Take a look at the rat’s nest of data interfaces between your systems. Take a second look at the complexities of making a modern client/server ERP (enterprise resource planning) application talk to the former – if you’re feeling strong enough, then think about the work involved in making that new new app talk to the new-ish app you bought last year (and are still knee- deep in the implementation of). Think about all your middleware options – messaging, CORBA, (plus tin cans and string, hopes and prayers?). Now you’re good and sick, think about the work involved in preparing the data needed for the Data Warehouse project you’re about to begin. If you’re still more or less conscious, though feeling decidedly seasick, congratulations – you’re now feeling the gut pain of the average large enterprise CIO, without the salary!
by Gary Flood
Wouldn’t you say there is a market in this scenario for a way to make all that disappear? Step forward Constellar Corporation, since last March no longer a UK-only company – indeed judging from the accents in their rapidly-filling offices literally a stone’s throw from Oracle Corp in Redwood City, the firm is now solidly American funded and staffed. Constellar, as we have noted (CI No 3,122), is all about providing what it calls a hub to manage the movement of data across that spaghetti mess described above. (Though the company’s founder and CEO, Brian Donnelly, prefers the more gentlemanly term ‘enterprise application network,’ let us note.) The term hub is chosen deliberately, and not just as a way to differentiate the product from its older name, Information Junction: for Constellar is nothing if not determined and ambitious enough to think of itself as the Cisco Systems Inc of the software world in waiting. Cisco brought in hubs ten years ago to solve the whole messy point-to-point network thing, and we want to do the same for the enterprise application network. No one ever asks, Cisco, what vertical do you play in?’ says Donnelly, indicating the breadth and potentiality he sees for his nine year old company, and the possible widespread applicability of the Constellar Hub approach, especially to the larger organization. Another term he uses for what Constellar does: industrial strength plumbing.
So what is this – middleware? No – Donnelly takes the example of neighbor Crossroads Software Inc (CI No 3,299), which defines itself as a middleware application company, saying that Constellar is a step even beyond that. So what is this – data transformation and extraction a la Prism Solutions Inc, or Evolutionary Technology Inc? Nope – same answer. Yet a third time – so this is metadata exchange, along the lines of fellow former Brits cum Silicon Valley hopefuls One Meaning Inc (CI No 3,278)? Nada – same answer (though both companies have a quite similar ‘hub and spoke’ architectural model). Donnelly and his team – which includes such new senior talent as George Colliat, vice president of engineering and the man who built Essbase for OLAP player Arbor Software Inc – are saying that the analysts haven’t come up with the new term for what they do (acknowledging in passing Crossroads’ neologism ‘processware’ as a step in the right direction), hence the confusion. As is now familiar (CI No 3,162), Constellar was but a UK only Oracle consultancy until 1993, when Donnelly was invited to write a complex data transformation engine for British Telecommunications Plc. Based on Oracle – and Donnelly to this day stresses that what the Hub is still 90% an Oracle database, implying that it is not exotic cuisine to the majority of consultants and end users out there – the system is a C and SQL based application for the moving and cleansing of Gigabytes of operational data. That sentence should have keyed two reactions, or Donnelly will be disappointed: scalability, and Data Warehousing. The first to solidify the idea that Constellar is a high-end tool (a basic hub starts at $250,000, with sales increasingly multi-Hub plus consultancy); the second as a way to get you interested, but not to box the company in as just a niche Data Mart player, which we don’t want to be. For companies need cleansed and transformed data from all their disparate systems for their operational systems as much as their Data Warehouses, he argues. Timely, accurate data must be maintained in both Warehouses and the group of key operational systems (general ledgers, accounts payable systems and so forth) that require flawless data to be effective, the company argues, with the Hub acting as the virtual Memphis, Tennessee Hub of an information architecture Federal Express Corp, and all the various transport media (middleware, etc.) being just the right data trucks to bring it in and out. No small claim for a company that was an Oracle consulting house until four years ago. But Constellar is shooting for the Moon here. On the one hand it is very anxious to be taken seriously as a public company in embryo, with 1998 seen as its last year as a private concern, and on the other it is very conservative in releasing sales figures and, it claims, cuts its cloth likewise in revenue recognition policies. The company’s fiscal currently closes at the end of September, and all it is saying for its just completed 1997 that it was 140% up from 1996, which in turn ended up being triple the previous years numbers. President and chief operating officer Nic Birtles suggested around $13m sales this year in an April interview in London, and Donnelly admitted the target for fiscal 1998 was going to be a high teenager (millions). The company has received two rounds of funding in the last year and a half (adding up to just under $9m), and seems poised to receive a third, judging by the investment bankers we saw in the conference room, which may or may not represent its final pre-offering mezzanine round. It has also expanded to 120 staff, 40 based in California, with development still mostly proceeding in London for the time being, it seems, despite the fact that it now says over 50% of sales come from the North American market.
Donnelly says the company’s exit strategy is firmly set at IPO, but there is the fact that the company is very cosy with its database giant neighbor – will the company simply be absorbed and become a Death Star satellite? Donnelly says no, as the company has recently been valued at over $100m potentially – the implication being Larry Ellison, $2bn less well off after last week, promises to be less of a rich uncle these days. What could go wrong for Constellar? There is the fact of its European heritage; but given that fact that SAP AG and Baan NV, German and Dutch respectively, are two of the world’s leading ERP vendors, that probably isn’t such a big deal. A bigger danger is that people don’t ‘get it,’ box them in as a Data Warehouse player alone, and think the Cisco analogy a little bit of a reach. Which may be a pity, if the impressive case studies from Sprint Corp, ScottishPower Plc and new customer Deutsche Bank AG are solid: for all seem to suggest that Constellar really is helpful in easing that seasick feeling that we (sorry!) had to make you feel to start with. The best answer to this potential obstacle is provided by Donnelly himself, who has actually reproduced on his business card a perfectly frightful state diagram of the system interfaces of one previous customer. That’s what we’re about, he says – and in this case, as so often, one picture really does beat a thousand words.