Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Impressions of the new library service platforms - Part 2 - Sierra by Innovative

Note:  If you haven’t read the first post in this series, I’d recommend your clicking here and doing so before reading the following post.  That first post sets some foundational definitions in place that are used in the comparison(s) that will follow.


Innovative Interfaces is one of the oldest, best known, most stable, successful and respected names in library automation.   They’ve long been known for producing good products backed by good service and there are many, many libraries that rely on them for those very reasons.  They’re also well known for typically carrying a higher priced product (they would say because they offer higher value) and for charging their customers additional fees for any other add-on products and/or services.  


Sierra is the Innovative entry into the library services platform arena and represents a different approach than that taken by many of the other library services platform providers.  Innovative’s approach is to largely repackage their previous product, Millenium, and move it to run on a new open source database (PostgresSQL), use a new open source indexing engine (Lucene), add some new open API’s, open up some of the existing API’s, update the interface and add some new, functional modules.  The totality of this package is called Sierra and it can be had in either as software-as-a-service (Saas) or a local install.   (However, this fact alone means it is not a true cloud-computing solution).  Whether all of this is enough new componentry to qualify as a “new” product, I’ll leave to you.  

Considerations for Libraries

I’ll point out there is some logic and some risks in the approach taken by Innovative, both for libraries as their customers and for Innovative as a company.  Let’s start by looking at the logic, starting with libraries.  

Many libraries understand they are currently in a situation where their primary focus needs to be on meeting end-user or library member needs.  They need to do this by moving quickly and showing real and substantial progress.   If this happens, they are more assured of seeing improved funding and support in their community of users.  So, given that they are facing limited financial and staff resources, many libraries have to make a choice concerning where they will focus their resources in the short term – i.e. on the back room efficiencies, or on user-facing service improvements, many of which today only partially depend on the library automation system.  While there is no disagreement that improving the back room efficiencies will also improve the user facing services, the net short-term gain may not equal the cost of conversion to a new system and/or the re-engineering of those back room processes right now.   So many libraries decide to defer those improvements until later.  

Is this the right choice?  That depends on your library and what it needs to accomplish.  Clearly, given the number of sales of Sierra, many librarians are deciding to go this route. Of course, for Innovative, the logic here is that they can point out that there is no loss of existing functionality (since they aren’t redeveloping it), minimal additional training needed (which is also less demanding on company staff resources), quicker conversion of customers to the updated product from the old and there is no rewriting of the product from the ground up, as other providers have chosen to do, so fewer bugs, less documentation to write, less testing to be done, etc.   All of which sounds good, right?  Well, before deciding, let’s look at the risks that this approach incurs, again both for the libraries and for Innovative.

The risks for libraries comes in several parts.  First, because Sierra has not been re-written utilizing true multi-tenant architecture (see my introductory post for the definition I’m using) it means it will likely take longer for your library to get access to new versions of the software (that is if you’re hosted, because Innovative will need to update each implementation separately.  If you’re not using the SaaS hosting option, then you will still bear the cost of paying your staff to do the version upgrades, a task the SaaS version relieves you of doing).  Furthermore, because this doesn’t optimize the efficiency of the hardware upon which the software is running, it will keep the routine costs of running the hardware/software higher than those providers utilizing the newer, true cloud-computing, multi-tenant architecture.  Thus it will keep the costs customers have to pay Innovative higher.  It also means Innovative will be in the situation of having to support multiple versions of the software, another cost that ultimately customers must bear (and one which those providers offering a true cloud-computing solution will avoid).  If you’re running the product locally, it also appears there might be some substantial hardware investments needed to run Sierra.  Here is a recent proposal on the Web that shows some of the costs that might be involved for a library.  

With regard to the software, the totally rewritten and re-engineered products (WorldShare, Intota, Alma, OLE) provide more integrated and streamlined workflows and thus are far more efficient for those libraries that are rapidly moving towards adding support for digital collections.  These more efficient workflows mean you can take existing people and financial resources, and reallocate them to new user-facing services.   However, if your provider doesn’t offer these new integrated workflows (which is not the same as configurable workflows), as is the case with Sierra, it’s an advantage your library will not realize.  Again, this may not matter to your library at this point in time.  It is up to you to make a determination if the work and cost of converting to the newer, more efficient systems is worth the efficiencies you’ll gain? Almost certainly, in the long run, it would be.  However, many libraries need to deal with the short term first, and there the picture is not always as clear.  Sometimes, this is an acceptable risk.  It depends on the situation at your library. 

Another place where the Sierra architecture appears to be not as cutting-edge as the competitive offerings is in the ability of the system to truly aggregate data between libraries and to offer analytic services driven from the aggregated data.   However, it should be noted that Sierra does offer some excellent reporting tools, a feature that has long been a plus for the Innovative product.   These new tools include a new “Reporter” module which has been designed for the power user and is a powerful reporting tool, allowing users to select fields and compose reports with relative ease (some training required).  The data used to drive this module is copied nightly and includes the “core” ILS data.  Another tool is the “Decision Center”, a tool for use by end-users, typically the manager of collections.   It appears to primarily use canned reports, but it can be run dynamically, with reports produced for instant use and analysis.

However, these reporting tools are offered primarily for use with data from the library or consortium that is running on the system.  For aggregation beyond this (such as would be required to compare your library to peer institutions across the country), it involves additional steps to upload the data to Innovative’s Data Center and to run the reports there. (Some call this the “hosted paradox” a situation in which all the machines hosting customers are sitting in the same room, but the data can’t be easily shared between those systems without a lot of additional work).  The analytic tools for running reports appears to be limited to those written by Innovative whereas other library services platform providers are offering access to far more powerful tools like Hadoop and/or Oracle Business Analytic tools.    

Now, let’s look at the risks for Innovative.  First, because this product is not a true multi-tenant architecture, Innovative is facing higher costs to operate this product as a SaaS solution when compared to those competitors offering a true cloud computing architecture (for those running Sierra as a local installation the cost of buying hardware is a cost they will must continue to directly bear).   Of course, hardware costs continue to drop, so the impact of this cost may be deferred long enough for Innovative to develop a true multi-tenant solution, but unless that is already underway, this would be many years down the road.  So, ultimately, there is a risk here that they will be out performed and out priced by their competitors over the long term.   

In addition, because they don’t offer the same level of data aggregation as other providers, libraries using this approach will be less likely to be able to offer analytic-driven services to users (or at least services based on as wide a range of aggregated data). 

Another risk for Innovative is that, as libraries put into place other new user-facing services and continue on that path, they’ll need the efficiencies of the back room processes improved in order to continue to deliver state-of-the-art services and the staffing to support them.  Sierra seems unlikely, as presently architected, be able to match competitor offerings in this regard and thus it is probable that Sierra will begin to appear as a less viable option over the long-term.  Now, counter balancing this for Innovative, in the short-term, is the fact that the company owners will be able to maximize the profit they will earn (since they haven’t had to invest in a total rewrite of the core product), but this approach will potentially lower profitability in the long-term (Here, I’ll note that I’ve done a previous post about equity ownership, the likelihood of them owning a company for the long-term, and the implications all of this carries for libraries.  If you haven’t read that post, you might want to do so).

Next, let’s return to the customer perspective and look at the level of “openness” offered by Sierra.   It is interesting to note that Innovative doesn’t describe Sierra as an “open platform” instead they talk about “open development”.  One should investigate this terminology carefully and be certain to understand the differences between the two.  Sierra is clearly providing customers with access to more of the system API’s and is promising to deliver new API’s that will give access to additional data and services.  These are encouraging steps.  Innovative literature talks about a developer community coming soon, to be called the “Sierra Developer Sandbox”.  Again, these are positive steps and should be recognized as such.  Is “open development” simply an attempt to describe a differentiation in marketing terms or is it really the same as what others are calling “open platforms”?  At present, this is a bit unclear, but given Innovative’s long-time reputation for “black box” solutions, one would be well served to do some thoughtful due-diligence in this area.    


At least for the short term, for many libraries, Sierra will prove to be an entirely viable option.  Libraries that want to move to a hosted environment will be able to do so (although Innovative has long offered hosting for many of their products, including Millennium).  The product is available right now while offering a total range of library functionality.  Even though, that level of functionality will force libraries to maintain current staffing levels and redundancies that currently exist in the back room processes.   Analytic driven services based on large aggregates of data that’ll be offered by competing solutions are still in their infancy, so again, this is a place where many libraries can wait in the short term. Multi-tenancy, while important for offering solutions with lower costs and higher efficiencies, is probably not a major concern for Innovative libraries or they wouldn’t have chosen Innovative in the first place.    

One must recognize that Innovative, in taking this approach, has probably studied their customer's needs closely and feel their offering meets those needs.  However, it must be understood that this approach represents “staying the course”  at a time when many libraries are undergoing very rapid change and major upgrades.  Depending upon where your library is in dealing with change, Sierra may, or may not, be a solution that will work well for your library.

NOTE:  This is one post in a series.  All the posts are listed below:

1. Introduction
2. Sierra by Innovative (this post)
3. Intota by Serials Solutions
4. Worldshare by OCLC

5. OLE by Kuali
6. Alma by Ex Libris
6a. Ex Libris and Golden Gate Capital
7. Open Skies by VTLS