Users list what's wrong with software vendors

Rising maintenance costs, inflexible terms prompt memo to the software industry

ORLANDO -- Users are bringing a new tool to their ongoing effort to get vendors to improve delivery of software maintenance -- a "code of conduct for IT maintenance."

This code is a step beyond the typical, blunt-force ways of getting vendors to offer favorable terms. It's a way of telling the software industry, concisely, just what is wrong with it.

Among its authors is Steven Stone, CIO of Lowe's Cos., who said he participated in developing the code because software maintenance "is our largest growing line item in our expenses, and it's been that way for about the last 10 years."

The code also arrives at the same time the major software providers are buying up other firms, and big firms can be the least flexible in their maintenance terms, said Patrick Savard, senior director of IT services and process management at McGraw-Hill Cos. Savard also worked on the code. "The fear that we have is this consolidation in the industry," he said.

Whether the code has any influence may be up to Gartner, which organized a council of senior IT executives to work on the problem. The merits of the code were discussed at Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo here.

Among the things the code asks vendors to do is to provide predictable software updates that are, among other things, fast enough to respond to changes in laws and regulations.

"Our challenge in getting patches out to 1,700-plus stores is we really have to coordinate a lot of different vendors, a lot of different stuff together, so knowing that schedule upfront really makes our job a lot easier," said Stone.

The code also calls for "stratified IT support levels" that would deliver the highest levels of support to the most critical business processes. Vendors don't necessarily do that, meaning that companies will pay high support costs no matter where the software is installed. It also calls for "reasonable and predictable maintenance free charges."

The need for maintenance can fall as the software becomes more stable over time, but an upgrade can bring new problems. One of the things Lowe's does with software upgrades is to "push back hard on the level of quality that we are expecting, and hold the vendor accountable for defects," Stone said.

The users also want the ability to "end support for nonproduction environments," or the ability to turn off support as the use of an application declines. Savard said he is building a case for reduced support costs through software asset management and metering, enabling him "to be able to go back with the right data" to the vendor.

Other bullet points in the code include a call for "constant, predictable service levels" and "clearly defined legacy version support."

The legacy issue is a sticking point, particularly since some software can remain in operation for decades, and the case for upgrades, in advance of end of support, is not always apparent. The code also wants an "explicit statement of line-item details," to give users better transparency into costs.

Defining "legacy" is a difficult thing, and Savard hit on one point that surfaced at the conference: the end of support for Windows XP in 2014. He said he's not sure "that there is a burning need" to get off of XP, but McGraw-Hill has to start migration now because of the advancing date.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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