Monday, November 5, 2012

Impressions of the new library services platforms - Part 4 - WorldShare Management Services by OCLC

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.


WorldShare Management Services (WMS) is a fresh start, a totally new product that rethinks and recreates management software for libraries.  Because it is a product built by OCLC, it has the potential to benefit enormously from the "common good" and collaboration that OCLC represents, and libraries should partake of in creating a path towards the future.


WMS represents a true cloud-computing solution (as defined in my opening post in this series).   There are many vendors/organizations in the field that are co-opting the phrase "cloud-computing" in describing their new systems, but very few that truly earn that designation.  OCLC's WMS is one of those that clearly does. It should be noted that this isn't the lowest cost approach for OCLC to take but it is an investment that will clearly better position libraries to be efficient, optimized and in a position to offer new services over the long term.   

The basic product premise is that libraries are more alike than different and that commonalities in management, workflows and service are as similar as library collections, clients and services. At the same time, OCLC understands WMS  must support unique needs and must adhere to principles of vendor-neutrality wherever possible.

Considerations for Libraries

The product is being designed for all types of libraries all sizes from those with millions of circulations, to millions of titles and those with less than 100 users to over a million users. This product uses all the data available in WorldCat, the WorldCat knowledge base, the WorldShare vendor information center, the WorldCat Institution Registry, and other centralized data repositories, which is a huge advantage for libraries and for OCLC (and a huge source of concern and contention with competitors).

However, as noted in the analysis of Intota, one of the consequences of trying to appeal to that many types and sizes of libraries is that the functionality can be lacking.  It really depends on your type of library and where the developer organization is focusing.  For OCLC, there is a real danger in trying to develop an entirely new product and at the same time, trying to address a very broad market. This has huge potential for creating disappointment for early-adopters.  These are enormously complex products as most of us know.  Existing ILS products, while containing limitations in serving today's digital environment, represent hundreds of person years of development, testing and documentation.  You simply can't replicate all the software to do new services in a short amount of time, even with Agile development techniques, new and more efficient programming languages, automated testing and large development teams.  As we've seen happen with other products in other fields, this approach simply stretches the developer resources too thin, across too many demands and doesn't produce enough quality or progress to keep everyone happy at the same time.  

A better way for an organization to build a totally new product is to focus on certain types of customers and as they successfully come up on the new product, to then branch out to address other types of libraries, although it should be noted that in a customer owned cooperative this can be very difficult to do.  

OCLC is doing this, but is doing so by sharing their development plan with prospective customers and asking libraries to self-select based on when functionality they need is scheduled to appear.   Of course, developments don't always appear as scheduled, sometimes librarians are not a patient lot or else they are overly optimistic about there ability to work around a missing piece of functionality.   Some are in situations where they need to move NOW for either financial reasons or because their existing system is reaching the end-of-life.   However, sites that do this can become very disappointed when they find the new, not yet complete, product doesn't meet their needs. When that happens, sometimes the librarians will bail out of the agreement as we've seen happen with a few of the early OCLC WMS customer agreements lately (see my blog post on "Questions concerning OCLC's WorldShare" and, in addition, this very recent announcement from San Juan Island which I quote: 
"The WMS system has turned out not to be an appropriate choice for a library of our size, and not as mature as an information system, in light of bugs, missing features, and the long development path required to address our concerns" 
per Library Board President Mark Madsen.   Clearly, situations like these are not good for either party nor do they leave a lot of good will behind on either side.  

OCLC needs to be clear with libraries about when their outstanding functional needs will be addressed and it is my understanding, that they do in fact put a development plan in their contracts.   Librarians need to do their due diligence carefully, be very realistic, talk with installed sites and make a clearly informed decision when considering WMS.  Then in the contract phase, they need to add in a delivery schedule for the missing functionality and establish penalties or a termination exit if those deadlines are not met.

One of the things I thought was very smart about OCLC's methodology when it came to installing was their decision to get the community of early-adopters working together.  So the implementation process becomes a group experience. Libraries hold weekly meetings with their cohorts and discuss their plans, issues and findings. They also offer the WMS User Support Center, which has a  chat feature (allowing communication between customers and/or OCLC staff), email or, of course customer service via phone during normal business hours. OCLC has developed training tutorials and recorded sessions that are available for library staff to use 24/7. Furthermore, live training sessions are available almost weekly at no additional charge to libraries. Overall, this combination appears to be a very strong support system for implementing sites.

In presentations about WMS, it is discussed that there are major plans underway to collect and use data to drive analytic-based services.   Hadoop, is an open source Apache product licensed under the Apache V2 license and is extremely powerful. The services that could result from this combination could be quite impressive but at this point much is yet to be known here.  What I will point out is that analytic driven services is a relatively new field and people with the skills to do this are in much demand and paid top dollars and they can largely pick where they want to work.   So, I think it is important for libraries to realize it will be difficult for them to have and hold this kind of expertise locally.   They should look to OCLC to use their collaborative position and to offer libraries data driven analytic services.  The collaborative approach to hiring and retaining people with these expensive skill sets makes a tremendous amount of sense.  This is the power of a collaborative and this is a place where librarians should call upon OCLC to serve them.  

In terms of openness, WMS seems to be promising on several different levels.  The overall approach here is that they want the platform seen as one that enables libraries to build on top of it and that they understand they can't do everything.   So, like many of the other platforms, they're saying WMS will offer a large number of open API's for use (again, see my post on API's to understand what you, as a librarian should be looking for here). Unlike other offerings, their approach includes development of a common framework for services (F4S). This strategy is designed to allow OCLC to build consistent API's, which is intended to translate into external developers being able to consistently develop new extensions.   Furthermore, in doing this they're using Open Social, a public specification defining a container and a set of common application programming interfaces (API's) for web-based applications. This will allow library developers an open source method for creating apps, which they can then upload directly into the WMS interface, or use externally in other Open Social Containers.  So in addition to API's, OCLC has built the entire infrastructure for F4S and Application processing, an App Gallery, and created a management interface that allows users to modify the interface by adding their own apps.  Of all the new platforms, this appears to be one of the most comprehensive approaches to providing one and one that can truly earns the designation of an "Open Platform". 

With regard to data centers, again OCLC is taking a very solid approach.  They have two data centers in the U. S. and one each in Australia, Canada and Europe. Coming within next year will be a 2nd site in Europe.   All of their data centers are certified to meet ISO 27001 and Lloyds Quality Assurance certifications.   

Bottom Line

WMS represents a well thought out approach to the needs of libraries for many years to come.  It deserves serious consideration by any library looking for a new library services platform.  

Are there limitations at this stage in the product's lifecycle?  Absolutely.  The functionality is thin in places.  Libraries should look (without rose-colored glasses) at the development timeline and not move to WMS until the functionality they really need is in place.  OCLC is also not known for being highly responsive to customer needs due to internal bureaucracy and governance overhead. However, they've backed the product with some very good people who have years of experience in the field and who truly know what they're doing.  I also think it will serve OCLC and libraries well that they moved to the new ODC-By license on data in WorldCat and have combined this with linked data announcements.  Together these will address many of the concerns librarians have had about their data being captive in an OCLC system.

Now, I'll personally admit that I frequently find myself wishing OCLC had done WMS as a community built, open source software project for many reasons.  The main reason being that collaborative process would have been a tremendous opportunity to create the buy-in of a younger, far more technical generation of librarians, in supporting OCLC.  We saw the previous generation of librarians build WorldCat and that generation continues to be strong defenders and users of OCLC, but I'm not so sure about the next generation.  But, I digress, that's a subject for a different blog post for a different day.   Clearly, for now, OCLC did not feel this approach was an option available to them.  This could be because it is difficult to point to any other OSS application of this size and complexity, and that would meet all the requirements I laid out in my first post of this series that has been developed within and by the library profession. The closest examples require one to point to OSS applications developed outside of the library profession using much, much larger and more active development communities.  I also think OCLC's continued push to find new sources of revenue probably played a role in this decision.

Finally, WMS from OCLC has tremendous potential because the library collaborative owns it.  This means it can capture continued library investment, community collaboration and good will.   Let's face it, OCLC is the largest library membership collaborative in the world. I wish more librarians would realize the power and potential they would have if they worked through this organization. Yes, of course, I know there are massive frustrations with OCLC, historically burnt ground and huge uncertainty about who will step into Jay Jordan's shoes and what direction that person will head.  All of those are valid concerns that OCLC needs to move quickly to resolve.  However, let's remember: OCLC remains the most focused and powerful collaborative available to librarians. Libraries buying WMS are making a real investment in that collaborative and given there are no equity investors to satisfy and no diversion of profit away from the profession but rather back into it, there are good reasons to consider WMS.   Andrew Pace conducted the presentation I attended and he quoted an African proverb in closing that I think is worthy of repeating here because it is a nice summary on the WorldShare approach:  "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." 

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