Pre-relational era

Stories about products and companies that didn’t assume the ubiquity of relational database management systems.

February 17, 2012

Enterprise application software, past and present

I recently wrote a long post on the premise that enterprise analytic applications are not like the other (operational) kind. That begs the question(s): What are operational enterprise applications like?

Historically, the essence of enterprise applications has been data management — they capture business information, then show it to you. User interfaces are typically straightforward in the UI technology of the era — forms, reports, menus, and the like. The hard part of building enterprise applications is getting the data structures right. That was all true in the 1970s; it’s all still true today.

Indeed, for many years, the essence of an application software acquisition was the database design. Maintenance streams were often unimportant; code would get thrown out and rewritten. But the application’s specific database structure would be adapted into an extension to the acquirer’s own.

Examples that come to mind from the pre-relational era include: Read more

February 12, 2011

Sterling Commerce predecessor company Management Horizons Data Systems (MHDS)

I started drafting this post along with others around the time of my parents’ deaths, then put it aside. However, I have been informed that my father’s old colleague Alton Doody has cancer himself, and if we are ever to get his input, it would be best to solicit it REALLY SOON. :( So I’m finishing this up now as best I can.

Here’s the part I know from my own memories as

My father moved to the Columbus area in 1973 to join Management Horizons, a consulting firm serving retailers. Management Horizons had its own spin-out already, a time-sharing company called Management Horizons Data Services (MHDS), with which it still shared a building on what is now Old Henderson Road in Upper Arlington. And, this being a world full of coincidences, MHDS is very on-topic for the primary focus of this blog (software industry history).

MHDS’ main business was a full suite of what we might now call ERP for distributors and/or retailers. That never amounted to much. But its secondary business was an electronic interchange for direct placement of orders, called Ordernet. Ordernet turned into Sterling Commerce, a > $1/2 billion company that has been acquired for >$1 billion more than once.

The chain of events, roughly, is:  Read more

May 27, 2008

Wikipedia on Cullinet and my comments on same

Wikipedia’s current article on Cullinet is long, detail-laden, and slanted. The difficulties are not of the sort to be fixed with my usual pinpoint Wikipedia edits. So I’ll just reproduce it here, commenting as I go. As for copyright — this particular post is as GPLed as it needs to be to comply with Wikipedia’s copyleft rules. All other rights remain reserved.

The company was originally started by John Cullinane and Larry English in 1968 as Cullinane Corporation. Their idea was to sell pre-packaged software to mainframe users, which was at that time a new concept in an era when enterprises only used internally developed applications or the software that came bundled with the hardware.

Actually, Applied Data Research got there first. Read more

December 8, 2007

Software AG memories

Software AG was the first important non-US software company,* selling the ADABAS DBMS and associated tools. These included the fourth-generation language Natural, the transaction processing monitor Complete (in those days DBMS were sold with their own associated TP monitors), and a whole lot of modules named Adathis and Adathat. (These product names were widely regarded as being a bit silly, to the point that the company joined in the mirth and passed out Complete Natural Adamugs.)

*SAP was founded around the same time, but didn’t become particularly influential until later on.

Actually, there were two important Software AGs – the parent company in Darmstadt, Germany, and the North American distributor Software AG of North America. SAGNA, in Reston, Virginia, was run by John Maguire, of whom many stories are told. It is said that he once pulled over to help a man change a flat tire on his car and wound up selling him a copy of ADABAS. It is said that he used to stroll by Cullinane booths at trade shows and pronounce “I’m John Norris Maguire, and I’m going to bury you.” And while I can’t exactly confirm these stories – I knew the guy, and I find them all to be eminently plausible. (Sadly, John died young, not long after selling SAGNA back to the Darmstadt company and buying himself a 44-foot powerboat.) (Edit: Happily, that part turns out to be wrong!)

ADABAS was an excellent product – one of the three major inverted-list DBMS, the other two being Computer Corporation of America’s Model 204 and ADR’s Datacom/DB. Natural was also one of the top 4GLs. At the time I judged that ADR’s Datacom/IDEAL combo had slightly surpassed ADABAS/Natural. 20-some-odd years later, ADABAS seems to have the significantly more vibrant of the two product suites’ surviving customer bases, but I think that has much more to do with the products’ subsequent owners than with their technical or market situations back in 1983.

As was the case for most of the early software vendors, some major talent passed through Software AG. Richard Currier may now claim a lot more credit for a book project he wrote a chapter for than he actually deserves, but he’s also one of the great marketing minds from the early part of the software industry. (He also ignited my passion for software industry anecdotes and industry, and hence may be regarded as a kind of absentee grandfather of this blog.) Bob Preger went from being the second salesman at Software AG to being the first at Oracle.

I visited Darmstadt once, and met honchos Peter Schnell (founder and ADABAS designer) and Peter Page (Natural designer). It was soon after they’d moved into a new building, and Peter Schnell was very proud of the hexagon-based oak desks he’d personally designed for programmers to work at. I came away thinking this was an example of Edifice Complex, not to mention micromanagement, and in retrospect I seem to have been right.

After DB2 blew the other mainframe DBMS out of the water, things got choppy for Software AG. SAGNA was bought by Darmstadt, then spun out and taken public again, then bought again. The company came out with ADABAS-D and Tamino, neither of which was a great success. Even so, it’s still alive, kicking, and even growing, something which can be said for very few of the other leading software firms of its day. Indeed, I just posted a long Software AG update over on DBMS 2, my blog about current-day DBMS and related technologies.

July 30, 2007

Setting the record straight

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:

February 13, 2006

Prerelational financial app software vendors 1 — a quick overview

MSA (Management Science America). This section got so long I’m breaking it out as a separate post just about MSA.

M & D (McCormack & Dodge). M & D was MSA’s archrival in mainframe financial software. They had various claims to product superiority, based on having “more CPAs on staff” than MSA and also on being first to market with realtime applications. However, M  & D sold out early to Dun & Bradstreet, and lost its edge as key managers left.

M & D seems to have been a lively company. Many stories about drugs or sex emerged (I don’t actually recall any drugs-and-sex-combined stories, for whatever reasons). Key players included: Frank Dodge, a former schoolteacher who founded another not terribly successful apps company (The Dodge Group) afterwards; Jim McCormack, who happily retired from software into real estate, but sadly died a few years later; development chief John Landry, who’s been a prominent industry figure ever since, and sales/marketing chief Bob Weiler, ditto. Landry and Weiler went together to Distribution Management Systems, Cullinet (after it bought DMS), and Lotus, before going their separate ways.

M & D’s venture into manufacturing applications seemed later and more half-hearted than Comserv’s or Cullinet’s. But they eventually did wind up with a version of (and may even have bought control of) the Rath & Strong technology.

Cullinet. Cullinet was better known as a DBMS vendor. But in a precursor of what became the Oracle strategy, it pursued financial and manufacturing applications as well. The financial applications were originally licensed from M & D. The manufacturing apps were originally licensed from Rath & Strong, as were M & D’s.

One negative consequence was that the industry teamed up against Cullinet. For example, ADR in DBMS and MSA in apps formed a close marketing relationship. To general industry agreement at the time, I dubbed this the ABC (Anybody But Cullinet) strategy.

Cincom. DBMS vendor Cincom pursued a Cullinet-like apps strategy. Not many people cared.

J. D. Edwards. If I recall correctly, JDE’s main platform was the IBM System 38, the predecessor to the AS/400. Anyhow, JDE was a Denver-based financial software company. Its main claim to fame, other than the platform that it ran on, was a superb order entry system. Rob Kelley, referring to his days at Arthur Andersen, once told me that Andersen’s order entry system had had 45,000 lines of code, JDE’s had had 5,000 lines, and JDE’s had been better.

SAP. I’ve already written up what I recall about SAP in the 1980s.

This initial list leaves a lot of companies out, of course. Other than the MRP companies — ASK, NCA, XCS, and so on — the biggest omission may be Walker Interactive. But also missing are Global Software, Data Design, a whole lot of human resources specialists and so on.

Also missing are other vertical market groups, most notably in banking software, which is where general ledger products (the first major financial application) first succeeded in a big way.

I hope to get around to writing about these subjects before too long.

February 13, 2006

MSA memories — the basics

When I became a software analyst in 1981, MSA (Management Science America) was generally regarded as the leading cross-industry financial software vendor. Its CEO was the colorful John Imlay, best known for a variety of showman stunts, such as bringing animals to sales meetings. (He also was known as “the man who killed the keypunch” from his hardware days, when he took a sledgehammer on stage to a keypunch machine in a presentation introducing key-to-disk technology.) The president was Bill Graves, the most agile 300 poundish guy I’ve ever seen off of a football field, and still the only person at whose house I’ve held hands during the saying of Grace.

MSA software ran only on IBM mainframes. There were a limited number of modules. I specifically recall an ad campaign for the “Big Eight,” because they had eight modules, and the “Big Eight” were the public accounting firms in those days. The eight included payroll, human resources, and six financial modules, which were general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, purchasing, fixed assets, and probably inventory. That’s all, versus the hundreds of modules successor companies have today.

MSA obviously modeled its “persona” on IBM. Indeed, the MSA logo consisted of the three letters in a font that consisted of thin parallel horizontal lines, exactly like IBM’s of that day did. Another major slogan was “People are the key,” with little key lapel pins given to five- and ten-year employees. Read more

December 11, 2005

SAP Memories

Until the past couple of years, I didn’t have a lot of dealings with SAP. (That has now changed significantly.) But it seems that the things I do recall aren’t that widely known anymore.

I first heard of SAP in the 1980s. It was a smaller company than the then-leading mainframe application software vendors. Peter Zencke told me earlier this week that when he joined in 1983, the company had around 100 employees. From memory about MSA’s figures, I’d guess SAP’s revenue was somewhere in the $150-250,000 per employee range. Also from memory, I’d guess that MSA and M&D (McCormack & Dodge) were meaningfully bigger than SAP at that time. I also think that SAP combined financial and manufacturing applications earlier than the other mainframe vendors did, and hence probably got more revenue per client from a small number of clients. (MSA didn’t get into manufacturing apps until they bought Comserv, which if I recall correctly never broke the $20 million revenue mark on its own.)

SAP was almost unique among significant software vendors in being based outside the US, Software AG being the other obvious big example. There was no Business Objects then, of course. I don’t think that any of the UK companies that eventually made a modest impact — MicroFocus, LBMS, and much more recently Autonomy — were even active then. So it was pretty much off of people’s radar screens …

Indeed, at one point in the early 1990s I wrote to the effect of “Hey! There really are some important European software companies!” And spurred by that, my clients at Fidelity Investments invested in SAP. Too bad they were perennially stingy about compensation for good investment ideas …

Anyhow, the word on SAP from its competitors was that in the US at least, SAP focused tremendous sales effort on a small number of prospects, and in those accounts they were very hard to beat. These accounts seemed to be centered on the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, presumably because those industries were particularly strong in SAP’s home German market. Not coincidentally, SAP’s US operations were headquartered in Pennsylvania, near the New Jersey stronghold of those industries in the US. It’s natural to conjecture that SAP had superior functionality for process manufacturing industries, something that was pretty primitive in those days, but I don’t recall any direct mentions of this.

I learned more in the early 1990s when Jeremy Coote called up and introduced himself. He was the CFO of SAP’s US operations (he later went on to a big job at Siebel). It turned out that SAP had some contractual reason only to invest limited resources in the US. But that would change soon; one of the directors was coming over to run things in the US personally; and so on. Obviously, they lived up to that much more than I could possibly have envisioned at the time.

The story of how SAP’s rise dovetailed with the growth of the public accounting firms’ consulting practices is better known; I’ll leave the telling of that to another time.

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