Silvon Re-Emerges with Update to Stratum BI
July 12, 2011 Alex Woodie
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Silvon, the Chicago, Illinois, software company that has a long history in the AS/400 market. While the company’s CEO, Mike Hennel, says Silvon never wavered from product development and support commitments, he says it’s now putting more focus on marketing and press relations. This is how we found out about the recently shipped version of its BI product, Stratum version 6, which brings improvements in the areas of user interaction, performance, and advanced analytics for manufacturers and distributors.
Silvon didn’t exactly go into stealth mode the last few years, but it’s safe to say the company was not as visible to its IBM i customer base as perhaps it should have been. According to Hennel, the profitable and privately owned company never cut its research and development budget, “but we clearly cut back on marketing spend,” he tells IT Jungle. “You’ll see that continue to change over the next 12 months. We’ve invested and will continue to invest in technology. But clearly we need to increase our visibility dramatically.”
So who is Silvon, and what does it do? The company was founded in 1987 after four employees of Pansophic Systems (the developer of the PRMS ERP system now owned by Infor), including Hennel, Marty Acks, Frank Bunker, and Bill Skowera, left to found their own company. One of Silvon’s primary products early on was Implementer, a change management solution that was sold to a company called Mortice Kern Systems (MKS) based near Toronto in 1998. In May, MKS, including Implementer, was acquired by Parametric Technology.
Since 1998, Silvon has focused on developing business intelligence software, primarily for IBM i customers, but not exclusively for IBM i servers. While the company used to take a horizontal approach to developing general purpose BI tools that its customers could use to write their own BI apps, today Silvon takes a vertical approach to building finished BI apps for manufacturers and distributors.
Whereas the typical BI implementation entails a lot of configuration and consulting hours to get right, Stratum is an out-of-the-box fit for 90 percent of a typical customer’s requirements, and necessitates hands-on work only for the remaining 10 percent, according to Hennel.
This focus on solving manufacturing and supply chain issues with prebuilt analytic solutions makes Stratum unique. Even the typical sales call and first meeting differs from the industry norm, according to Hennel. “We don’t ask them what they need. We basically say, ‘Here’s typically what we see in your industry segment. Tell us what fits, what doesn’t, and what other things you might think are requirements that we haven’t addressed,'” he says.
“Our services component is a very small component compared to what other vendors would be proposing,” Hennel continues. “We tell customers that we feel we’re their lowest risk solution, because, very clearly, we have the domain experience in your industry, we have a series of packaged applications that you don’t have to spend time or money to build yourself, and we have our very quick implementation approach.”
While Silvon supports other platforms, most of Silvon’s customers are IBM i shops, who also run the software on the IBM i server. According to Silvon’s website, the company’s customer base includes Tripp-Lite, Melitta, Sorrento Cheese, Ethan Allen, Briggs, Warren Distribution, Titan, Oriental Trading, Jockey, Topps, and Citizen.
Stratum has several components that customers may or may not need, including a core relational online analytic processing (ROLAP) server; industry-specific content, delivered via reports, dashboards, and scorecards; and three user interfaces.
A ROLAP server like Stratum combines elements of standard relational database and OLAP multi-dimensional databases. Hennel says a key requirement in the ROLAP decision “was being able to store the granular level detail, along with being able to summarize it up through the different dimensional structures that a customer would want. We felt that a ROLAP structure was really the right way to go.”
The three user interfaces include a Windows-based planning module, which is used by analysts requiring heavy duty number-crunching capabilities; a Web-based interface called Viewer that uses Microsoft‘s SQL Server Analysis Services and is good for casual users; and a series of Web Parts that can be embedded into portals, such as SharePoint, to assemble dashboards and scorecards. Users can also view Stratum data via Excel.
While the ROLAP component serves as the core repository of data in Stratum, some of that work may be offloaded to Microsoft’s SQL Server Analysis. The AS component will be used when a customer wants to share reports and dashboards via the Web, either through the Viewer or Web Parts components. Stratum can be used in a pure IBM i environment, but this setup doesn’t support viewing data via the Web.
Stratum 6.0 brings enhancements in the areas of flexible information delivery and performance. The UI enhancements in Stratum 6.0 mostly surround the complementary Microsoft products. Support for Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 8 give Stratum users the capability to do several things they couldn’t previously do, such as defining time ranges they want to analyze on the fly. Silvon has also streamlined the analytical view creation process. Both of these enhancements work to empower individual users, and eliminate their reliance on IT professionals to help them setup their Stratum applications.
Version 6 also brings better integration with Microsoft Office, Microsoft Reporting Services, and Microsoft SharePoint Portal services. Silvon says it makes it easier for users to share their BI information “in the format they prefer most, whether it’s as an Excel spreadsheet, embedded within a PowerPoint presentation, emailed as a PDF file, included in portal-based dashboards, or simply viewed on-line in real time on their PCs.”
It’s become very important to provide flexibility in how customers consume data, Hennel says. “We look at flexible information delivery and say, ‘You’ve got to be good at getting it out to whatever device a user is living in, day in and day out. You can’t just have it one way,” he says. “You’ve got reports; you’ve got people coming in via the Web; you’ve got dashboards and scorecards. You’ve got to get data into Excel very easily for people. You have to support multiple ways if you’re going to get customers to leverage it across their entire user base. We think that’s a key component, especially now with mobile devices.”
The performance of the core Stratum ROLAP database running on IBM i, and the optional Web components running on Windows Server 2008 R2, is another area of improvement. The vendor says customers can expect a 60 to 80 percent improvement in data processing times. “Some of our initial customers saw load times were dropping down to a third of what they were experiencing before,” Hennel says. “And in retrieval times, in large complex analysis, it was dropping down to one fifth of what they had experienced before.”
Focus on Analytics
Stratum versions 4 and 5 introduced many of the advanced analytics components to the Stratum suite. These adds-ons, which currently include statistical forecasting, planning, and inventory optimization, will continue to be a big focus of Silvon going forward.
By lowering the barrier of entry to analytics, companies are finding they can begin solving problems and addressing challenges that had previously been out of reach. “These aren’t new problems,” Hennel says. “It’s just they’ve never been able to find out how to solve them with a report writer or query tool.”
Getting to this point can be difficult. For example, perhaps a food distribution company wants to start developing better sales forecasts, using not just data in its ERP system, but also data from its point of sale (POS) system. However, getting that POS data normalized against the ERP data can be a big challenge.
“There’s a whole series of data harmonizing issues you have to deal with to leverage things like sell through,” Hennel says. But it’s not just about reporting, but also human processes. “To maintain a forecast, you have to hook into a sales planning process, to get input from the sales force on what they think is going to be happening.”
While Silvon advocates pre-configured software that doesn’t need lots of finagling, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any handholding. Hennel realizes that BI is an iterative process that can’t be solved with a shrink-wrapped application, and care should be taken to address and smooth the disruptions inevitably caused by the introduction of powerful technology.
“Where customers stand on the evolution curve is very low,” he says. “This is an ongoing process that we’ve got to work with you on over two to three years, to help you move up the evolutions curve on leveraging analytics for the business.”
For more information on Silvon and Stratum, see the vendor’s website at www.silvon.com.