Despite being labeled a toaster, Lotus Foundations may be just what SMBs truly need.
As Lotusphere in Orlando wraps up this week, the IBM Lotus product-marketing strategy continues to come into increasingly sharp focus, much the way a football game does as you take your seat in the bleachers and bring in the players on the field by dialing in your binoculars.
I concede that for some time I have wondered how all the products that were under development at Lotus were supposed to work together and how the company was ever going to make money once that happened--if it ever did. I have to confess that I'm beginning to see the light now, and I appreciate more the value of the various collaboration tools companies can choose from to complement the core Lotus Notes and Domino offerings.
One product introduced last year that I never truly appreciated is IBM Lotus Foundations. I think the label that threw me off is the word "appliance," a somewhat diminutive term that somehow doesn't fit the auspicious role assigned to it--that of running your company's IT infrastructure. You don't want a toaster running your business; you want a beefy, fast, reliable macho computer with gigabytes of memory and gigahertz of clock speed. You want a workhorse that's going to take you into the next decade, not an appliance that's going to get a short in it and require the Sears repairman.
So much for a name (I must finally give credit to the selected "Foundations," which suggests the underpinnings on which everything else is based.) Of course "appliance" in IT lingo today means just what IBM Lotus Foundations embodies: a combined hardware and software product designed to do one thing well without a lot of intervention and fine-tuning.
For the uninitiated, Lotus Foundations is described as a "family" of software appliances--though to date I believe there are but two, the first being called Foundations Start--designed to provide essential IT infrastructure at an affordable price to companies of between five and 500 users. Foundations has an operating system that is what IBM calls a "closed-source Linux core" and consumes only 100 MB of space, so it can run on a flash-based ROM disk. Applications can run in a virtual server environment separate from the operating system environment. It can connect into a variety of network environments--be they Windows, Macintosh, UNIX, or Linux--and remains transparent to the client user. It was in the news this week for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it now includes Windows applications among those that can run in its virtual environment. That feature was announced last fall as a pilot with VMware and is now released into production.
The Foundations product self-installs onto the hard disk, performs the proper partitioning and system setup (including a network scan), makes various decisions about whether it should enable its DHCP server, and then goes on to configure its firewall. The computer has a number of very nifty and advanced features that, if they all actually work as promised--and IBM has testimonials claiming they do--truly brings autonomic computing to small and medium businesses.
First of all, Foundations is designed to be installed within 30 minutes, but after that, it's going to take care of itself. It fulfills a promise of maintenance-free computing that was made years ago but never delivered, even with systems like the AS/400, which takes a fair amount of knowledge to operate and back up. Foundations can take care of its own backups with a proprietary integrated disk backup technology. It automatically backs up the whole infrastructure, including files, emails, and databases, as often as every 15 minutes and allows the user to rotate and swap out disks for off-site storage. It even has a single "system restore" button that recovers core functions. It has integrated anti-virus and anti-spam technology, configurable security for file access and user teams, and manageability features that include a Web interface that provides for remote management. Announced at Lotusphere this week was a version specifically designed for branch offices and remote sites where IT support is unavailable.
Released in July 2008, it is the first product in the IBM Smart Business Initiative (earlier known as the Blue Business Platform). Foundations is based on technology acquired in early 2008 when IBM bought Net Integration Technologies, Inc. with key products Nitix and Nitix Blue. Since then, IBM has changed and enhanced the product. Foundations now includes Lotus office productivity tools, such as Symphony; the most recent versions of Lotus Notes and Domino; and Domino Access support for Outlook 2003 and 2007. It can scale up to 500 users without requiring additional servers.
While some have questioned what the difference is between Lotus Foundations and IBM Smart Cube, Mike Prochaska, head of IBM's Smart Business, explains that Foundations is a part of IBM Smart Market for customers who want a simple, low-cost appliance-like collaboration solution. While similar in concept, Smart Cube provides the back-end platform for a customer-specific solution and represents what may be a greater level of flexibility and configuration choice than Foundations is able to offer. The Smart Cube is always connected to the Smart Market, from which it can download solutions to handle a multitude of situations.
The good news for developers and Business Partners is that a developers kit is available for both so that Business Partners can customize Domino solutions for their clients' unique needs, and Lotus Foundations Start also is available as software-only, geared for Business Partners to complement their own third-party hardware systems, but these wouldn't support all of the above-listed features. The latest news is that IBM is working with Xerox to align Lotus Foundations with Xerox' Extensible Interface Platform (EIP) that will allow ISVs and Business Partners to build solutions that manage documents and other digital content.
Says Tom Durkin, director of Xerox' corporate strategy: "Combine Foundations and EIP and you will have a complete collaboration infrastructure in which solutions can be prototyped, developed, and deployed quickly and easily to the SMB market."
Despite what may be happening in the economy, this sounds like a promising new business opportunity to me.