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ALM: Best of breed vs. complete systems

The ALM tool market is in an uproar as countless acquisitions, trends and shifts have altered the way in which application lifecycles are monitored industry experts explain situation.

It's an age-old question: best of breed, or a one-vendor, soup-to nuts-solution? In the application lifecycle management (ALM) market, recent activity has seen big vendors getting bigger through acquisition, point solution providers rounding out their offerings to position in the ALM space, and specialists sticking to their knitting by deepening the functionality of their products.

For today's software development organizations, what is the right answer, and where does ALM begin and end? Michael Azoff, senior research analyst at the U.K.-based Butler Group, said different vendors have different views, but Butler takes what he calls a "liberal" view. "We allow the whole span of activity from project inception through to code construction, into deployment, so that includes application performance management. We recognize companies do take a more restrictive view of ALM, but the ideal ALM provides continuity across all these different phases," he said.

Azoff said the ALM market is in "a state of flux," with ongoing consolidation, most recently with Micro Focus acquiring Borland and the ALM products of Compuware. "They're going to be a new force in that space," he said.

The agile movement is also impacting the ALM space, he said. "We're seeing a whole bunch of smaller companies entering the market and are highly targeted at supporting agile, providing tools that are missing in supporting agile and integrating with the rest of [an organization's] needs." At the same time, the major players like IBM are also targeting the needs of agile development organizations.

"Another major trend is the ALM vendors recognize they need to incorporate with other tools in the market," Azoff said. "That's beneficial for customers. They gain flexibility and less lock in, and it makes the market more competitive, which is good for customers."

For vendors that have built out their offerings to encompass more of the ALM space, Azoff said "it's natural for these companies to start out with one core strength and expand. MKS [an ALM vendor based in Canada] is a great example of that. They started in the change and configuration management space and just kept growing. They gained customer loyalty, so their customers were happy to buy the next product, and that's all for the good."

David Locke, director of marketing at IBM Rational, IBM Software Group, said companies today recognize the importance of software and want to treat ALM like an ERP or CRM system because they rely on their software to run their business. "It's mission-critical, they spend a lot of money on it, so they want to monitor it, assess how it's working, improve its performance, and they want a vendor who can ride with [them] through all of that."

Locke believes the best-of-breed vs. suite question is less relevant today than 10 years ago. "There has been a lot of consolidation in the industry. As little as 10 years ago the market was so fragmented that question had more relevance; there were good reasons to think that an individual vendor who did one thing had the best possible solution vs. a Rational or a Mercury, etc. Look at the people spending money in this space [today]. These companies spending this kind of money are looking for a more homogeneous solution that can do heterogeneous support."

He continued, "Most shops are heterogeneous, so that diversity of support is very important. So it gets down to, can a company of 100 to 200 people really support the diversity of my development shop vs. what IBM brings to the table? Ten years ago it was different. Today the big players have best-of-breed products highly integrated."

Paula Rome, senior product manager at ALM vendor Seapine Software Inc., based in Mason, Ohio, agrees that integration is important. "Over time more people are seeing the advantages of tools tightly integrated, whether from a suite or they've spent time coupling [point solutions] together. In the last two years we've seen a movement of people finally seeing the value of solutions knowing each other, and having common data. I think that strategy has worked well for us; as we've added new products we made sure they are integrated."

Seapine, which has ALM tools that include change and configuration management, automated functional and regression testing, bug tracking and reporting, test case management and more, recently added requirements management to its stable with the introduction in July of TestTrack RM. "We felt that was the piece we needed to round out our ALM offering," she said.

Integration among a vendor's offerings is "why we are starting to see more acceptance of ALM," Rome said. "Picking best-of-breed solutions may be good for a particular problem, but [organizations are] somewhat naïve about the effort involved to integrate different vendors' systems. Do you want to put programmers toward revenue-producing activities for your company, or messing with tools?"

Cyndi Mitchell, managing director for ThoughtWorks Studios, the products division of the global agile consultancy ThoughtWorks, said she believes the market will be more suite oriented. "Look at the ALM market. You have new players coming in with agile point solutions and growing out that market." ThoughtWorks is a case in point, with its recent Adaptive ALM offering. "We see our customers asking for a complete solution that brings forward our philosophy. That's not to say that no one is buy point solutions, but as enterprises shift to the agile space they're looking for a complete solution."

On the other side of this argument, of course, are companies that have chosen to focus their expertise on a particular aspect of ALM. Perforce Software is an example with its software configuration management (SCM) system. In July, Perforce announced release 2009.1 of its SCM, which now allows web developers and artists to immediately preview changes to web, video and audio content from within Perforce's graphical interface. And this week, the company announced a pure Java version of its Perforce Plug-in for Eclipse.

"We consider ourselves experts on SCM," said Charles McLouth, principal product consultant at Alameda, Calif.-based Perforce Software Inc. "We think SCM is the foundation, the most basic building block of ALM, and we chose to be best at that and integrate with other solutions so companies can pull together the best-of-breed solutions. That would be a common theme among our customers. They don't come to us and say, 'We'd buy your product if you had a requirements management solution.' They want us because we have the best SCM solution, and they'll find the best requirements management solution and integrate the two."

McLouth said Perforce's strength is "scalability for massive and globally distributed organizations; we have companies that have thousands of users spread out all over the world." And he maintains the company's laser focus on SCM is spot on "because we're thriving; we're still attracting new customers, and we have over 5,000 customers. We have low administrative costs, we're high performing and full featured, so it's a compelling solution."

So which approach is right for today's software development organizations? Butler's Azoff said there's not one answer. "Even if a CEO said we've got to rationalize cost and use this set of tools [from just one vendor], that just won't happen. There's legacy, there's mergers and acquisitions, so that brings in different toolsets. And the other thing is that a heavyweight ALM system may not necessarily be the right approach for a lightweight, small project that's up and running and needs to be terminated in 3 months."

It really depends on the needs of an organization, he said. "I don't think there's one ALM system that will solve everything. There's definitely a scope for spot solutions, and a lot of innovation is coming out from these companies. Butler Group very much supports ALM as being a mature approach for successful, repeatable project delivery, but we're not going to say everyone has got to use an ALM system."

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