Coping with Increased Development Cycles | Article

ASPs Assume Your Upgrading Headaches

globeIn the world of packaged software, upgrades usually happen about once a year, sometimes less, and those upgrades are usually pretty extensive. But in the world of an application service provider (ASP), one of the benefits of offering a centrally located application is the ability to upgrade more frequently. And because upgrades can be performed without disturbing a user’s systems, they can be done on a more direct, incremental basis.

Some users are uncomfortable with increased development cycles, however. They fear that the more frequent upgrades will cause more confusion and headaches than a traditional software upgrade. Not for New York City-based project management and consulting services company, Martin Progressive. An outsourced professional services automation (PSA) tool that upgraded frequently turned out to be beneficial for this company.

“We knew we wanted an ASP that had the flexibility and willingness to work their product offering into our existing business processes,” says Vinod Paul, a product manager for Martin Progressive. Boston, Mass.-based OpenAir, Inc., met those requirements.

Martin Progressive needed a set of reports that would fit within its existing business processes and give it access to more information than it would otherwise be able to gather without making a large investment in time and money. Although OpenAir didn’t meet all of Martin Progressive’s initial requirements, OpenAir agreed to build that functionality into the existing product because it benefited both Martin Progressive and other, similar customers.

“We spend all our time listening to our customers. Then each of our developers tries to solve one problem at a time by tackling it in bite size pieces each month,” says OpenAir’s CEO, Morris Panner. OpenAir was able to design the required reporting period over a shorter period of time than would have been possible if the company were using packaged software releases. And the ASP was able to do it for less than it would have cost the company to design the reporting software on its own. OpenAir developed the reporting tools that Martin Progressive needed by releasing the functionality in increments.

Advantages Over Off-the-Shelf Software

“When we make changes or additions to our applications,” says Cary Fulbright, vice-president of product development for customer relationship management (CRM) application provider, salesforce.com, Inc., “they have to be something that would be useful to more than just one client. We try to make sure that something we’re doing is universally better for all of our customers.”

San Francisco, California-based salesforce.com releases new versions of its application on a three month cycle. Because of the feedback that salesforce.com gets from clients, the new additions in each release cycle are usually better than what a company could expect from a new release of an off-the-shelf software package, Fulbright maintains.

When the ASP releases a new version, the upgrade is usually seamless to the users. “We usually implement upgrades on Friday nights. We start with Asia, then go to Europe, and then roll to the US. So we have three upgrades as opposed to having to do hundreds or even thousands of system upgrades,” Fulbright explains. That saves both time and money, and users don’t have to worry with the hassle of an upgrade. It’s all on the application provider’s shoulders.

OpenAir’s Panner adds that because an ASP can upgrade its applications more frequently, it works from a “collective best practices.” Developers know what has worked or not worked in the past, and that knowledge keeps them from making the same mistakes that you might see in a software upgrade that is usually quickly followed by patches to fix small problems that no one anticipated.

Close Focus on Business Processes a Must

Martin Progressive’s Paul will tell you, however, that having increased developmental cycles is not a bed of roses. “I really want to stress that the reason these increased development cycles work so well for us is because our project management is very focused on our business processes. OpenAir offers products that work with those business processes, and we work closely with OpenAir to be sure they understand our needs.”

In an effort to combat the problem of unwanted or unnecessary features, salesforce.com actually allows users to turn off features they don’t use or don’t like. “In some cases, we may also add a new way of doing something and keep the old way,” says Fulbright. For example, the company added statistical forecasting but also kept precision forecasting, because different companies have different forecasting requirements depending on the size of the company and the number of clients they have in the sales cycle at any given time.

The Need to Stage New Releases

The big problem that Reed warns about is that some ASPs don’t include a vital step in their increased development cycle—staging. Staging is the processes during which an application provider tests its new releases in real-world conditions before releasing those changes to customers. “All companies should do staging, but some don’t,” he says. And when staging isn’t a part of the increased development cycle, users can potentially feel a lot of pain with each new release or upgrade.

Increased development cycles are really a big benefit of outsourcing applications, according to Ron Reed, vice president of marketing for Fullscope Inc., an Ann Arbor, Michigan collaboration and communications application provider. “It narrows the time and complexity of the development cycle.” And in the end, the user is benefited by reduced costs and less headaches.

Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer:

  • The increased development cycles that accompany most outsourced applications mean fewer headaches for the application user when it’s time to upgrade or tweak an application.
  • Find an outsourcer that fits with your existing business processes and is capable of growing and changing as your business processes do.
  • Ask about the number of versions of an application that are available and what recourse you have if a new feature or change is useless or difficult to use.
  • When an organization changes, and ASP can respond faster.

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