a huge step forward for companies like Great Plains, a global provider of enterprise e-business solutions for mid-market organizations. Great Plains is one of the first ISVs to adopt VSA technology.
“We believe that customers need systems that they can adapt to their own business needs, and we have a long history of providing flexible solutions that do just that,” says Vern Strong, Senior Vice President of Emerging Platform Services at Great Plains. “Over the last few years their expectations have grown as they see what we can provide. They aren’t going to lower those expectations as they move from the desktop paradigm to the Internet paradigm. They still want same flexibility along with the ability to extend it to every employee, plus customers and partners. VSA is important because it allows us to meet those expectations.”
Protecting Source Code While Enabling Customization
The problem of providing customized — or customizable — Web applications is something that many of the leading ISVs who focus on business customers have been grappling with since the beginning of the e-business revolution. As software vendors looked ahead to the direction of software innovation, the anticipation was that their customers would quickly come to recognize the potential benefits of a distributed software architecture, which offers unprecedented power and scalability by using the Internet itself as a platform — enabling users to access the features and functionality of software over the Web at any time, no matter where they are or what type of device they are using.
But without the ability to customize Web-based applications through a simple script-based tool like VSA, the options for meeting requests from customers who want an application tailored to work much like their Windows-based applications are not very appealing.
One option was to build custom features requested by important clients directly into the product itself. But that adds significant costs to product development and testing for features that might only be used by one organization. Another option was to give customers access to the source code itself, creating the risk that by customizing the source code companies will unwittingly affect the performance of the entire application, and not be able to upgrade their apps as the ISV provides new functionality.
According to Mike Lloyd, technical strategy manager for Marlborough Stirling, a leading provider of software solutions for the financial services market in the United Kingdom, VSA solves both of these problems by making it possible to separate the development of built-in functionality from the creation of business-specific features.
“VSA allows us to rigorously separate generic processes from custom processes,” he says. “That is critical, because in the past we had to do a bit of customization for a client here, and another bit there, and then test it because it was embedded in source code shipped to everybody. Now we can focus on product-based development without worrying about those 10 lines of code that a specific client desperately needs. In addition, because the customization code is isolated, now I know that people aren’t going to break the functionality or introduce any weakness in performance.”
VSA frees ISVs from another unappealing possibility: building their own set of customization tools from the ground up. “That’s a hugely time-consuming task, especially if it’s not your area of expertise,” says Microsoft’s Robert Green. “Building development tools is precisely the kind of thing that Microsoft does best.”
New Levels of Sophistication and Power
By solving most of the big issues software vendors face in delivering customizable solutions to customers, VSA puts the job of adapting software to conform to business processes back in the hands of the people who understand the nature of those processes best-the end user. In the first release of VSA, custom code can be written using Visual Basic.NET, the newest version of Microsoft’s world-leading software development language. Later releases will support other .NET languages. This means that organizations will be able to draw on a pool of more than 6 million experienced Visual Basic developers. With VSA, developers will have access to the same visual environment that they have grown accustomed to with Visual Studio.NET, which maximizes productivity through such features as an intelligent editor, intuitive and familiar user interfaces, and remote debugging capabilities.
“VSA means our developers can focus on building robust back-end Web services and applications while allowing our customers to completely customize the solution to tie in seamlessly with their business objectives,” says Steve Schilg, marketing manager at Ci Technologies, an Australian company that provides industrial automation software to companies around the world. “It also opens up our products to the whole community of Visual Basic developers — a much wider audience of systems integrators than we could have achieved on our own.”
Schilg believes that VSA will open the door for a new level of sophistication and power in the applications Ci Technologies offers. “Automation and manufacturing installations vary enormously in their structure and underlying models,” he explains. “VSA will not only allow our Plant2Business products to manage manufacturing information but with Microsoft’s .NET Infrastructure underpinning VSA, changes also can be made and distributed with zero impact or downtime, which is essential in 24 by 7 production environments.
NetIQ, another leading ISV, sees huge advantages inherent in the ability to open up its applications to customization via VSA. A maker of software products that monitor and manage the performance and availability of a wide variety of systems and applications, NetIQ utilizes script-driven customization to automate corrective steps that can solve performance issues in real time.
One of NetIQ’s flagship products is AppManager, which provides organizations with a comprehensive set of tools for managing the performance and availability of Microsoft Windows NT and Windows 2000 systems and server applications. According to NetIQ Director of Product Management Scott Hollis, “VSA will make it much easier to customize AppManager to meet the needs of highly complex eBusiness scenarios where completing a transaction means calling on information and services stored in a wide range of applications that probably reside on a number of different servers that may not even be situated in the same location.
“Consider the processing that must occur for something as simple as when a customer purchases a book online,” Hollis says. “There are performance issues related to the customer-facing application, to middleware and load balancing for millions of transactions, to back-end databases and more. There are so many variables that may cause degraded performance to the point where the customer bails out before the transaction is complete. VSA allows us to build in scripting that can account for many of those variables and also take into account automated corrective actions once performance thresholds have been crossed.”
Although VSA is a brand new technology that will see its first beta release in the spring, most observers expect that it will be adopted very rapidly, in part because there is such a huge demand for Web-enabled business applications that isn’t being met because companies are still shying away from products they can’t easily adapt to their own business practices, and in part because so many developers are already familiar with the concepts and tools that VSA is built on. According to Robert Green at Microsoft, the latest market research suggests that 40 percent of developers are currently customizing desktop applications with Visual Basic for Applications and will also be customizing Web applications with VSA once VSA-enabled applications begin to ship. “IT developers will love what we have done,” Green says, “We’ve brought the simplicity of VB’s event-driven paradigm to the server. We have also enabled ISVs to hide the complexities of deploying the customization code so end users and developers can rest assured that their customizations are properly integrated with their mission-critical applications.”
That doesn’t surprise Gerald Beaulieu, senior product manager for eBusiness Products at Epicor, which provides integrated enterprise and eBusiness software solutions, including customer relationship management and ERP applications, for mid-market companies.
“We believe that VSA will speed up the move to Web-enabled business models because there will be no need for a massive paradigm shift to figure out how to customize enterprise applications,” he explains. “The fact is that while VSA may represent a quantum leap from the standpoint of application architecture, scalability and access to custom code, when you get right down to it, it’s simply exposing the Microsoft Visual Basic script language allowing changes to business rules within the given application. It just happens to be a script language geared to N-tier systems targeting thousands of users.”
For his part, Mike Lloyd believes that Microsoft may be underestimating the potential impact of VSA. He suggest that once people start to use it, they’ll find that it opens the door to new features and services that are just too difficult to implement today. He envisions a time in the very near future when VSA will make it possible for the financial services organizations that make up Marlborough Stirling’s client base to offer precisely targeted products that are created on the fly to meet the demands of very small niche markets.
“I think there is going to be a lot more demand than people are currently anticipating, because it offers the opportunity to provide highly personalized services right down to the level of the individual customer,” he says. “Everybody is going to be on board with this sooner or later. We’re just glad to be on board sooner.”