Service Packs Put a Crimp in Third Party Maintenance Plans
February 15, 2005 Alex Woodie
Jack Crouch, chief technology officer at diesel equipment manufacturer Stewart & Stevenson, says he would buy third party maintenance for his company’s OneWorld XE application “in a heartbeat.” He hasn’t, however, for one reason: service packs. “No one but Oracle owns source to the J.D. Edwards kernel,” he says. So when IBM changes to OS/400 hurt compatibility with his ERP implementation, such as it did with i5/OS, Crouch relies on his ERP vendor to issue a service pack.
JDE customers like Crouch are increasingly looking to third party maintenance providers to keep their ERP systems up-to-date with things like tax and regulatory updates and bug fixes, as well as providing help desk support, at about half the cost, or less, than what Oracle would charge them.
Since Oracle finalized its acquisition of PeopleSoft last month, a number of third party providers have sprung up to serve the hundreds or thousands of JDE shops that are expected to break from Oracle and look elsewhere for basic maintenance and support (see “JDE Shops Have Plenty of Options for Third-Party Maintenance” in last week’s issue of this newsletter).
However, the issue isn’t as simple as unhooking from Oracle and plugging in with another provider. Because Stewart & Stevenson’s iSeries lease expired, the company needed a new machine, and it ended up getting one of the new i570s. The only operating system that runs on the i570 is i5/OS (or OS/400 V5R3). As it turned out, Stewart & Stevenson’s OneWorld XE implementation was not compatible with i5/OS, Crouch says. As a result, it installed a service pack that PeopleSoft wrote to deal with the operating system compatibility issue, which was called Service Pack 23. Of course, only customers who are current on maintenance got SP23 from PeopleSoft.
Such events are difficult to foresee. “There is this ‘chain’ that is very hard to stop or predict as time goes on,” Crouch says. “I have seen an operating system upgrade release cause problems three times in the five years we have been running OneWorld on iSeries. That is why both IBM and JDE collaborate on a certification process.”
Crouch says one solution would be for the third party maintenance companies to distribute service packs themselves. However, this is where the issue gets tricky. While all JDE users have the right to modify their application source (which they can pass on or extend to anybody of their choosing, such as third party maintenance providers), these rights don’t extend to the so-called kernel source code.
The service pack issue is more important to users of EnterpriseOne than those of World, says Andy Klee, principal of Klee Associates, one of the third party maintenance companies that has opened up shop near Denver, Colorado. “For EnterpriseOne, we look for clients that are near the end of their ERP life cycle, and who are expecting to get three to five years more life out of their system on the way to a new ERP solution,” Klee says. “We caution clients about this and tell them that they should do their hardware and software upgrades before leaving Oracle maintenance.”
Klee says this situation is less likely to occur on World, which is more stable than EnterpriseOne by design. “We’ve only heard of a few situations where parts of the software failed after an OS/400 upgrade, and fixes or reasonable workarounds were available,” he says. “World clients can expect to be able to extend their ERP life cycle indefinitely with our maintenance program.”
However, other third party maintenance providers say the service packs aren’t a deal-breaker for OneWorld and EnterpriseOne shops looking to reduce their maintenance fees while maintaining flexibility in the future. “That’s not a restriction,” says Colin Balmforth, cofounder of Conexus Partners, one of several third party maintenance providers that has popped up in Denver. “It makes life easier to be able to say that [customers should not expect to upgrade their operating system or hardware]. But the reality is, they would still need to upgrade their operating system, because another application in their portfolio, or their database, requires it.”
While there are areas of OneWorld and EnterpriseOne that users (and therefore any third party maintenance providers) don’t have source code for, it won’t prevent Conexus Partners from developing its own service packs when operating system or database changes create conflicts with older releases of the ERP system. “The service pack is something we’ll provide,” Balmforth says. “We’d develop that for the client.”
Balmforth says some people mistakenly believe that SP23 was a requirement for companies running OneWorld XE. Instead, it provides additional Web client capabilities that some users may or may not want or need. What’s more, Balmforth says some users would be better off having Conexus develop a custom .NET client that replaces the JDE client.
Whatever may transpire in the future, Balmforth is confident Conexus would be able to resolve or work around problems related to operating system compatibility. “As we go through our qualification adoption, we’ll generate the service pack ourselves,” he says. “As new releases of the operating system come out, we’ll qualify versions of the operating system. . . . We’ll work with IBM directly, to produce a service pack.”
Another solution would be for the operating system vendors, like IBM and Microsoft, to ensure that new releases of their operating systems are backward-compatible with old releases of EnterpriseOne and World and those ERP systems’ service packs. “I can see maybe IBM making an effort to remain backward-compatible,” Stewart & Stevenson’s Crouch says. “I cannot see Microsoft knowing or caring about the issue.”