Historical notes on computer giant IBM’s efforts in software. Related subjects include:
- Database management systems
- (in DBMS2) Present-day IBM in the database, middleware, and analytic technology markets
- (in The Monash Report) Operational and strategic issues for IBM
- (in Text Technologies) IBM in the text analytics market
These days, when one thinks of corporate culture in the tech industry, what comes to mind are probably:
- Internet juggernauts — Google, Facebook and their younger siblings.
- The cheapskates at Amazon.
Most of that is at the internet companies, although there are exceptions — any kind of companies can have ping-pong tables, beanbag chairs, and a bunch of dogs* running around the office.
*I mean literal pooches, not bad products. WibiData used to even post headshots of the dogs on their employee page.
But there was a time, before the internet era, when similar things could be said of enterprise IT companies. The biggest fuss about culture was perhaps made among the more buttoned-down crowd, including IBM (most famously), MSA (the example that made me think of this subject), and EDS (who commissioned a Ken Follett book about themselves). They are all I have space for in this post. But there were also the beginnings of recognizable Silicon Valley start-up culture, and I hope to discuss that in the future.
The dignity crowd
I still chuckle when I see an IBMer in a company-issued polo shirt, because there was a time when IBM had a strict dress code of conservative suits and ties. Along with that went never drinking alcohol in a customer setting, in an era when boozy business meals were the norm. The point of all these rules, I think, was twofold. First, IBM wanted to be seen as a trusted, dignified adviser to customer organizations. Second, IBM generally wanted some kind of rules so that the behemoth corporation would be a team.
And IBM was more than a collection of people; it was an organization. Employees with 20+ year service might average one city-to-city move per year. (Hence the joke that IBM stood for I’ve Been Moved.) But whoever was involved with your account — if your systems stopped working, IBM would do whatever it took to get you back running fast. And a large fraction of IBM’s sales effort was spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) as to whether rival vendors would care for customers equally well.
EDS (Electronic Data Systems, founded by Ross Perot) fancied itself as a cross between IBM and the US military. Even computer operators had to be clean-shaven and wear jacket and tie. A large fraction of hires were military veterans,* and an extreme “Do it now! No excuses for failure will be accepted!” ethos flowed through the company. Read more
As part of my series on the keys to and likelihood of success, I’d like to consider some historical examples in various categories of data management.
A number of independent mainframe-based pre-relational DBMS vendors “crossed the chasm”, but none achieved anything resembling market dominance; that was reserved for IBM. Success when they competed against each other seemed to depend mainly on product merits and the skills of individual sales people or regional sales managers.
IBM killed that business by introducing DB2, a good product with very good strategic marketing from a still-dominant vendor. By “very good strategic marketing” I mean that IBM both truly invented and successfully market-defined the relational DBMS concept, including such conceptual compromises as:
- Ted Codd’s 12 rules, not that anybody — even IBM — actually followed them all.
- SQL as the standard, rather than the probably superior QUEL.
In the minicomputer world, however, hardware vendors lacked such power, and independent DBMS vendors thrived. Indeed, Oracle and Ingres rode to success on the back of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and other minicomputer vendors, including the payments they got to port their products to various platforms.* The big competitive battle was Oracle vs. Ingres, about which I can say for starters: Read more
The commercial computing, software and services industries have existed for half a century or so each. It might be interesting to review how their pricing and delivery models have evolved over time.
1960s and 1970s
Modern IT is commonly dated from the introduction of the IBM 360 mainframe in 1964-5. But even before then, there was a growing industry in what we’d now call outsourced services, specifically in payroll processing; major players included Automatic Data Processing (ADP), the company that gave us Senator Frank Lautenberg, and a variety of banks. This was (and to this day remains) a comprehensive service, priced by unit of work (e.g., number of payroll checks cut).
IBM mainframes, which quickly came to dominate the market, were in the 1960s and 70s commonly rented. IBM software that ran on them was hence typically priced on a rental/subscription basis as well. The independent packaged software companies, however, often preferred to get paid up front,* and hence sold perpetual licenses to their software. Annual maintenance fees for the licensed software started in the range of 10% of the perpetual license or even less, but migrated up to today’s 20-22% range.
|Categories: Analytics, Application software, ASK Computer Systems, Computer Associates, Computer services, Cullinet, EDS, IBM, MSA, Oracle||6 Comments|
Recently I expressed doubts about Actian’s DBMS-conglomerate growth strategy. For context, perhaps I should review other DBMS vendors’ acquisition strategies in the past. Some — quite a few — worked out well; others — including many too minor to list — did not.
In the pre-relational days, it was common practice to buy products that hadn’t succeeded yet, and grow with them. Often these were programs written at enterprises, rather than third-party packages. Most of Cullinet’s product line, including its flagship DBMS IDMS, was came into the company that way. ADR, if memory serves, acquired the tiny vendor who created DATACOM/DB.
Then things slowed down. A Canadian insurance company oddly bought Computer Corporation of America, to utter non-success. (At least I got an investment banking finder’s fee on the deal.) Computer Associates, which did brilliantly in acquiring computer operations software, had a much rockier time with DBMS. It acquired Cullinet, Applied Data Research, and ASK/Ingres — among others — and didn’t have much growth or other joy with any of them.
Indeed, Ingres has been acquired three times, and hasn’t accomplished much for any of the acquirers (ASK, Computer Associates, Actian).
I used to think that Oracle’s acquisition of RDB provided key pieces of what became Oracle’s own extensibility technology. Andy Mendelsohn, however, disputed this vehemently — at least by his standards of vehemence — and his sources are better than mine. Rather, I now believe as I wrote in 2011:
… while Oracle’s track record with standalone DBMS acquisitions is admirable (DEC RDB, MySQL, etc.), Oracle’s track record of integrating DBMS acquisitions into the Oracle product itself is not so good. (Express? Essbase? The text product line? None of that has gone particularly well.)
Experiences were similar for some other relational DBMS pioneers. Read more
|Categories: Applied Data Research, ASK Computer Systems, Computer Associates, Cullinet, Database management systems, IBM, Informix, Ingres, Microsoft, Oracle, Sybase, Teradata||1 Comment|
I meant to put up a longer post some months back, reproducing some of the 25th anniversary DB2 history IBM provided, courtesy of Jeff Jones and his team. Seems I didn’t get around to it. Maybe later.
Computerworld got software industry history a bit wrong by implying that John Cullinane innovated packaged software (specifically, they said “packaged application”). Here’s what really happened, as I learned soon after becoming an analyst in the early 1980s:
- Most early packaged software companies were hybrids, offering both packaged products and professional services (including services unrelated to the packaged products).
- Applied Data Research, led by Martin “Marty” Goetz, is the clear innovator in third-party packaged software. Not only is ADR’s Autoflow the generally acknowledged first packaged software product from an independent company (“independent” as opposed to, say, IBM), but ADR was a leader in legal and political anti-trust action to gain market space to sell against IBM.
- If you use the term “application” narrowly — so that anything whose main function was to help manage IT shops and activities is “system software” rather than “application” — there’s no way Cullinane was an early leader. Think instead of American Software, MSA, McCormack & Dodge, or several specialists in regulated verticals such as banking and insurance. But if you use the term “application” loosely, ADR gets priority as noted above.
- The credit Cullinane usually gets for leading the way in software company success (e.g., first IPO of a product company) is absolutely justified.
|Categories: Application software, Applied Data Research, Cullinet, IBM, McCormack & Dodge, MSA, Pre-relational era, System software||6 Comments|
IBM. With BOMP and D-BOMP, IBM was probably the first company to commercialize precursors to DBMS. (BOMP stood for Bill Of Materials Planning, foreshadowing the hierarchical architecture of IMS.) Out of those grew DL/1 and IMS, IBM’s flagship hierarchical DBMS, and the world’s first dominant DBMS product(s). Of course, IBM also innovated relational DBMS, via the research of E. F. “Ted” Codd, then some prototype products, and eventual the mainframe version of DB2. To this day DB2 on the mainframe remains one of the world’s major DBMS, as does the separate but related product of DB2 for “open systems.”
Cincom. In the 1970s, Cincom was probably the most successful independent software product company. Its flagship product was Total, a shallow-network DBMS that was a little more general than the strictly hierarchical IMS. What’s more, Total ran on almost any brand of computer hardware. Cincom remains independent and privately held to this day.
Cullinane/Cullinet. Charlie Bachman innovated a true network DBMS at Honeywell, but it didn’t turn into a serious product at that time. B. F. Goodrich, however, ran a version. This is what John Cullinane’s company bought and turned into IDMS, which at least on the mainframe supplanted Total as the technical, mind share, and probably revenue market leader. Cullinet (as it was then called) ran into technical difficulties, however, losing ground to the more flexible index-based DBMS. It was eventually sold to Computer Associates.
A lot of software industry leaders cut their teeth at Cullinet, notably Andrew “Flip” Filipowski, later the colorful founder of Platinum. Other alumni include Renato “Ron” Zambonini, Dave Litwack, Dave Ireland, and the original PowerBuilder development team. John Landry and Bob Weiler ran the firm for a while toward the end, but they don’t really count; rather, they’re the most prominent alumni of applications pioneer McCormack & Dodge.
Note: Index-based is a term I used in and probably coined for my first report in 1982, comprising both inverted-list and relational RDBMS, as opposed to the link(ed)-list hierarchical and network products such as IMS, Total, and IDBMS. The companies that beat Cullinet were long-time rival Software AG, and then especially Applied Data Research; then all three of those independents were blown out by IBM’s DB2. And then the whole mainframe DBMS business was in turn obsoleted by the rise of UNIX … but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Software AG. Like Cincom, Germany-based Software AG is a 1970s DBMS pioneer that has always remained independent and privately held. Sort of. Twice, Software AG of North America was spun off as a separate, eventually public company. Software AG’s flagship DBMS was the inverted list product ADABAS. SAP’s MaxDB was also owned by Software AG for a while (and seemingly by every other significant German computer company as well – or more precisely, by Nixdorf where it was developed, and by Siemens after it bought Nixdorf).
I actually visited Software AG in Darmstadt once. Founder Peter Schnell and key techie Peter Page were both gracious hosts. Schnell was proud of their new building, and especially of the hexagon-based wooden dual desks he’d personally designed. General analytic rule – when the CEO is focused on the décor, this is not a good sign for the company’s near-term prospects. (I call this having an “edifice complex.”)
Applied Data Research (ADR). ADR is often credited as being the first independent software company, having introduced products in the late 1960s and prevailed in antitrust struggles against IBM to allow the business to survive. Basically, it sold programmer productivity tools. This led it to acquire Datacom/DB, an inverted-list DBMS developed in the Dallas area. In the early 1980s, Datacom/DB began to boom, and was on a track to surpass both IDMS and ADABAS in market share until DB2 showed up and blew them all away. ADR was particularly aided by its fourth-generation language (4GL) IDEAL, which was an excellent product notwithstanding the famous State of New Jersey fiasco. (As John Landry said to me about that one, “4GLs are powerful tools. In particular, they allow you to write bad programs really quickly.”)
ADR was an underappreciated powerhouse, boasting all of the Fortune 100 as customers way back in the early 1980s (yes, even archrival IBM). When the DBMS business stalled, however, ADR was quickly sold — first to Ameritech (the Illinois-based Baby Bell company), and soon thereafter to Computer Associates.
Computer Corporation of America (CCA). CCA’s DBMS Model 204 may have been the best of the prerelational products, boasting an inverted-list architecture akin to that of ADABAS and Datacom/DB. The company was also interesting in that it was first and foremost a government contract research shop, and hence did all sorts of interesting prototype work that sadly never got commercialized. In about 1983 it became that the company wasn’t going anywhere, and it put itself up for sale.
I was personally instrumental in that decision. Our investment banker pretended he was considering taking CCA public. CCA President Jim Rothnie showed us revenue projections. I asked how he had gotten them. He replied that he had taken the market size projection 5 years out, assumed 10%, and drawn a “plausible curve.” However, I quickly got Socratic with him. “How many salesmen do you have?” “How much revenue does the average experienced salesman produce?” “How many experienced salesmen do you expect to have next year?” “How high do you think their average productivity can grow?” “Let us multiply.” (Yes, I really said that. I can be a jerk. And anyway Jim was the sort of analytic guy one can say that to without giving serious offense.)
CCA was sold to a Canadian insurance company whose name I’ve now forgotten. Eventually, it was spun back out (perhaps after some intermediate changes of ownership), and resurfaced as primarily a data integration company, called Praxis.
In the real old days (mid 1970s, perhaps), Model 204 was resold by Informatics (later Informatics General, later the hostile takeover that became the guts of Sterling Software, which like so many other companies was eventually absorbed into Computer Associates). I know this because Richard Currier used to sell the product when he worked at Informatics. That probably makes Richard and me about the only two people who still remember the fact.
Hmm. I forgot to mention Intel’s System 2000. Well, truth be told it was a dying product even back when I first became an analyst in 1981, and I recall nothing about it, except Gene Lowenthal’s observation that Intel had had trouble selling chips and DBMS through the same salesforce. I think Al Sisto, who I probably met when he was head of sales at RTI (Relational Technology, Inc. — later called Ingres), came out of that business, but I’m not 100% sure. I remember Pete Tierney from that RTI management team more clearly anyway, although that’s mainly because we stayed in touch at subsequent companies over the years.
|Categories: Applied Data Research, Computer Associates, Cullinet, Database management systems, IBM, Ingres, McCormack & Dodge, Oracle, Software AG, System software||1 Comment|
The news about Ingres being spun off by Computer Associates brings back a lot of memories. First of all, Ingres (then called Relational Technology Inc.) was one of the centerpieces of my first-ever research trip to the West Coast in April, 1982. Second, the day CA’s acquisition of Ingres closed, Charles Wang (CA’s CEO, of course), called me personally and asked me to consult to CA about their forthcoming product strategy. It was an intense, month-long project, perhaps still the single largest one I’ve ever done.
So with no further ado, here some observations of and about Ingres through the years.
- Ingres was of course the first of several DBMS companies spun off from UC Berkeley’s INGRES research project, and one of several started with Mike Stonebraker’s involvement. I wrote about that history briefly in my now-defunct Computerworld blog.
- Ingres (then called RTI) and Oracle (then called RSI, for Relational Software Inc.) were of course arch-rivals. As a general rule, Ingres was first to market with new features such as a 4GL or a truly distributed DBMS. Oracle, however, was the first to market with the features customers most cared about, at a level of completeness they found acceptable. Eventually, when Sybase was a factor too, Ingres was always betwixt and between — everybody’s second choice, but not the first choice of enough buyers to keep on prospering. (Later on in the 1990s, Gupta took over the Ingres role in the low-end market — the product was broader than Powersoft, but who cared?)
- Ingres was eventually merged into ASK Computer Systems. While surely a distraction, that’s not what killed it. Each predecessor company had its own problems, and they pretty much stayed out of each other’s way, at least in product strategy. What killed them is that neither side of the business managed to stay fully competitive in product.
- Ingres’s fatal technological mistake was whiffing on parallelism. And it did so in the most painful of ways. Ingres had a joint development project going in the Portland, OR area with Sequent, to develop a parallelized version of their DBMS. They pulled out due to expense, and Informix stepped in. And that’s how Informix managed to be competitive with Oracle in parallel processing, while lack of competitiveness in that area is what doomed Sybase and Ingres. Ouch!!!
- A second Ingres failing probably wasn’t as big as I thought at the time. This was an inability to offer abstract datatypes, aka object/relational, aka UDBMS (where the “U” is for “universal”). I thought this feature would be hugely important, and my opinion on that score probably was a big part of influencing Informix to overpay for Illustra. But Microsoft has never had the feature, and it doesn’t seem to have suffered all that much in the marketplace for its lack.
- ASK was doing even worse on the product side than Ingres — it never came out with a decent GUI version of the product, although ASK did get a license to resell Baan’s code — and the whole sorry mess was eventually sold to CA. CA has a well-deserved reputation for slashing development costs and profiting from slowly-dying software products. But I watched this acqusition from the inside, and to this day I think they really wanted to make the product competitive. But there was one not-so-little problem …
- … CA ran off all of Ingres’s engineers right after the acquisition. CA’s policy upon acquiring companies was requiring employees who wanted to keep their jobs to sign non-compete agreements. In Ingres’s case, however, that policy was a spectacular failure. Oracle, Informix, Sybase, and much of IBM’s DBMS development were all located in the Bay Area. Finding another local job for these guys (and gals) was EASY. Competitors went into a feeding frenzy hiring Ingres engineers, and there was essentially NOBODY left. In my judgment there was a reasonable chance CA could revitalize development with an aggressive investment strategy, but they ultimately blinked. And with very limited ongoing development, the product obviously faded quickly as a mainstream competitor.
I think I’ll go write about the rest of the story over in the DBMS 2 blog.