Software product innovation with Staff&Line

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Staff&Line‘s EasyVista is an interesting systems management product that evolved out of the asset management space, which distinguishes it from other systems management products (which evolved out of Help Desk and Service Management). In essence, it seems to deliver the systems management experience familiar in the Enterprise mainframe space—but to cater to a new user community in small to medium companies (its sweet spot is 1,000–10,000 PCs, although this isn’t a software limitation and its partners could implement larger installations).

We think a potential competitor, in its target market place, is probably the Microsoft systems management product set and, of course, Excel and Word, for all those companies that don’t, yet, do formal, systematic, systems management. Gregory Lefort (Staff&Line’s MD), however, sees his main competition as coming from more limited helpdesk vendors and the like: “when replacing these,” he says, “we would face ITIL specialists and service management vendors like Axios, Marval, Infra, Hornbill, Touchpaper, and of course the big gorillas (HP, BMC, CA, IBM, Symantec)”.

However, my main interest in meeting Lefort was in the lessons that IT developers, those developing marketable products, could learn from Staff&Line. For a start, it sees ITIL V3 as an opportunity—a view we have some sympathy with—because this is making systems management a more mainstream interest (in turn, this is a symptom of increasing regulatory interest in “good governance” of IT, as part of corporate governance generally). A new IT product needs to address a recognised issue, such as ITIL; and new kinds of user, such as the part-time IT support in an SME, if it is to compete with established incumbents.

Another lesson is that “context is everything”. Staff&Line comes out of France, where everybody is much more interested in asset management than they are in the UK—because asset management drives tax breaks in France. In the UK, its EasyVista is sold much more in a service management context—because that is what UK companies can relate to.

Technically, it seems to us to be built around a tight “database programming” paradigm—something we always like. It is a complete, tightly-integrated, modular suite of programs with a CMDB database at its centre. This fits well with the emerging idea (embodied in ITIL v3) of delivering complete solutions to the business. The modules in Staff&Line can be implemented by themselves—with the exception of the CMDB, which is the fundamental essence of the product (the entities managed are the assets in the Asset Management module; what Staff&Line calls its CMDB module is simply the relationships between assets treated as CIs—Configuration Items).

One important technical feature is local language support (even English English, as opposed to US English). According to Lefort, this is sometimes a deal-breaker when choosing management software. If you want people to use a software product when things are going wrong and they’re stressed, then it’s much easier if they can use their native language

Staff&Line also supports modern management initiatives, such as the use of roles/policies, to manage the systems management operations and the use of workflow automation, which is not only cost-effective but can encourage the use of company “good practice”. It also espouses a “no limits” approach—no arbitrary, artificial, limits to what you can do. Any new product competing with established players must be up to date, and even innovative; and it must pay particular attention to scalability (or, at least, to providing no surprises in that area).

Perhaps more controversially, Staff&Line is entirely self-sufficient—it writes all its own code, none is bought in from partners. In some ways, this is an attractive approach, because everything is under its control and integration can be enforced. But we can’t help feeling that sometimes buying in best of breed technology can be cost-effective—and we note that Staff&Line has also developed integrations with market leaders like Centennial Software, Landesk, Microsoft SMS, etc.

However, perhaps a key feature for software that expects to be adopted in potentially disruptive scenarios (and introduction of systems management into an organisation that hasn’t had, is probably going to be culturally disruptive) is the availability of a hosted solution. This keeps the cost of entry low and (perhaps equally significant, if you’re not sure if your company culture can adapt to systems management), keeps the cost of exit low too. There are security risks to manage with a hosted solution—but keeping data in-house isn’t risk-free either. And you can always move EasyVista in-house if you like it as a hosted solution, although Lefort says no satisfied users of the hosted solution have ever taken it in-house—yet.