How Architects Use ASPs for Code Design

Application Service Providers (ASPs) are back on the IT radar, in the wake of IBM's $182 million buyout of ASP Corio in January. But, ASPs today can help IT staffs, not just end users or salespeoples. Yaron Sinai, CEO of Elementools, offers a Case Study for how architects and devs use ASPs to make their code design and delivery projects more efficient.

Tags: Customer, ASP, Generis, Internet, Elementool, Firms, Management,

CEO, Elementools
After their birth in the late 1990s, the Application Services Provider (ASP) business model quickly became one of the principal darlings of Internet visionaries and venture capitalists.

After a few years of a rough ride, and grand visions of 'software-for-rent' for every purpose, ASPs have tempered a bit. And, interestingly, as ASPs have become more pragmatic, many enterprises are finding ASPs can offer solutions to some core problems more efficiently than any other technology-delivery strategy.

This article looks to describe how enterprises can best leverage ASP capabilities to meet some of their IT infrastructure and business needs.

ASP: Filling the Right Holes
The first step in successfully leveraging an ASP product is to determine what functions or activities an ASP can serve effectively. These are generally straightforward business and support functions common to a wide range of enterprises across a variety of industries. Customer service, project management and productivity tools, are cases in point. And while many IT staff are familiar with the ASP checklist, it is the specificity of the ASP offering - and matching that to your firm's need (whether technical or business), that is key to ASP success.

A quick look at a real user's assessment and deployment strategies for ASP's offerings can illustrate just how well specific ASPs solution can work in the right setting.

ASP Support for Specialized Development Services
Generis Corp. is a specialist provider of software and services for content management systems based on the Documentum platform. The firm offers a variety of document management value-adds to their clients, including: new user interfaces, configuration utilities and tools for batch import, migration, annotation and PDF document security, watermarking and publishing. Notably, Generis' clients have specialized document requirements, and include many of the most advanced pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms in the world.

For businesses like pharmaceutical firms, document management attains the status of a mission-critical application. The process of bringing a new drug to market is long, complex and hideously expensive. The ability to document every step in this process rigorously is essential, not only for winning regulatory approval of the product, but also for protecting the firm from the predatory attacks that too often follow the widespread adoption of a new pharmaceutical.

To offer full technical and timely support to these firms, many of which have multi-national locales, Generis maintains offices in the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Switzerland and New Jersey. This put Generis is the position of also being a multi-national firm, facing its own cross-language and mutli-timezone challenges. So, a major challenge for Generis was to find a way to successfully manage communications between its own international development teams, as well as between its teams and its end users (who also had worldwide operations).

Iterative Support Functions:
Bug Tracking and Customer Service

Generis' customers wanted high-value, customized solutions. This kind of customization requires multiple fittings to guarantee a perfect fit. It also demands continuous and efficient communication between user and provider, so the ability to manage and accelerate day-to-day communications and customer service processes becomes a key advantage.

Two years ago, as part of an initiative to strengthen its competitive edge in this arena, Generis turned to our ASP, Elementools, for help in two areas: bug tracking and customer service. While not traditionally related, these two fit together very tightly given Generis' model for customer engagement, (which looks to support collaborative development with multi-national firms).

Elementool Help Desk provided Generis with end-to-end management for customer service activities conducted across the client company web site. Elementool Bug Tracking let Generis track and manage all activities and communications associated with the testing and debugging process - both between Generis and its customer, as well as among Generis' internal development teams.

ASP Upsides: Installation, User Adoption
and Capital-Free Productivity Gains

For Generis and the firms' customers, the ASP approach created little disruption for either side. Generis CEO James Kelleher said it was "a no-brainer." Users only needed a browser and an Internet connection to install and use both Elementools apps. There was no capital outlay for software, as the service was billed on a monthly basis, preserving capital for both firms.

Also importantly, there were no lengthy development and installation lags, and no need for investments in new equipment, software licenses or monthly maintenance fees. Given the simple but effective online tutorials that Elementool provided, Generis developers were able to put their new tools to work in a matter of minutes.

Within weeks, the adoption of the two ASP products had produced major, enterprise-wide gains in customer responsiveness for Generis. CEO Kelleher estimates that implementation of the two Elementool applications has produced an overall productivity increase of about 40% in his firm's customer response operations, simply by improving communication and operational management within the firm's geographically spread development teams and throughout its interactions with clients.

In addition to the measurable against in efficiency, Kelleher points to an intangible benefit of great importance - the improved perception of his company's effectiveness in dealing with customer issues, which increases customer satisfaction and is often a factor in future purchases from existing customers.

Inside ASP's Value - Business and IT Goals
The key to creating value in the ASP environment is not to create one's own technology, but to find innovative ways to harness standard internet technologies to user needs.

Similarly, the great value of the ASP's applications lies not in exotic new technology, but in the innovative ways that standard technology has been put to work. A couple of examples from our experience:

  • Constant, manageable contact - Working with Generis, we enabled an "E-mail Fetcher" feature, which gathers customer e-mail from the Generis customer support mail server, stores it in the appropriate company account on secure Elementool servers, and notifies the appropriate Generis user that mail is waiting.

  • Easy Tracking Capabilities - We also enabled a "knowledge base" feature from within the Elementool's ASP customer service application, which allows companies to provide full search capabilities and FAQ materials to end customers on their website. Both the E-mail Fetcher and knowledge base features are completely transparent to Generis customers, who see only the Generis company web site.

    Inside ASP's Value - Architects/Developers
    These simple examples illustrate a couple of key career theme for architects and developers.

    1. First, IT professionals should stay current on key enterprise-facing Internet technologies such as XML, .Net, and Web Services). No matter how well they think they may understand them in the context of enterprise systems, a knowledge of the underlying principals opens up devs and architects to using a combination of in-house, extranet and ASP services. In Elementools' case, for example, The low cost of our applications arises from the providers' use of standard internet technology, (including Mircosoft's Visual Basic, .NET tools, standard SQL databases, and standard hardware.)

    2. Second, systems integration skills will remain a critical ingredient for success. The real challenge in leveraging XML, for instance, does not lie in creating XML capabilities within a new application. The critical feat is to teach other systems how to read the application's XML outputs. [Elementools recently completed migrated to .NET, which has resulted in customer web pages displayed up to 10 times faster than before. Further, new XML capabilities (enabled through .NET) allow applications like Bug Tracking to feed employee time reports directly to user billing systems.]

    3. Developers and architects in any programming environment can leverage basic ASP communications and project management tools on a project-basis to minimize administrative overhead, maximize productivity and improve client satisfaction. Generis found that putting their in-house technical staff on the same page as outsources (or customers) fueled a 40% increase in productivity.

    Yaron Sinai is CEO of Elementool, a leading international provider of web-based management tools for customer service, bug/defect tracking, and time tracking applications.