Monday, October 29, 2012

Impressions of the new library services platforms - Part 3 - Intota by Serials Solutions

(TM) Serials Solutions
Note:  If you haven't read the first post in this series, I'd recommend you're clicking here and doing so before reading the following post.  That first post sets some definitions in place that are used in the analysis and comparison(s) that follow.


Proquest and its business unit, Serials Solutions are another very good company with a long history of providing libraries with solid products backed by very good service.  Serials Solutions product in the library services platform arena is called Intota(TM).   The company has backed this product with very solid people who have a long track record in the field and a very strong understanding of the needs of libraries.  From an external point of view, it appears they are assigning all the resources needed to produce a new and serious contender for those libraries wishing to procure a new library services platform.


Intota is a totally new product, written from the ground up, and appears to meet the criteria (see my introductory post) to be called a true cloud-computing solution.   Serials Solutions staff are saying it will offer true multi-tenant software operations, shared data capabilities and the capability to fully support a powerful analytic engine and analysis.  Plans also exist for multiple data centers including international locations within the next year.  Of course, these are verbal assurances at this point so libraries considering this solution, before signing a contract, should verify all of this.  

In my analysis, Intota was developed by ProQuest as a response to competitive offerings (from OCLC, Ex Libris, Innovative) that were offering complete discovery-to-back room systems and thus tighter, cleaner integration of all the processes involved.  Had ProQuest/Serials Solutions continued solely with Summon and the 360 offerings, they would have found themselves in a disadvantaged spot in the marketplace. Thus they responded by announcing Intota.  The consequence of this response-driven decision is that it is the latest entrant in the library services platform offerings and therefore it has the least functionality to show at this point-in-time.  The advantage of being the latest, is that what is being shown looks very promising and features some creative thinking and well thought out integration of the workflows and processes that occur in the backrooms of all libraries.

Intota is based on the approach that libraries are managing today’s collection with yesterday's tools and the nature of the collection has changed and that users want to be self-sufficient. Intota focuses on workflows, system maintenance and assessment so librarians can showcase their value. Overall, Intota is a total reconceptualization of library management systems providing functionality focused on selection, acquisitions, description (cataloging), fulfillment, knowledgebase and discovery. 

Library Considerations

As mentioned above, Intota is being written from the ground up.   This is both good and bad. The company has hired many extremely talented people for this product and as such, they won't be tied to historical code while inventing this new product.  At the same time, it creates a much higher probability of some forgotten complexities that underly much of what happens in library back room processes and thus functionality may or may not meet initial expectations or it might prove to be exceptionally prone to bugs while all these details get worked in.

It would also appear, based on Serials Solutions reported selection of development partners, that Intota is intended to be a product designed to have  broad appeal across all types and size of libraries.  Of course, this also means there is some risk involved in using Intota, for both libraries and the company.

One of the risks of the decision to try and appeal to many different types and sizes of libraries is that the functionality can be a bit thin, depending on the type of library and when the product is installed. For any organization, developing a new product and trying to quickly address a very broad market there is the potential to create disappointment for those involved in the early installations and stages. The reality is that this approach simply stretches the developer resources very thin, across many demands and has the potential to produce thin functionality and/or low quality code.  This can result in some very unhappy early adopters.  For any organization building a totally new product, the way to avoid this is to focus on similar types of customers initially. As they become successful, the organization then branches out to address the other types of libraries. Unfortunately, neither librarians in libraries nor sales managers in companies are a very patient lot.   As a result those librarians buying into the vision of the product and wanting to get on board early (possibly for financial reasons or reaching the end-of-life for their existing system) can find the delay in receiving needed functionality a very frustrating experience.  Likewise sales managers in companies, particularly those with business backgrounds that don’t understand libraries, will press account managers for closed sales. Thus sites that should wait to sign up, either for their own reasons or company reasons, get rushed to “close the deal”.  When that happens, installations can be problematic and frustrations will mount to the point that librarians will bail out of the agreement, which is bad for all concerned.    This is a place where librarians, in order to protect themselves and their libraries, need to press the company to be very clear about when their outstanding needs will be addressed and they should put a delivery schedule and associated penalties for failure to deliver, in the body of their contract to ensure it is more than just a “handshake agreement”.

As for the openness of Intota, what is being promised is a suite of documented, open API’s.  As Serials Solutions staff note in their presentations, this is not something new for them, they’ve been doing this with their other products for quite some time.  (See my blog post on API’s to understand how you can position your library to have a successful experience with API’s in an open platform environment.)  However, is it’s too early to provide any firm analysis here, we’ll simply have to wait until this product is further along before we can judge this. 

One of the real advantages of Intota is that it represents a total approach, covering discovery to the back room. As a result, it offers tightly integrated processes, workflows and data.  It will allow librarians to smash through the silo's that exist in so many library's technical services, reader services and other departments.  

However, as a librarian I’m terribly uncomfortable with a library locking themselves into buying so much of their content, assets and tools from the same supplier.  This incurs a real risk that I think way too many librarians are simply guilty of ignoring -- and at considerable peril.   This risk arises simply because doing this removes competition and too many checks-and-balances from the supply chain. This can easily lead to abuses (albeit very subtle at times) by the supplier.  Now in counterbalancing this point, one must note that ProQuest has long been a very reputable company (Although it is not without blemish. See my recent post on data ownership for an example of what can go wrong for libraries in these kinds of scenarios).  Plus, as we all know, companies sometimes change ownership.  New ownership may, or may not, bring new approaches and views.  Customers must exercise caution to avoid this and again I would note that many items should be very carefully spelled out in contracts to avoid future problems.

As for availability, while Serials Solutions is currently signing up and working with test partners for Intota, it should be noted that the product is not expected to be completed until late 2013, where many of the competing offerings are already largely complete and being installed at sites.  Furthermore, I would note that as anyone involved with a major software product development plan knows, projected dates about completion of an entirely new product almost always slide, sometimes only by weeks, more often by months, especially for a product of this size and complexity.

Bottom Line?

As noted, Intota appears to be another totally new system designed from the ground up. As a result, it will offer highly efficient back room workflows.  At the same time, because it is new, as with many new products, it will suffer from more bugs.   In addition, because of its relatively late entry into the market, its functionality, will be thin for awhile, until it catches up with competitive offerings.  However, the functionality sounds very promising and is already showing some very creative, new and fresh thinking.   The product is also clearly trying to leverage the other assets in the Cambridge Information Group portfolio by integrating them directly into the workflows of Intota.  For those libraries that are customers of those companies and products, this could be a very positive step.  For those who are not, the pressure will be on to move from the products currently used, to these which will offer more tightly integrated workflows.  Librarians will have to decide if the loss of checks-and-balances in their supply chain is worth that integration and I want to stress again, this should be thought about very carefully.   I will also note that Serials Solutions focus on assessment and analytics will be very appealing to librarians and will offer major steps forward in offering new, proactive services to users.  

At this point, the data center locations and security level certification(s) are unknown and thus, the ability of this solution to scale and be secure must also be carefully analyzed, as those developments are unveiled.  The caveats I noted in my introductory post about security clearly apply when considering this product.   

As noted above, Serials Solutions is a business unit within ProQuest and ProQuest is owned by the Cambridge Information Group (CIG), a private family-held corporation.  So this company has the advantage of being able to make long-term investments/decisions that will benefit their customers without the same level of pressure as private equity owned firms to generate increasing short-term sales numbers.  CIG also brings impressive financial resources to the table that will enable them to continue to make substantial investments and do additional acquisitions and mergers that could offer advantages to libraries in the future.  Furthermore, unlike companies owned by private equity firms, there is a higher probability that more of the profits made on sales will be directed back into the organization (although not as fully as platforms represented by open source efforts or a collaborative organization). 

Librarians should know that buying products and services from this company represents a reasonably sound investment both for the profession and their organization.  Given the caveats expressed above, particularly for a brand new product, if libraries considering Intota appropriately protect themselves in the contracting stage, they’re likely to find this product well designed to accommodate the rapidly changing needs of users and libraries for many, many years to come.  

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

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