The dream of a one-stop shop that can fulfill all a corporate information systems man-ager's needs for multivendor, multiplatform support is still just that: a dream. The main reason is the growth of client/server applications. It's not for want of competition, because a growing legion of third-party support companies aspires to be the customer's answer to the "who-ya-gonna-call" question. From major systems houses such as Digital and Hewlett-Packard, to the stalwarts of the PC reseller channel, a host of vendors are building business models based on getting the corporate manager's support dollars.
One giant obstacle remains, however, before any of them can truly claim to have all the answers: enterprisewide application software. The traditional database server applications from the likes of Oracle and Sybase and the burgeoning client/server application suites from companies such as SAP and Peoplesoft remain areas where multivendor support companies fear to tread. Corporate customers who need more help than vendors themselves can provide are left with few alternatives.
Bob Johnson, director of software services for US-based Dataquest, sees a number of factors contributing to the push for support services from external suppliers. "There's a greater comfort level with external support providers now, and a growing need for one-stop shopping," Johnson said. "And at bottom, there's the complexity issue. The pace of innovation is so rapid, particularly in client/server environments, that in trying to support everything with your own internal resources, you risk becoming a jack-of-all-trades and master of none."
Another factor is the simple fact that, in most cases, product support no longer comes free. Because the customer faces the prospect of having to pay the product vendor for support anyway, it makes sense to look at third-party options, which may offer equivalent support at a better price.
In fact, when customers call a vendor for sup- port, the chances are good that they are actually talking to a third-party support company. Although that practice has long been common in the PC arena, vendors aren't even trying to hide it anymore. Microsoft promoted the fact that it brought in five third-party support companies as support partners in the Windows 95 launch; Microsoft is encouraging those companies to compete with its own premium support offerings.
At the desktop end of the business, software publishers are just as happy to see third-party support companies taking over for them. "From the point of view of the enterprise, we're pricing our support so we're not necessarily your best bet anymore," said Deborah Willingham, vice-president of product support services for Microsoft US. "We're expecting an infrastructure to develop of third parties, and the more you're in this multivendor environment, the more it makes sense to look. And that actually makes it easier for us, because we're not sitting here trying to grow a big service revenue for this company."
Although software vendors in the PC arena are now gener-ally more than willing to share their support work with third parties, the support model is quite different at the enterprise end of the software business. Hundreds of third-party companies exist that can take over a customer's help desk calls on Microsoft Word or WordPerfect issues, but there are very few that would even claim to be able to serve as a help desk for an application that they didn't develop.
"Demand far exceeds supply when it comes to horizontal client/server application support," said Kurt Johnson, director of software services research for International Data Corporation. "Application management for those systems is the next area that's going to take off."
But how many organisations will be able to find, train, and keep the staff they need to maintain their client/server systems? Many observers think it will be difficult.
"People who can support client/server systems are getting hired away by the support companies, and it really drives up the price for the internal IS person," IDC's Johnson said. "If you're a com-pany that builds circuits, for example, are you going to want to spend as much money for those people as a company that provides support as its business does, or are you going to spend it on skills that are strategic for building circuits?"
The support companies themselves also see this as an inevitable evolution. "The pace of change is huge when you talk about companies that are migrating to client/server," said Janet Wallace, vice-president of Digital's multivendor customer services for the Americas. "They can't hire people fast enough, and they can't hang on to them, because in many cases they don't have a career path for them. We can offer those people a career path."
Digital and the other major systems companies that are now moving into the multivendor support business - and virtually all of them are at least trying to - may also have an advantage over other third-party support companies when it comes to their relationship with the enterprise software companies.
"The Digital platform has the second highest installed base of SAP, and we spend a lot of time throughout the company selling SAP and therefore learning to support it," Wallace said. But Digital's supporting SAP's R3 on the Digital platform is not exactly multiplatform support, so the big systems folks don't have all the answers, either.
"On the [enterprise] software side, nobody offers a multivendor software solution," said Scott Shimomura, product manager for SunVIP from the SunService division of Sun Microsystems. "If you call HP or DEC or us and ask, 'Hey, can you write a contract to come in and run my Oracle database?' you can't get that. And frankly, the market isn't ready to shift to a single-source basis in that respect, because customers still want to maintain contact with the Oracles and the Sybases because they are the product experts."
Shimomura's recently announced Sun Vendor Integration Program (SunVIP) aims to address that situation by allowing SunService to function as a single point of contact for its customers and ISV partners.
"It's still faster for the customer to contact the ISV when they know it's a problem with that product. But if they're having difficulty isolating it, then they can call us," Shimomura said. "If, after we isolate the problem, it's clear they should be dealing with, say, Oracle, we'll open a call with them and give Oracle our diagnostic test data so the customer is not starting over."
Of course, Sun is not alone in offering to be a services integrator. Most of the third-party support organisations will tell you they can integrate services from ISVs, system manufacturers, and, if need be, other support companies. Announce-ments of support alliances are made on an almost daily basis, but many turn out to be relatively ineffective.
Co-operation can be particularly difficult between the enterprise application vendors and the big systems vendors' multivendor support organisations. "It's funny - I'll have IBM or DEC come in and tell me how they can solve all my support problems and how they know everything from SAP to Word," said one IS manager. "But then SAP or Oracle will come in the next day and tell me they don't tell those guys anything and that we shouldn't believe their claims. It makes you wonder if these companies share any information at all."
There is a natural tension between the client/server software vendors and the support companies, because the software companies are used to having a healthy revenue stream from maintenance contracts. "These companies are doing some very profitable support business of their own, so how much do they want DEC and HP to get out of this business, at least without getting something back?" IDC's Johnson said.
This situation contrasts sharply with the desktop software side, where the publishers seem increasingly willing to co-operate. Although the large support consortiums have yet to produce much in the way of visible benefits, individual companies are finding it to be in their interest to work together.
Both Microsoft and Novell Inc officials, for example, said that their agreement to work together on Windows 95 and NetWare issues has been effective.
"The co-operative support relationship with Novell has worked very well," Microsoft's Willingham said. "We had daily conference calls during the Win95 launch and a regular forum to resolve issues. I think we both realise we need to do it, because our customers need us to work together."
Many observers believe co-operation with third-party support companies will become standard behaviour at the high end as well. "It's a company-by-company thing in terms of breaking down the cultural barriers, and some just haven't gone through that yet," Dataquest's Bob Johnson said. "The fact is, though, every publisher is in the same boat on support, and it's leaking. The benefits [of co-operation] far outweigh any of the possible negatives."
IDC's Johnson also believes enterprise soft-ware vendors will follow the lead of their desktop colleagues. "Right now, you don't see SAP contracting out support to other parties, but that's partly because of a lack of suppliers who could do it," he said.