The Prickly Pear Of Auto ID For IBM i
December 16, 2020 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Good companies can batten down the hatches and pilot their enterprise through rough economic waters, but great companies identify opportunities and successfully pursue them whether or not times are good or bad. It takes a bit of pliability to be adaptable enough to not just accept change, but to embrace it, and also to be certain enough of your company and its customers to build a core user base and just serve those customers relentlessly with steady improvements. This is a tough balancing act, but if you look at the case studies, you find this balance is what gives companies longevity.
You have to do both, and that is precisely what CYBRA has been doing since it was founded by Harold Brand, still the company’s chief executive officer, way back in 1985, when the IBM System/36 and the System/38 minicomputers were still new technology and the AS/400 that gives this publication its name was still several years into the future. Origin stories are important, so let’s talk a little bit more about CYBRA than you might catch in a press release or the company bios.
The idea behind CYBRA originated with Brand’s cousin, who had a doctorate degree in marketing and entrepreneurship from MIT, Brand tells The Four Hundred, and who also was a captain in the Israeli Air Force and an instructor at the University of Rochester in upstate New York teaching business. Brand himself was an MIS manager and vice president at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co, one of the big banks in New York, from 1975 through 1983, which through acquisitions eventually became part of JP Morgan Chase. The idea was to create a startup that would bring Israeli high technology to the American market, and they were looking at cybernetic automation software very early on. As Brand put it, the name CYBRA was chosen not only because it resonated with “cybernetic” but, as he described, it also resonates with the Sabra cactus, tzabar in Hebrew and thus the name of one of the best groceries in New York City, which is also known as the prickly pear. This is a term of endearment that Israelis have for each other because the fruit is tough on the outside and sweet on the inside. And hence the CYBRA logo also has a palm tree in it, even though a lot of the company’s top brass hails from around the New York City area.
The company got on its current path in 1990, a year after it hired Sheldon Reich, who has been vice president of marketing and chief solutions architect at the company and is an expert in the use of “auto ID” technology, which includes but is not limited to bar coding and RFID tagging commonly used in manufacturing and distribution and the back-end systems that turn all of that telemetry coming out of the shop floors and warehouses into an orchestration of the flow of raw materials as they are transformed into finished products and shipped to wholesale and retail customers. The big break that CYBRA got in bar-coding came at this time, when an apparel company that was making suspenders and belts was told by its big customer – that would be Wal-Mart – that it had to start putting tracking bar codes on products if it wanted Wal-Mart to continue buying them. At that time, Brand and his programming team hacked together bar coding software written in RPG on a System/36 for this particular customer, using Pitney Bowes printers, and MarkMagic 1.0 was born, delivered on eight inch floppies, reel to reel tapes, and cartridges, setting the company on its auto ID path.
As we reported earlier this week, MarkMagic X has just come out, and this business is still going strong. To get a better sense of the auto ID space and how it relates to the Internet of Things, we spoke to Brand about where the company is and where it is going.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: I like that origin story because of the serendipity in it all.
Harold Brand: That’s how it started out, and it wasn’t even our main thing. But it became the product that ate the company. Once we got into it more and more, I realized how big of an opportunity this was – and we really only had one competitor. So we said, “Let’s go for it.” We bet the company on it. The bet was a good bet and here we are at Version X.
Now, back in the mid-2000s, we started getting calls from some of our largest customers such as Hunter Fan, Shop-Vac, and Maidenform, telling us that Wal-Mart was starting to get serious about RFID and inquiring whether we had a solution for tracking pallets and cartons via RFID technology. After we got like 20 calls asking us for the same thing, we came to the realization that we were facing our next big opportunity. So we raised money, hired a dozen programmers, imported a chief technology officer from California, and we put together our EdgeMagic 1.0 passive RFID platform, which launched in 2006. We have subsequently rebranded it and extended it to have IoT functionality, which debuted as Edgefinity IoT in 2017. We now have over 2,700 customers worldwide, with a 95 percent customer satisfaction rating as validated by D&B and a similar customer retention rate.
The idea with Edgefinity is that it’s an Internet of Things where we can track and monitor and notify exceptions on practically anything – on any object, on any person. While the original incarnation of EdgeMagic was all about asset tracking, the focus of Edgefinity IoT expands the scope to incorporate safety and security applications. Say a lone worker falls from a ladder. Edgefinity senses that instantly and is able to send out alerts to the police and the ambulance services to help them. And if an armed assailant comes into a facility, we know that automatically and we’re able to notify people and get them out safely, or do similar things in the event of any kind of disaster, such as fire or earthquake. We can also monitor people’s productivity, tracking how people work and the objects they make. In a medical facility, if high-worth objects are not in a place where they are supposed to be, we know that, or if you need to locate a ventilator or hazmat suits or whatever, we can find the nearest one instantly.
TPM: Here is a question out of left field, but it relates. With these kinds of technologies, you tag objects in some fashion and you either scan them or ping them with a radio signal to find out where they are. With the sophistication of video surveillance and artificial intelligence to identify people and objects, won’t we just move to this method? Or will there be a mix of RFID and video surveillance technologies to create a system that can give you even better resolution and precision?
Harold Brand: In my not so humble opinion, I am going to say both. They both have strengths, but cameras alone, as smart as they are and as smart as they will be, I believe you still need the tag that says here is where it is and here is where it is going. You need to do these technologies in tandem. In fact, that’s what Edgefinity IoT does. As soon as one of the sensors – and it doesn’t have to be strictly RFID, by the way, we’re both passive as well as active in real-time location services, or RTLS. Hybrid technology is passive in some parts, active in others. You need that. All of these technologies are in Edgefinity IoT, which makes it kind of unique. I would not say that we are the only software that does that, but only a handful offer this.
If an event happens, the system interrogates the nearest camera where that object or individual was compromised or whatever the case may be, and makes sure that the camera feed is automatically included in the alert that is issued to the relevant responders. We make sure that the camera is headed in that direction and we show that feed in the notification.
TPM: Besides smart cameras, are there other advanced technologies we will be seeing in Edgefinity IoT?
We’re not using AI yet, but we have ideas of supplementing that whole scenario with AI as well, where you have events that are not clear cut, but there may be something wrong. Today, Edgefinity IoT says I just sensed something wrong and I will notify the correct authorities based on the rules that have been configured for me to tell you what’s going on and use the camera as well. What AI will do for us down the road is something like this: Edgefinity IoT will realize it hasn’t sensed that something went wrong, but does sense that there are things going on different than the norm and there may be something imminent that’s going to happen as a result.
Now we learned that from the Israelis, who are great technologists. We spoke to a number of Israeli software companies that are doing similar things and they do incredible monitoring and they do it mostly with the smart cameras, big data, and machine learning. The cameras monitor the crowd and notice that the shifts in the way the crowd patterns are going on in the marketplace, and can see if somebody is planning something. This is the subtle kind of thing where AI is obviously going to be a big factor.
TPM: I am always looking for the IBM i angle, but I assume that your software does not run exclusively on the IBM midrange platform?
Harold Brand: We have basically two code sets. We have the RPG, CL, DDS code set on the IBM i and we have probably more than a thousand customers who are strictly IBM i. And then we have the whole new world of Java applications, with partners where every time they install a product, CYBRA’s MarkMagic is the labels and forms solution of choice – Manhattan Associates comes to mind. Another longstanding CYBRA partner, Vormittag Associates, has steadily grown their business while staying strictly loyal to the IBM i platform. For years and years and years, our business was strictly OS/400 and IBM i, but today, we are experiencing more growth in what we call our platform independent side, which is pure Java and it runs on every platform including those in the cloud.
Now, where it makes sense, we develop Java stuff that can run on both. IBM i runs Java very nicely. As we move forward, some pieces are Java for both code sets so that it minimizes the amount of stuff we have to maintain over time.
Harold Brand: Unlike some of our partners, we do not have hundreds of programmers. We downsized a little as COVID-19 was rearing its ugly head earlier this year, but now we are starting to build back up with a number of openings in research and development – particularly in helping us pivot MarkMagic to a full-blown multi-tenant SaaS model.
Starting all over in Node.js, is unlikely. Java is universal. Standardizing on it as our development tool is the most effective use of our resources. It lets us cover all major computing platforms with a lean and agile development and maintenance team.
TPM: I remember when IBM caught the Smalltalk object-oriented programming bug a few years ahead of when Java took off.
Harold Brand: I know what you mean. Back then, we spent a lot of time searching for just the right tool with which to build our WYSIWYG designer of the future. We had stretched the 5250 greenscreen about as far as it could go. IBM convinced us that Object Oriented Design was the way of the future. To go along with the design methodology, they showed us SmallTalk. While elegant in theory, it did not take long for us to realize that it was not ready for prime time. It lacked the essential functionality with which to build the sophisticated applications that we envisioned.
So we waited until IBM put its muscle behind Java. I spent two weeks in Rochester, Minnesota and IBM taught me Java. At the time the OS/400 compiler was slow and buggy and it would crash. Some of our competitors back then leapt “ahead” of us and started using C++, but I said we were not going to do that because C++ will not be as universal as Java and we are not giving in. And even then, it took a while for Java to mature to the point where it had everything we needed, especially stability and performance. Today, we are completely invested in Java, and see no good reason to change anytime soon. Our discipline precludes chasing the latest tool du jour. For us to start using another programming language other than Java, it would have to be super, super compelling.
TPM: Let’s talk about the future for a bit. You have these two products, and they are doing different but connected things. What do you do now?
Harold Brand: The next thing is a pivot to software as a service. The vast majority of our IBM i customers run our software on premise, and are happy running this way and don’t want to be in the cloud yet. One major impediment is that it costs a fortune to move an IBM i installation to the cloud. For now, we plan to move to a subscription model for on premises as well as cloud, This is in our plans for 2021.
We have a few customers that run our software in the cloud, and for customers that go that way, we have a pricing model in place that lets us do that. Most of our competitors charge for barcoding software based on the number of printers attached. We do not. You buy MarkMagic once and you knock the heck out of it. We realize that this is an out-of-date way of doing things in a cloud-centric world, and that we need to change with the times. It will probably be until mid-year before we have it all figured out. Right now, after many meetings, we have more question marks than we do periods.
TPM: I hear that. Let us know what you do when you do it.
This content is sponsored by CYBRA.