Back in the old days of enterprise software, the discussion about best of breed vs single vendor was very popular. I remember companies were asking endlessly if they need to go with a single vendor provider or choose the best combination of software for everything. I can see this dilemma nowadays too, but more in the context of a discussion about platforms. Vendors eventually offering their platforms and offering seamless integrations as one of the advantages. Nothing wrong with that, however, on the other side of the road, customers are afraid to lock themselves into a single vendor black hole as it was called by Gartner analyst Marc Halpern. Cloud software (or SaaS) is supposed to offer a better solution for integrations, but the idea of combining everything together is still here. It comes with such a nice word called “unified”. It made me think about unified platforms of the past and what does it mean now in the world of modern SaaS software..
There is a word that was liked by many software and enterprise architects – unified. For years of working in PLM space, I’ve heard about “unified” visions, dreams, and even plans. The latter happens often when PLM vendors are acquiring multiple software packages and are looking for evolutionary ways to change the software and to “unify” them. It is important to learn from some past transformations of PLM packages into a future unified architecture as well as look at some existing undergoing projects. It actually happened in the past and it is happening now to all four large PLM / CAD vendors.
Unifying Software Packages Is Hard
Here are few examples of Teamcenter, ENOVIA, PTC, and Autodesk in merging software packages. The most visible story in PLM software was the transition to Teamcenter Unified Architecture. The story of ENOVIA combining SmarTeam, LCA, and MatrixOne was less visible, but also defined initially as “unified architecture”. In both cases, the unification ended up with picking winning packages and slowly discontinuing and transforming everything else. You should not blame Teamcenter or Dassault Systemes architects for that. The reality is that such transformations are really hard and sometimes remind you of a mixture of water and oil. I can see some similarities in modern architecture transformations that are undergoing in the PLM world – PTC is merging Onshape, Windchill, and Arena into PTC Atlas. At the same time, Autodesk is most probably standing in front of some complex decisions about Autodesk Vault, Fusion 360 Manage (aka Fusion Lifecycle), and just acquired Upchain. The jury is still out to watch what PTC and Autodesk will do, but I predict many pieces of existing software will be discontinued within the time.
Unified Cloud – Is it different?
Coruzant’s article Why a Unified Cloud Platform Strategy is Crucial for Manufacturers written by Ray Heins, CEO of Propel speaks about unified platforms, but now in the context of cloud software. Check the passage criticizing the on-premise software and explaining how pure cloud software for an entire value chain is the way to solve the problem.
Legacy PLM, which is primarily deployed on premise and confined to engineering, just doesn’t cut it anymore. Now more than ever, manufacturers need technology to help them collaborate broadly and pivot quickly.
A pure cloud approach engages the entire value chain across the product lifecycle. This helps address the traditional PLM dysfunction by facilitating meaningful collaboration between customers, suppliers, R&D (product, engineering, manufacturing, and quality) and go-to-market (sales, service, marketing) teams. A unified cloud-based platform equips the enterprise with the data, insight, and context needed to create winning products efficiently, commercialize them successfully, and correct issues decisively.
The value of connection and collaboration between multiple functions in the organization is huge. Industrial companies have been fighting for enterprise integrations for years. Isolated point-to-point integrations, enterprise application integrations, enterprise service bus, multiple integration projects, you name it. The idea that a single unified cloud can solve the problem of integration is nice, but can only work if an entire company as well as customers, suppliers, contractors and everyone else is moving to the same platform. While technically it is possible in a practical sense to make it happen is very challenging and it is hard to make. Especially when you work with a company that already invested in multiple software packages.
Unified vs Connected Alternatives
The reality of industrial companies is to work with multiple enterprise software to cover a particular discipline (eg. CRM, PLM, ERP) and traditionally these silos were hard to integrate. On-premise software was one of the reasons that made it really hard to integrate the software that is using multiple technological stacks and upgraded at a different time.
Cloud/SaaS brings a big change in the way software can be integrated. REST API is pretty much a standard across multiple SaaS offerings and to develop integrations using RESTfull integration is much easier. The communication protocols and data exchange is simplified using SaaS software and the systems make data seamlessly available as a service.
Having all functions combined in a single platform is a big pro, but realistically there are not many if at all platforms offering an entire system covering multiple business disciplines design, manufacturing, service, supply chain, and others. For those PaaS systems, even if it has multiple applications, the communication between them will still be via REST interfaces. The exception could be cross-platform collaboration tools, but even so specialized collaboration and communication tools with extensive integration capabilities can provide a comparable value.
What is my conclusion?
Cloud tools have a different architecture that is capable of simplifying the integration substantially to eliminate the need for complex data integration projects. The huge value of the cloud is in establishing a connected architecture capable of seamlessly integrating data and processes. Obviously, not all cloud software is the same and connection won’t happen easily if vendors take existing enterprise software tools and host them in the cloud. However, modern multi-tenant SaaS software with open data architecture and REST API interfaces can help. While this is not a simple choice, a single cloud can be as hard as integrating multiple tools. Just my thoughts…
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital network-based platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.