Ex Libris’ ‘URM strategy’, and the future of library software

I was at the ELUNA conference this past week.

Among other things, Oren Beit-Arie from Ex-Libris gave a presentation on their “Unified Resource Management” strategy for their products. I’m afraid I can’t find even any good marketting materials from EL on this online, let alone Oren’s slideshow, which would be great. But here’s what I took away from it (anyone else feel free to correct me).

A) Get Ex Libris products working together in an integrated way, working with one common data model, as ‘services’ layered on top of a common database. Buy what services you want, all the services work well together in an integrated fashion. (There was a nifty boxes-and-lines diagram here about the idea for architecture).

B) An openness to… openness. The individual services should be mix-and-matchable with services from other providers (vendors or open source).

Now, I have no doubt that ‘A’, even by itself, is the right strategy for architecting library software. The current divisions between products and ‘modules’ we have are not always rational, leading to both user interface problems (lack of integration, have to look in different places for things that should be together), and workflow problems (again, staff has to enter things multiple times, and work with multiple products/modules/screens to accomplish what is one task to their workflow).

The architecture Oren was talking about is right from a technical perspective, and it’s indubitably right from a business perspective to give customers what they need/want. In fact, this strategy is no doubt in part a response to competitor Serials Solutions, whose products more-or-less already work like this. SerSol recently rebranded their products as the ‘360 suite’ to emphasize this level of integration. With the important caveat that SerSol’s suite does NOT include a traditional ILS or most of the functions/interfaces traditionally housed there. Which is the most complicated/difficult part, of course.

But it’s Part B that is really exciting. SerSol doesn’t do that.

Now, achieving part A alone will be a technical challenge. But on top of that, making all the pieces mix-and-matchable with other vendors products? It’s an even bigger technical challenge (does that mean that common data schema needs to be some kind of standard common accross vendors?). It’s also a political challenge and a business challenge for Ex Libris.

Will they be able to get other vendors to cooperate? (The incipient emergence of real-world stable open source library software makes this more likely, and provides some projects that are likely to cooperate regardless of what the traditional ones do).

Will they be able to actually make this work for themselves, actually commit to it, not be scared of what it could mean to their own bottom line? Now, Ex Libris has always been one of the vendors that is most comfortable with open-ness, and really trying to provide software that works with their competitors, instead of relying on lock-in. Not to detract from ‘ideological’ motivations in the company which are probably present, this is also due in part to their business position. (There are always ‘material conditions’ helping to determine things, sez this Marxist). Their strongest product was SFX–NOT an ILS–and their ILS product always had a relatively weak market share in North America anyway. So they had no choice but to promote interoperability.

It’s clear that they want Primo, their new ‘front end’ unit, to inter-operate with everyone else’s stuff, so other vendor’s customers can still buy Primo.

But do they really want all their other products–including back-ends–to inter-operate with OTHER vendors front-ends and back-ends too? So I could even–gasp–choose to use a Primo competitor with their back-end products? Are they really going to be willing/able to pull this off? It’s going to take serious technical resources, and in the long term, they’re not going to be able to justify such resources to themselves if it results in lowering their own ‘lock in’–or are they?

What Ex Libris says they want to sell me, is indeed what I want to buy. Will they be able to make it happen? Will they be able to do it in time for it to matter? The URM ‘strategy’ [Oren was clear that it’s not a ‘product’, it’s a ‘strategy’] is just being born, and the timeline was “next 5 years or more”.

Time will tell. But I am encouraged that they seem to have a strategy which makes sense from a technical perspective, not just a business perspective, something we are not used to expecting from our vendors, and which we all desperately need. [Of course a vendor with a great technical idea that goes out of business helps nobody either–I’m not saying the business can be sacrificed to the technical.]

Update 12 Nov 2008: Hey Ex Libris, you’ve been talking about this for nearly two years now at ELUNA presentations, why is there still nothing on your web site about it?  Why is this important initiative re-orienting the entire strategy of your company not being shared with your customers and potential customers in written form?  Why is this blog post here still the first google hit for ‘ex libris urm’?

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