VAI Positions ERP Suite for Business Recovery
September 14, 2010 Alex Woodie
This is a tough, but exciting, time to be in the ERP software business. Tough because businesses are hesitating to make big, multi-year commitments to technology platforms, but exciting because of the advances in technological innovation occurring in IT, and the new capabilities that brings to customers. One ERP software developer that’s charging forward with tech development and new business models is VAI, which will be unveiling the latest update to its S2K suite at its annual user conference later this year.
Few ERP software developers in the IBM i space seem to relish the adoption of new technology as much as VAI, the Long Island, New York, company founded by Bob Vormittag in 1978. Take, for example, the new Rational Open Access: RPG Edition technology that IBM unveiled earlier this year in IBM i 7.1.
VAI was one of just three IBM i software vendors to be on board with a commitment to develop using the XML-based technology on launch date. Now, with new partner CNX, VAI is making RPG Open Access the foundation of new user interface development.
The first Web-based user interfaces co-developed by CNX using RPG Open Access technology will debut at VAI’s annual user conference, which is being held November 3-6 in Orlando, Florida. At the show–the first live user conference event in two years for VAI (it held a virtual event in 2009)–the company plans to announce the general availability of S2K Enterprise version 5.3.
VAI president Bob Vormittag says the new RPG Open Access-based screens will bring new capabilities to S2K users and programmers alike. “Mostly it’s the ability to have more flexibility in the interface,” he says. “So you can column-ize, you can personalize the screen without having to make a program change. It’s the ability to have drag and drop and cut and paste. That flexibility that we don’t currently have we will have with this XML front end. That’s the real advantage.”
VAI chose Chicago-based CNX and its Valence product to Web-enable S2K via RPG Open Access after looking at the other alternatives on the market. “Valence is ideal. It’s moderately priced and full-featured,” Vormittag says. “They have quite a number of users now successfully using the product, and we’re working very well with CNX and the team. So they became the proper choice for us.”
The multi-year effort of integrating Valence into all the S2K screens (VAI’s current product uses the JWalk technology from Seagull Software to get to the Web.) provides another long-term benefit–the separation of business logic from user interface. At some point, VAI may choose to rewrite S2K’s business logic, currently written in RPG, in another language that runs on operating systems besides IBM i. Having separated the screens from the business logic will make that transition much easier.
Partnering with QlikTech
VAI is already expanding outward beyond IBM i. For example, the company supports not only DB2/400 but Microsoft SQL Server with S2K. The SQL Server-based database at this point only houses data used for business intelligence purposes. VAI recently partnered with QlikTech, the very successful developer of the Windows-based business intelligence product, QlikView, to sell a product called S2K Analytics. “It’s an absolutely fabulous application, moderately priced, flexible and easy to integrate,” Vormittag says of QlikView. “So we’ll make that available throughout the entire suite of S2K applications.”
That is not to say VAI is moving away from IBM Power Systems servers or the IBM i operating system (except for business intelligence that runs on Windows, or e-commerce related products that are Java-based based, run on top of the WebSphere Portal, and usually are deployed on Windows or Linux servers). Vormittag is thrilled with the new series of Power7-based Power Systems servers, and the 30 percent price performance boost they bring to his customers.
“The IBM i provides a really solid environment for mid-size to large companies, and we don’t see that going way,” he says. “But the longer term plan will also include an open system. We’ll continue to work in that direction as well.”
As the president of a privately held software company, Vormittag has the obligation to listen to the needs of his customers, and the freedom to decide how best to meet those needs. VAI’s embrace of the incredibly popular Apple products–in particular the iPad–demonstrates both of these tenets.
An i for an i
“I think the iPad is revolutionary,” Vormittag says. “Many of our customers are purchasing iPads just to be able to do work in the office, in the warehouse, or in a retail store, checking stock or making updates … Definitely, the iPad is a wonderful invention.”
The new XML-based user interfaces that CNX is helping VAI build into S2K will run just as well on an iPad as a regular PC, which is one of the reasons for choosing that technology stack. But the best VAI application for iPads may be the upcoming release of S2K Salesforce, the new CRM system that blends sales force automation (SFA) capabilities with e-commerce functions like a shopping cart, order entry, and order inquiry.
The ideal use of the iPad is enabling a customer’s sale force, Vormittag says. The idea is to have iPad-equipped salespeople working with customers, while relying on the brains of S2K Salesforce running on the IBM i to manage all the behind-the-scenes SFA and CRM stuff, such as e-mail broadcasts, telemarketing campaigns, and mail blasts. S2K Salesforce is designed to maximize the results of those types of activities by tracking them in a central database.
Vormittag sees a lot of interest from customers in making the sales process more efficient. “CRM and SFA are very much in vogue,” he says. “I’ve never seen as much interest in CRM as in 2010. Everybody wants to recover from last year’s down sales period, and to use technology to do it.”
Another hot area that Vormittag is seeing is warehouse automation. “We need JIT [just-in-time] inventory. We can’t be mis-picking products any more. Those areas are not going to be tolerated,” he says. “This is the new normal and if we can no longer get the prices and the hourly rates and such, for our products and services, then we’ve got to find a way to get more efficient in other ways. In 2009 there was a significant downsizing austerity that I think had a positive effect in creating more efficient companies, including VAI.”
2010 is shaping up to be a better year for VAI and many of its customers. But there is still not a big cushion, and dollars are being watched carefully, and results are being tracked closely. VAI, like all companies, is working to adapt to the times by helping its customers do the same.