Monday, November 26, 2012

Impressions of the new library services platforms - Part 7 - Open Skies by VTLS

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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 some of this blog’s readers will know, I served as the President & COO of VTLS between April of 2003 and April of 2007.  Since leaving the company they’ve done business with 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. 


VTLS is one of the older firms in the library automation business and is one of the very few to remain under the original leadership/management.  The company has long done business internationally, a trend that continues to represent a substantial part (82% of revenues according to the 2012 LJ Automation Marketplace survey of their business today).   Their entrant into the library services platform is tentatively being called "Open Skies" a name, which might change upon final release.


Open Skies is the very latest entrant into the library services platform arena.  The approach of VTLS has taken is similar to that seen with Innovative's Sierra in that they're repackaging their existing ILS technology (Virtua) while combining it with other existing VTLS technologies and adding in new capabilities.  VTLS has also added support for multimedia, multi-format metadata, support for mobile devices and greater interoperability with 3rd party systems through support for open application programming interfaces (API's) and service oriented architecture (SOA). They're using a unified Drupal user interface (UI) on top of Chamo and Chamo Discovery and other existing products and through that interface are making data from VITAL and Virtua available to end-users.  As we've seen with other library services platforms use of Solr is also employed in Open Skies.  The specific steps are to merge access of content from Virtua and VITAL, merge Chamo and Visualizer into a new Chamo Discovery module, create a common metadata management system for Virtua and Vital and develop enhanced displays of FRBR and RDA records.

Considerations for Libraries

Given this approach, there is no loss of existing functionality in moving from Virtua to this product, rather it is an approach that adds functionality by integrating print and digital content, adds streaming media support, allows events and activities to be supported, provides basic preservation services for digital content and e-book collection management as well as extensive support for mobile users.  Of course the functionality in Virtua, a mature product, was comprehensive for an ILS. 

I'm going to repeat many of the same things I previously said in my blog post about Sierra, because the company approaches are very similar and thus carry the same advantages and disadvantages both for the libraries selecting this option and for VTLS as a company.  

Again, let's start by looking at the logic, starting with libraries. As noted before, this approach realizes many libraries are in no hurry to re-engineer their backroom processes in light of the possible costs involved and feel that the library can get better or greater support by focusing on end-user facing improvements.  Understanding that many libraries have to make very tough choices in this environment, many will, for at least the short term, focus new investments on user-facing improvements.  Thus, investing currently in re-engineering back room processes won't be a priority for these libraries and if they're already running Virtua, they'll have a choice of simply upgrading to Open Skies with minimal disruption and yet obtain new functionality to serve out to end-users.   For those not running Virtua but yet needing to move off of an existing ILS, this choice will be tougher when it comes to Open Skies as no ILS conversion is painless and therefore the libraries will have to weigh, if they're going to go down that path, would they be better off to just go straight to a totally new, more fully integrated back end Library Service Platforms, such as those represented by WorldShare, Alma, or Intota.  That won't be an easy question to answer, but it will be one the library staff will need to ponder and decide carefully.

As noted when I discussed this approach concerning Innovative, for VTLS the logic here is that they can point out that there is no loss of existing functionality (since they aren't redeveloping it and in fact, are adding to the existing functionality), there is minimal additional training needed (which is also less demanding on company staff resources), they'll be able offer a quicker conversion of existing customers to the updated product, fewer bugs (the code isn't new), less documentation to write, less testing to be done, etc.  It's a sizeable list of advantages.  But before declaring this path an obvious winner, as with Innovative, lets consider the disadvantages for libraries and VTLS.

The risk for libraries comes in several parts. First, because this is not a true cloud-computing platform (it's a SaaS solution), and local installations are still supported, VTLS will not be able to optimize their use of company resources in supporting one version of the software.   VTLS will doubtless end up supporting many versions given the path they've chosen here. This will be translated into higher overhead costs that ultimately all VTLS customers must bear (and one which those providers offering a true cloud-computing solution will avoid).  Of course, this has to be balanced against the needs of those libraries, which due to security or availability reasons, feel they must run a local installation and for which cloud computing solutions simply won't be an option.   For them this overhead will be very worthwhile.

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 Open Skies doesn't offer these new integrated workflows it's a missed opportunity for your library.  How important this will be for your library depends on where it is in that continuum of moving towards digital collections.  The same thing I said about Sierra applies here.  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. VTLS, which reported in last years LJ Automation Marketplace survey that there are 1,798 installations using their products, has apparently decided that the majority of their customers will agree with their assessment.

As for how open the system is, Open Skies provides basic support for linked data as well as open API's that conform to Chamo structures (but note that this is not an open public specification such as Open Social,  which is used in products like OCLC's WorldShare).

Reporting capabilities and the ability to support aggregated data and analytic analysis appear to be further down the road for Open Skies.   There is no mention of these capabilities or any plan to address them, in the presentations I've seen.

Open Skies is scheduled to be released in early 2013 and should be fully demonstrable for the first time at Mid-Winter ALA in Seattle in January 2013.

Bottom Line

As mentioned at the beginning, VTLS is still under the original leadership that started the firm, Vinod Chachra.   One has to admire the ability of any CEO to survive that long in this marketplace.  It's no small feat.  Yet it also raises questions/concerns.  If you're signing up for Open Skies, you're likely doing so with the expectation that it will last anywhere from three to ten years.  In which case, as we've seen happen with all the other firms in the business, one has to wonder what happens when the day comes that the leadership and/or ownership of the firm changes?  Will it stay within the Chachra family, will it be sold and if so, to which company and/or private equity firm? Or will the Board bring in new management at that time, and if so, what will that mean for the customers and products?   All are perfectly valid questions to be put on the table in any analysis of Open Skies and the answers should be obtained and examined carefully before a library makes any commitment to this product.  

VTLS has, for some time, best succeeded in a couple of segments in the library marketplace.  As mentioned above, they've long had a strong presence in international libraries, ranging from national libraries to small, public, academic and special.   The other place they've established a strong niche is in those sites where a highly customized solution is required.   Queens Borough Public in New York City, Hong Kong Public in Hong Kong and ISSN International Centre in Paris, France are just a few of the most prominent examples.  While those customizations ultimately make it back into the main product, one has to wonder if that kind of additional specialized complexity will be of interest to libraries in North America that are facing budget restrictions and have the need to simplify and or streamline backend operations?  Even if it can be configured out of the workflow of those libraries not wishing to use it, that complexity creates overhead in the core product in terms of documentation, testing and maintenance -- all of which create costs that all VTLS customers must bear. Yet, for those libraries within the segments described above, VTLS will likely continue to be a good choice.   

An additional challenge that VTLS faces, at least in the North American market, is that they don't have a large presence.  So, for Open Skies to penetrate this key market it will place prospective buyers in the situation of having to go through an extensive conversion process and retraining of staff.  If a library is going to do that then they'll most certainly want to consider if they shouldn't just move to one of the newer, more fully re-engineered and comprehensively integrated back-end library service platforms?   While Open Skies offers some interesting capabilities, libraries will have to carefully analyze whether or not those will provide more value for end-users and administration than can be obtained by re-engineering backroom workflows so as to be able to free up staff in order to resource other entirely new services.

Of course, given the 1,798 existing installations of VTLS products and for libraries deciding new services are not as critical as the existing services, the smoother move to Open Skies from Virtua will offer a lot of benefits and new functionality.  For those libraries in particular, Open Skies may be an entirely logical step and viable option for moving forward in the next several years.  As with any of these newer offerings, library technologists considering Open Skies should perform their due diligence, understand their needs carefully and make a well informed decision.

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 (this post)