Vision Moves Product and Business Plans Forward
April 29, 2008 Alex Woodie
Officials at Vision Solutions, the largest provider of high availability software for IBM Power Systems servers, shared some details of their product plans during an interview with IT Jungle last week. Despite the challenges of molding a cohesive business out of three previously separate entities, executives say customers have stuck with Vision and are bullish on the company and its capability to continue developing its products.
The last year has been quite eventful for Vision, the Southern California company that cornered the market for i5/OS high availability solutions last June with its acquisition of rival Lakeview Technologies. In addition to completing the assimilation of iTera and Lakeview personnel and products into its ranks, the company has had to deal with external pressures, like the deteriorating U.S. economy, IBM‘s acquisition of high availability competitor DataMirror, the launch of High Availability Solutions Manager (HASM) with i OS version 6, and the merger of AIX and i in the new Power Systems server. However, in each case, there exists an opportunity to move the company and its customers and partners forward, Vision says.
Take the upcoming release of iTera HA 6 for example. The product, which is geared toward the small and mid size business (SMB) segment, will benefit from greatly improved localization capabilities, particularly in Japan, says Alan Arnold, executive vice president of technology.
“We rewrote a big part of the interface so we can localize it,” Arnold says. “We did Japan first. Now we can go to Germany, Italy, and France, and we can do this with very little work with the way we rewrote the technology.” So while technology buying may slow down in North America, Vision will have an HA product for the fast-growing SMB segments of the European and Asian markets that it can localize into other languages. China is another promising Asian market, and the company has doubled its business there over the last 18 months, the company says.
Following the rollout of iTera HA 6.0, Vision will focus on getting MIMIX HA 6.0 out the door. (All the HA products will be synchronized at the version 6 level, to coincide with IBM’s Power 6 and version 6 of the i OS.) With MIMIX HA 6.0, Vision will continue its strategy of cross-pollination of features–that is, taking advanced features from one product and adding them to another. At the same time, the release will further Vision’s strategy of building common components across its three HA product lines. For example, the same bit of code that gives an HA product support for MQ Series, the IFS, or i5/OS clustering resources will be reused across the other two product lines. This will have the effect of decreasing development times, increasing quality of code, and making it easier to support products in the field.
And eventually, there may be so many common components–so much commonality–between the MIMIX and Orion HA product lines that any nomenclatorial distinction will cease to be relevant. While Vision executives avoid using the term “merger” when discussing the future of these products, that is basically what they’re saying will occur.
“We’ve seen a clear distinction in the marketplace between enterprise and SMB and the investment required for solutions to meet those needs,” says Nicolass Vlok, Vision’s chief executive officer. “So with that approach, we see on the SMB side the product becoming iTera with some cross pollination from Orion and MIMIX as it relates to some components…. And then the Orion and MIMIX solutions will, probably, over the course of three to five years, naturally start drifting closer together, given the fact that our strategy is to add more common components.
“We foresee a time period, say three-plus years out, where a future upgrade will probably bring the products . . . very close together,” Vlok says.
That is not such a hard thing to envision, considering how close the products already are, Arnold says. “It’s pretty easy to do. These products are pretty similar already in many different ways,” he says.
Obviously, the devil is in the details, and Vision still has a lot more development and educating to do before it decides to make a break with the past in the interest of a more profitable future. Customers understandably get edgy when their vendors start talking about making changes to a product, because that can entail more work and spending on their part to get in a position where they can migrate to the merged product.
According to Vision, customers have been receptive to the idea of merged product as they’ve met with them over the course of the last year. “We are communicating [plans to eventually merge MIMIX and Orion] and customers are actually pretty positive about that,” Vlok says. “With our largest customers, which I mostly spent time with over the last year . . . [it’s] resonated really well.”
Vision obviously has nothing to gain in upsetting its customers. But it also doesn’t make much financial sense to continue three separate product lines that accomplish, more or less, the same thing (maybe two, but not three). To that end, it needs to walk the line delicately, and according to customers at the recent COMMON conference in Nashville, Tennessee, the company has been a lot more humble with customer relations of late.
That change in attitude perhaps is reflected in its customer retention figures. Vlok says the customer retention percentage has increased to 94 percent from “the low 90s” in recent months. “For us, we feel that as a business, maintaining the customer metric was one of the big priorities,” he says. “From a financial perform perspective, the company was really strong in 2007. Organizationally speaking, the business grew at double digits, and we’ve seen an increase in profitably with very strong cash flows coupled into the business.” During 2007, the company signed more than 1,000 new customers, to bring its total customer tally to 6,400, he says.
One area where Vision won’t be building a customer base any time soon is HA as a service. Whereas Vlok spoke positively last year about Vision possibly rolling out an HA as a service offering, those plans have since been put on the backburner. “It’s a growth area, but one of the philosophies right now is, we have partners that want to get into that marketplace, so let’s support them,” he says. “It’s a fairly capital-intensive market to get into . . . and it took SafeData probably the better part of two to three years to get the traction they have. The relationship we have with them is a good one, where we complement what they’re doing. Down the road, we’ll maybe look at it ourselves. But right now the play is supporting partners.”
A more promising area for Vision over the next couple of years could be providing integrated HA and DR solutions for AIX and i OS running on Power Systems servers. While Lakeview brought the well-known MIMIX brand, the acquisition also brought the less-well-known EchoStream and HA-Clusters products that Lakeview acquired from HA Technical Solutions years ago, and which Vision rebranded last year as MIMIX for AIX.
“I’m excited about it,” Arnold says. “I think it’s going to open a lot of opportunities for us. We built solutions years ago that would take advantage of integrated environments. They were still difficult to use. They weren’t as optimized as I think they’ll be today. But with the combined systems, with virtualization capabilities built into these machines, it’s just going to be a good thing for us. I think it’s going to drive a lot more systems out there. And it will drive AIX as well as System i solutions.”