Solarsoft Drives IBM i ERP Software Development Forward
November 30, 2010 Alex Woodie
When IBM rolled out its Solution Edition versions of the Power 720 and 740 servers in August, the world’s three biggest ERP vendors were represented, along with a smattering of smaller ISVs that are well-known in the IBM i community. But there was one company on the Solution Edition list–Solarsoft Business Systems–that many IBM i insiders didn’t recognize. Who are these guys and what are they doing on this platform? They’ve been here, it turns out, for quite a while.
Solarsoft Business Systems was created following the April 2007 merger of two midmarket ERP software developers: CMS Manufacturing Systems of Richmond Hill, Ontario (near Toronto), and XKO Software of the U.K. The two companies were bought by the Los Angeles, California-based investment firm Marlin Equity Partners, which merged them into a single entity it named Solarsoft. (Marlin, which has investments totaling more than $1 billion, also owns Aldon, maker of lifecycle management software used in many IBM i shops, and about three dozen other companies in the technology, healthcare, manufacturing, and services industries.)
The IBM i expertise and products came from CMS, which is a name that IT Jungle readers may be familiar with. CMS developed an RPG-based ERP suite called CMS/400 that was (and still is) used by hundreds of mid sized manufacturers, including a large number of suppliers to automotive OEMs like Ford, Government Motors, and Chrysler. Prior to the acquisition by Merlin and the formation of Solarsoft, CMS had developed a Windows-based version of CMS/400. Today, both products are sold through Solarsoft’s worldwide headquarters near Toronto. The IBM i product is called iVP, while the Windows-based product is called mVP.
Merlin has made several other acquisitions over the last three years that have been swept into the Solarsoft operation, including the 2008 purchase of VantagePoint Systems, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based developer of ERP software for packaging companies; the 2008 acquisition of the Chelford Group, a U.K.-based ERP software developer; and the April 2010 purchase of Informance International, a developer of manufacturing intelligence software based in Northbrook, Illinois.
Despite the growth of the company through acquisition, the iVP product, with more than 2,000 sites and about 400 customers, still drives the bulk of the revenues for Solarsoft, says Andrew Robling, a field product manager working out of the Richmond Hill office.
Having several other Solarsoft development teams in the Solarsoft organization has benefited the iVP product team and iVP customers, Robling says. “Being able to bounce ideas off each other has been helpful,” he says. “If there’s something we’re looking to bring up in our Solarsoft iVP solution, we’ve been able to get a hold of specs from somebody else, and not have to reinvent it. That helps the whole development process moving forward.”
The development manager in charge of iVP, Jeff Bowden, has also been busy creating new add-on components that extend iVP in other areas. One of the most promising products recently released includes a Web-based dashboard that displays key performance indicators (KPIs). “We’ve created a suite of a dozen or so KPIs that are relevant to our customers,” Bowden says. “If there’s something we don’t offer in our KPIs, you can generate your own charts and export those to your dashboard.”
Another development effort has focused on the introduction of Web services-based interfaces for common iVP processes. “In order to make our system a little more open, we’ve introduced upwards of 200 Web services, covering production, order entry, inventory, availability–those kinds of services,” Bowden says. “It just makes it easier to get data out of your ERP system.”
Both of these features–the Web-based dashboard and KPIs, and the Web services interfaces–are available in the latest release of iVP, version 5.3, which shipped earlier this year. Another feature introduced with this release was a SQL-based event monitor tool that can look for different conditions in iVP processes, and then send out e-mail notifications when it occurs.
Solarsoft plans to emphasize an improved user interface for iVP, which uses a mix of client-side Java, XML, and Web technologies. Like most other ERP developers targeting the IBM i platform, Solarsoft is dedicated to keeping the business logic in RPG, but looking to leverage other technologies to create a more friendly user experience than 5250 green screens, or even Java clients, can provide.
Before the end of the year, Bowden and his team plan to release a new Web portal that will simplify user access to commonly used screens and commands. So, instead of navigating the menu-driven interface to six different screens, the new Web portal will allow the user to accomplish those tasks directly from a single screen. It will also contain links to outside websites and display the user’s KPIs.
Another priority is creating a consistent look and feel across not only iVP, but all Solarsoft products. To that end, Solarsoft recently hired a graphic designer to help create a more standard-looking UI for the iVP suite, which could form the basis for a standard UI for the rest of the company. “We’ve invested quite a bit of time in figuring out color schemes and fonts and what the screens should look like, and making sure that our offering is uniform across the board,” Robling says.
The name of the game is re-usability and development agility. As Solarsoft digests its recent acquisitions and possibly moves forward into other target verticals with new acquisitions by Marlin Equity, the folks in Richmond Hill will be keeping an eye on how their recently developed products could help their fellow Solarsoft colleagues and customers.
“As we’re developing some of these new products, we’ve designed them so they could be plugged into a couple of additional systems,” Bowden says. “We tried to make it generic enough so we’re not building the same product for 10 different packages out there. Instead we can design it in such a way that it’s a fairly open architecture, that it can be adopted by different markets.”
So, while Solarsoft doesn’t have the name recognition of an Infor, a Lawson, or an Oracle, the company is pursuing a similar strategy of leveraging acquisitions to build a customer base and springboard into new markets.