Changing ERP’s spots

Jan Baan has a better claim than most IT professionals to the accolade ‘industry visionary’. Between 1978 and 1998, the co-founder of Baan Co was a pioneer of enterprise resource planning (ERP). Then, as a venture capitalist based in his native Netherlands, Baan helped to build companies like Top Tier, whose technology became the basis of SAP’s NetWeaver service-oriented architecture (SOA) strategy, and WebEx, which Cisco recently bought for $3.2 billion.

Today though, as the CEO and founder of Cordys, a 520-person, six-year old ‘start-up’ offering business process management (BPM) software for service-oriented architectures, Jan Baan is not comfortable with the visionary label. “We have a good word for that [visionary] in Dutch,” he says. “We call it bullshit.”

“Discovering what lies beyond ERP has been my passion

Jan Baan

Baan would prefer to be known as someone who has learned from the past. At its heart, he says “vision is only that: the experience that comes from past mistakes and the pain of today.”

In Baan’s case, earlier mistakes include believing that enterprise resource planning (ERP) could ever be flexible enough for the changing needs of business; his “pain of the present” stems from the

difficulty businesses face in retrofitting legacy systems to today’s SOA- and BPM-defined enterprise architectures.

“We were so naïve,” Baan says of his ERP days. “We thought we could persuade companies to adopt the business processes that we built for them, and stick with them.” In fact, as soon as most companies finished deploying their Baan Co (or SAP or Oracle-based) ERP system, it was time for it to change. At that point, says Baan, it became clear “that what we thought was a leopard turned out to be a dinosaur.”

Since leaving Baan Co in 1998, “discovering what lies beyond ERP has been my passion,” says Baan, and it has taken him in some interesting directions. Initially, working with his Vanenburg Venture investment group, Baan mentored a new generation of innovators, such as Top Tier founder Shai Agassi.

Agassi opened Baan’s eyes to the Internet’s wider potential for transforming enterprise software, and ironically, given his earlier rivalry with the German company, “we saved SAP” with that deal, says Baan. Another epiphany – this time into the potential of the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model – came from his time as the largest shareholder in WebEx.

But Baan himself had already formed a new venture and was determined to apply all he had learnt.

Cordys (now coming out of ‘stealth mode’ with an injection of $80 million in VC money) boasts a fully fledged BPM product – a package that Baan grandly claims is the only one in the market built from the ground up to embrace the principles of SOA.

Most other BPM and enterprise application integration (EAI) companies like to link their products to the SOA zeitgeist using web services. Such strategies are “too little, too late”, says Baan, and are generally flawed by earlier technology choices that reflect yesterday’s ERP and database-centric approach to enterprise software delivery.

Between quitting Baan Co and founding Cordys, Baan realised that “the elements beyond ERP were based on BPM, modelling and SOA.” With Cordys, Baan believes he has cracked the problem of building a BPM and SOA toolset that delivers performance without compromising reliability.

To do this, Cordys has departed from conventional EAI and BPM practices in two key areas. It has pioneered the use of persistent XML containers as repositories of systems state, and it has adopted a grid communications model instead of either hub-and-spoke or peer-to-peer.

“High-speed needs peer-to-peer, but if you want reliability, hub-and-spoke is better. What we discovered is that with grid, you can do both,” says Baan. Cordys’ real breakthrough, however, is the use of XML containers. “Unlike products like IBM WebSphere or BEA that keep state information in a process, Cordys creates the state in a persistent XML document,” says Baan. “If the system crashes the document still persists, so you can bring it back into the system and it carries on.”

As SOA and BPM evolve, and as Web 2.0 phenomena such as ‘instant application mash-ups’ proliferate, Baan says organisations recognise the need to truly decouple their IT assets by disentangling systems state from business processes. This may not be a vision of the future per se but it certainly represents a bet on what enterprise customers will need to do next. Given Baan’s track record, few will be betting against him.

Further reading

Agile ERP Can enterprise resource planning ever become as flexible as modern business requires?

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Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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