Are you staying Rational?

We experience IBM's new message for developers

Photo of the Rational Software Development ConferenceI have to confess that I was feeling a little jaded when I got my invitation to attend the 10th anniversary IBM Rational Software Development Conference (June 10th - 14th in Orlando) - this being the fourth year in a row that I’ve covered it. Let me explain.

The previous years’ ‘taglines’ safely hovered around the same old themes: software runs the world, better software equals better business, software in concert etc… OK fine, we get the whole ‘business and technology need to work in parallel and get integrated’ routine by now. So, feeling sceptical, I turned up to see whether I’d be fed a platter of broad-brush marketing announcements or whether IBM really could “keep me Rational”.

The opening morning’s keynote kicked off much in the style of the last four years with loud music, bright lights and smoke. I suppose I’d have been disappointed not to see them.

Picture of Danny Sabbah, general manager for IBM Rational Software.Danny Sabbah (seen right), general manager for IBM Rational Software, set out to deliver what he described as a thought provoking look at the latest trends and the hard facts impacting the business process of software delivery today. Sabbah wanted to drill into how we measure success in a Web 2.0 world with distributed teams and functions; and then look at collaboration in a broader community delivering business innovation through software. Luckily, however, he soon got down to some details.

Sabbah noted that recently there’s been a lack of architectural governance in many software projects. This means that distributed systems, suffering from a lack of documented history, have often been thrown together haphazardly. We’ve all had to develop so-called ‘software archaeology’ skills - not a productive scenario by any means.

Rational’s vision, we’re told, is now driven by the need to deliver business value at every level of the software supply chain – focussed on higher customer value, of course.

Vision without execution is hallucination

“Leveraging community effects from Open Source, to Metcalfe’s Law and social networking should be what we are all about with today’s Rational,” Sabbah proclaimed. He underlined the importance of governance in the software and systems delivery process, and achievable goals. [More motherhood and apple pie so far, then – Ed.] Sabbah’s favourite mantra is “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Splash screen for IBM Jazz.

By now, you’ll have heard about IBM’s Jazz offering. Well, this scalable Eclipse-based team collaboration platform dominated most of the keynote sessions. Its core is transparency; and it’s targeted at organisationally, geographically and even temporally dispersed development teams. Controversially, in open commercial software development, Jazz converts will share a continuous flow of information through a variety of channels including RSS feeds.

Unsurprisingly, critics of Jazz have jumped to compare it with Subversion. In a later session with Lee Nackman, VP of product development & support, we were given some specific clarification. “Subversion is a SCM-focused solution, Jazz is a bigger and broader offering as it is focused on integration across the whole development lifecycle,” according to Nackman. And, he continued, “this is a middleware infrastructure technology if you like, this is not a replacement for Eclipse.” [but I wonder how he sees it relating to Eclipse’s ALF, an open framework which Eddy Pauwels (Director of Product Marketing EMEA at Serena) sees as tying together less open vendor-oriented frameworks such as (his example) Jazz – Ed.] In a move to jump-start the collaborative development process at, IBM has posted several incubator projects focused on code analysis, requirements management and other aspects of Agile software development.

In parallel with its opening announcements, IBM held its hands up and told us what the discerning software engineering public has really been saying about Rational. In front of nearly 3000 attendees, Sabbah explained how IBM has now re-aligned its own business model to deliver what the market needs. Key criticisms levelled at IBM are, apparently:

  1. Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is perceived as prohibitively high in many cases, especially for global delivery;
  2. The industry says that IBM is unresponsive to customer needs;
  3. It also says that its product complexity is too high – it complains about ‘all or nothing’ installations and lack of educational resources;
  4. Customers also say that performance ratings need to go up and deployment needs to be simplified.

Point by point, IBM says it’s addressing these concerns with this week’s series of product announcements. New web-centric, lower bandwidth software has been designed to help reduce the overhead costs and TCO of deploying a client technology.

Specifically, IBM Rational Team Concert Beta 1 was announced. This real-time collaborative portal is optimised for Agile development teams in mid- and large-sized businesses and is said to extend IBM Rational's change and release management solutions: Rational ClearCase and ClearQuest. Team Concert should allow developers to see information in the context of their own specific role in the software development lifecycle, therefore taking collaboration possibilities to a higher level as individuals become more highly empowered with the specific information they need.

To target accusations that it hasn’t been meeting customers’ specific needs, the recently enhanced Rational Method Composer 7.2 allows code shops to document the way they’d like to work and manage the methods that the whole team adheres to. Again resonating with IBM’s collaboration messages, these methods would be agreed, typically, in a community process group. IBM has focused on in-house deployment and scalability testing, including far more stress testing, recently; to make sure it can deliver a better product. As a large multinational organisation in its own right, IBM can do large scale testing for large-scale delivery on a global basis.

Learning in Second Life

Addressing cries for help over installation complexity and training needs, IBM is adopting new web-based solutions. As well as IBM Education Assistant, which is a collection of multimedia educational modules which include presentations (many with audio), demos and tutorials, much of the training is also occurring in Second Life via IBM’s Codestation island. Here, coders can explore “virtual forum 3-D environments” and see how they can revolutionise the software development process by encouraging developers to collaborate in a visual environment and share ideas and information – all for the betterment of the greater developer community. Codestation also houses an area called ‘code library’, which is a virtual code exchange neighbourhood, typically housing re-useable assets such as a clock or a calculator or other such generic application elements [I wonder how the quality – the SLA – for these assets will be communicated, to coders who think they can probably “DIY” them better – Ed].

Digging further into the criticism IBM’s received, its “unresponsiveness” has been highlighted over poor release quality and the lack of customer-requested enhancements. A new global support initiative has been put in place to address this and look over the backlog of defects that IBM is aware of – with A Request for Enhancements (RFE) target of 30-day triage and a general 90-day reply goal. It’ll also move to an open community-based RFE model; so that customers can see what everybody else wants.

IBM says it wants to take a fresh look at Rational [I bet this worries some “Rational employees”, in the light of the impending Telelogic acquisition – Ed]. It will focus on release quality before products are delivered and spend more time improving them beforehand. In a sense, it’s prepared to take a step back and eat its own dog food. A re-energised active support programme and early access programme is allowing customers to get their hands on the products early and get what they want first time round, once they get past the Beta customers are also being invited into IBM’s ‘Lab advocacy programme’ where they can share experiences and achieve a tighter connection between support and development.

All or nothing – feeling bloated

Painstakingly covering every area previously highlighted as a ‘customer concern’, Sabbah then turned to the complexity of consuming and deploying products. Customers say that IBM’s products are ‘all or nothing’ or ‘bloated’ installations and not closely enough related to the real world. So, to improve ‘consumability’ of its Rational products IBM has been looking at using Eclipse for more granular deployment – aiming at a 50% decrease in deployment time.

Wrapping up the product announcements, here are 3 more:

  • IBM Rational Asset Manager 7.0 - this will be generally available on June 29, 2007. It provides visible intelligence into software assets and how they are consumed in a collaborative environment by providing a registry of design, development and deployment related assets, such as codes, patterns and tests. It allows organisations to reduce development cost and time; securely communicate across disparate global teams and eliminate rework with asset-traceability and utilisation monitoring as well as accelerate service delivery. You can find some demos here.
  • IBM Rational ClearCase 7.01 - the latest version helps improve developer productivity and security. By managing and controlling the assets needed when developing software, Rational ClearCase helps clients isolate data based on the location of a user. Read more here.
  • IBM Rational Portfolio Manager 7.1 - this recently announced project and portfolio management offering has a new Ajax-based web interface that allows team members to manage their work, submit time and expense reports. [This is important as Portfolio Management may be the big differentiator for ALM frameworks in the future; Serena is probably the one to beat with its Mariner product – Ed]. Read more about using Portfolio Manager here.

Summing these developments up, Sabbah said, “A real time collaborative infrastructure is what we intend to move towards; via an open, transparent and governed platform [which] will allow us to make the kind of shifts that we all need. The code you wrote yesterday needs to evolve and become legacy.”

It was at this point that I realised that this really was more than the usual announcement-fest. I believe IBM when it says that this event is a collaborative opportunity to gauge its next steps. IBM Rational’s tools are widely adopted, but it hasn’t really been a thought-leader (in popular estimation) for some time; the signs are that this will change. ®

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