Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Impressions of the new library services platforms - Part 6 - Alma by Ex Libris

(TM) Ex Libris Group
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.

Notes of Disclosure:  As many of this blog’s readers will know, I’ve twice served as the President of Ex Libris North America with my most recent engagement ending December 31st, 2011.  I’m still a minority shareholder in the company and since leaving the company they’ve occasionally hired me in my capacity as a consultant at CARE Affiliates LLC.  With that on the record, I’ve made every attempt to provide the same critical analysis of the product and company that I’ve applied to those of the other companies in this series. 


Ex Libris is another respected company with a long track record of providing software solutions to libraries and they also have an impressive customer base using those products.   Alma was the first library services platform announced and as such, is also a totally new, ground-up write of a product.   Ex Libris uses the phrase “unified resource management” system in describing Alma, but it essentially has the same characteristics used by others when they use the phrase “library services platform” or “Webscale”. The company has devoted a considerable amount of financial resources and dedicated, respected and talented staff to developing this product.   As noted with other products, it would appear that Ex Libris has also taken all the right steps to produce a solid product for librarians to consider when procuring a library services platform.


The overall approach of Ex Libris is to bring libraries comprehensive unified resource management.   In doing this, their intent is to avoid the duplication of effort and data required in maintaining an ILS, electronic resource manager, institutional repository, discovery and link resolution products.  The goal is for library staff to be able to work in one, consolidated environment.

Considerations for Libraries

Alma is another product earning the designation of being a true cloud-computing solution as defined in my first post of this series.  It is a true multi-tenant application and utilizes data aggregation and has the capability to support analytics.  Ex Libris has laid the groundwork for a full implementation of cloud computing by placing data centers in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.  All of their data centers are independently SAS 70 certified.  There are no planned capabilities to support local installations of Alma. 

Due to this architecture, Alma will be able to offer analytics and to base them on shared data (provided customers agree) using Oracle’s analytic tools.  The result is that libraries should have comprehensive analytics across all their assets (and potentially all libraries using the “Collaborative Business Intelligence” tools).  Together, these capabilities should offer customers some powerful decision making capabilities and user-focused services in the future.

Unlike other library services platform providers, Ex Libris has focused on the functional needs of a smaller segment of the library marketplace (academic, research, national and corporate libraries being their primary markets).   This has provided the company with some advantage in that even though they’re writing an entirely new product, they’ve been able to develop more depth of functionality than competing library services platforms.  That functionality includes: selection (acquisitions and demand driven acquisitions (DDA)), print management (circulation, reserves, ILL, etc.), electronic management (licensing, tracking, etc.), digital asset management (IR functions), metadata management (cataloging, collaborative metadata management) and link resolution (OpenURL).  At the time of the demo I saw, the company was reporting a total of 40 signed contracts for Alma, representing 80 institutions.  14 of those institutions were in North America.  The numbers are likely higher at this time.

The product moves libraries from “just-in-case” to “just-in-time” collection development models.  It also features configurable workflows using a manager tool that allows tasks to be assigned to staff.  Due to the configurability of workflows, libraries can largely retain existing workflows and then consolidate and streamline them as time permits.  Of course, it must also be noted that while much functionality exists at this point, there is still functionality missing.  It’s the classic case of the software product being sold vs. the product being delivered in that there are some discrepancies between the vision and the deliverable at this point in time.  Furthermore, some of that missing functionality is fairly major including things like consortia capabilities, which will not be released until 2013.  Also planned, but not yet released is support for EAD and MODS.     

One of the new features offered, as part of Alma is the “Community Catalog” used for the sharing/storage of metadata between libraries.  Data in the Community Catalog uses the PDL open data license.  Among the data currently loaded are records from: CONSER, LC, British Library and Journal metadata records.  It is yet to be seen if this will become a truly viable alternative to other major sources of metadata records, but again, the foundations appear solid.

With regard to openness, Ex Libris is another company that has long offered open API’s on their products.  Plans for Alma also include open API’s (application programming interfaces) and support for SOA (service oriented architecture).  The company has long offered support for customers doing OSS (open source software) extensions to their products via the ELCommons website.  This site features a Wiki and a code-sharing site, which allows customers to share code, documentation and presentations about the code extensions.  There are separate sections offered for each of their major products.

Bottom Line

Because of Ex Libris’ focus on depth of functionality rather than breadth of market, Alma appears to currently offer the richest level of functionality available in the new library services platforms.  Indeed, some of the sites that have switched away from other new library services platforms have noted this as one of the very reasons for their move to Alma.  At the same time, this functionality comes at a bit of a price in that you can readily and easily see that this product has been shaped primarily by large academic libraries, i.e. the functionality is more complex.  As a result, some of the the workflows don’t appear as smooth or streamlined as those seen in the competitive offerings.  Of course, this comparison won’t be totally valid until the competing products offer the same capabilities in supporting a workflow.  Still, the Ex Libris customer base has a large number of medium-small academic libraries in it and given that most of those libraries are shedding product complexity for streamlined processes, one must wonder how suitable they’ll ultimately find Alma to be in addressing those workflows.  This profession has seen numerous examples of a product being made to work for research libraries and then thinking they can be easily adapted to smaller libraries or similarly, in making a product work for a consortium and then trying to adapt it to standalone libraries – the result is usually some major bumps in the road for those smaller customers.

Ex Libris has others factor at play that deserves some thoughtful consideration.  With Alma now at customer sites, it means they’re supporting three library systems (Aleph,Voyager and Alma), a discovery interface (Primo), link resolver (SFX), recommender (bX), ERM (Verde), preservation system (Rosetta), digital content management system (DigiTool) and a metasearch tool (MetaLib).  By any measure that’s a lot of products and a lot of overlap.  Realistically, one has to ask how long this is reasonably sustainable for the company (and thus the customers).  Although again, it should be noted, they've largely been doing just that for some time now.  

Just to add to the mix of considerations, as I’ve noted before, Ex Libris is another company owned by an equity investor firm. This adds to the list of issues to be contemplated, not the least of which is the current owners (Leeds Equity) bought the company in August 2008.   3-5 years is a very typical time frame for equity investors to sell and exit (the equity investors/owners previous to Leeds didn’t even make it two full years).  We’re at 4+ years at the time I'm writing this.  So clearly a change in ownership would seem likely within the foreseeable future.   

A new owner may or may not have the same appetite for supporting all those products and overlap.  We’ve seen other equity owners of companies in this market segment, when taking over the ownership, quickly start terminating existing products, or  putting forth an end-of-life date on maintenance availability.  This is done in order to increase profitability and theoretically, sales (it is very questionable if in the long term, that strategy actually succeeds, but that rarely stops equity investors from doing it. As an example, consider what happened at SirsiDynix).   

Depending on the course taken by new owners, existing customers may find they need to move somewhere quicker than they were planning.  Or maybe not. Ex Libris has done well so far in retaining total decision-making authority during previous ownership transitions and while they have, when purchasing companies, pushed customers to leave behind existing products, they have not terminated support for products developed by Ex Libris itself as long as customers continued to pay maintenance.   So hopefully that will continue when the next turnover in ownership occurs.  The point for you however is simple; there are some unknown variables here that you should consider in your decision making.

The flip side of equity investor ownership is that Ex Libris also has available impressive financial resources to enable the company to do big things.  For example, setting up a services like Primo Central or cloud computing environment is very expensive.  While to the best of my knowledge, Ex Libris has relied only on internal company financial resources to do this kind of work, the equity investor ownership does give them the capability to reach beyond that should it ever be needed for say another acquisition. However, as I've said before, this type of ownership needs to be balanced against the issues I’ve raised in my post about equity investor ownership of these firms.

In summary, depending on the type of library you’re working in and the needs of that organization, Alma can represent a truly modern library services platform that will carry your library forward for many years to come.  I would recommend, as always, that you understand your needs thoroughly and do your due diligence carefully before buying Alma at an early stage of its life cycle.  In the short term, if there is a good match between those needs and what will be delivered today, Alma represents a very solid choice when buying a new library services platform.  In the long run, Alma will most certainly be a major contender in the library services platform offerings.

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 (this post)
6a. Ex Libris and Golden Gate Capital
7. Open Skies by VTLS