Juggling tricky implementations and struggling to find integration expertise, users of middleware--the glue that allows disparate applications to work together--are tough on vendors. For more mature technologies, packaged customer service and support are part of the purchase. But for emerging technologies like middleware, customer needs are more free-form, and customers need to tell vendors what kind of support is required.
While a few established middleware vendors such as Active Software Inc., BEA Systems Inc., and TIBCO Software Inc. field full-fledged support efforts, many of their rivals are just starting to think about formal programs. And many users don't mind.
"Users are grappling with just what to do with middleware, so the service aspect seems less critical," says John Mann, a senior consultant and analyst for Patricia Seybold Group in Boston. "They're more interested in management. If you have an order-entry system, you need to fix it within seconds, " he says.
Enron Energy Services, a division of the energy company Enron Corp., uses Iona Technologies' Orbix object request broker as the backbone for its distributed applications platform. Enron Energy runs critical applications such as billing on the system. In addition to a maintenance agreement, Enron Energy has a consulting contract with Iona and regularly has half a dozen engineers working on site.
The consultants' familiarity with Enron's systems needs makes all the difference in tweaking the system and keeping it running smoothly. "Middleware issues mostly deal with some kind of bottleneck, and you need to understand: Is it a design problem or is it the product itself?" says Mohammad Fahim, senior vice president and CIO for the Houston company.
Kohl's Department Stores in Menomonee Falls, Wis., has 270 retail stores and opens a new one every four and a half days on average. Kohl's uses Insession Inc. ICE (Intersystem Communications Environment) to keep store communications running glitch-free over the company's Tandem mainframe. Insession has provided consistent support, says Kohl's IT manager Stacy England, showing up on site to help with problems and providing custom solutions. He has also used telephone support and opened problem accounts when needed.
England keeps renewing his maintenance commitment and is now set for the next two years or so. But, England says, "I'm pretty hard on them as far as pricing I didn't want to pay the standard book price upfront." He doesn't. Insession has discounted maintenance prices on Kohl's production, development, and testing machines, says England.
In the end, no one knows a system better than the team that installed it. So some middleware customers say they solve their problems more speedily by sifting through vendors' online help databases than by telephoning tech support and discussing the problem with an anonymous service rep. Al San Clemente, chief technology officer for Web Technology Partners, a Lowell, Mass., systems integrator, has installed Iona Technologies middleware for several clients and says he answers 90 percent of his questions using Iona's knowledge database, available free on its Web site.
"It's a really valuable tool for dweeby stuff, like how to configure your servers to time out and exit the event loop after a certain amount of time," says San Clemente. "Our servers were exhibiting that set of activities, and I typed in one or two key words and found out exactly what was going on. It's absolutely faster" than dialing a help line, he says. //
Deborah Asbrand is a Boston-based writer who focuses on information technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.