January 24, 2000 — In recent weeks, the former Ameritech Library Services has been very busy. It has just transformed itself into epixtech, inc. (www.epixtech.com) as a group of investors purchased the library division of Ameritech from SCB Communications. (For more information on this, see my Systems Librarian column in the January 2000 issue of Information Today.) Almost in parallel to this development, epixtech, inc. acquired the Universal Resource Sharing Application (URSA) from the Australian-based CPS Systems. Since the restructuring, the company has also announced some major contracts, including the Barrington Area Library in Illinois and the Hillsborough County Public School System. Epixtech has hit the ground running as it begins its new corporate existence.
The ASP Model
Most recently, epixtech announced the availability of a new approach in library automation where the company serves as an Applications Service Provider, or ASP, delivering access to its Horizon automation software via the Internet. This new product combines the Horizon library automation software from epixtech and the Application Server Provider program offered by Citrix Systems.
I spoke with Scott Wheelhouse, vice president for product management of epixtech, inc., at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Antonio about this new product offering. ASP is a configuration of the Horizon library automation system in which all the software components of the system and its server are housed at an epixtech data center. The customer library maintains control of the configuration of the system, and all the modules operate in the usual way. This arrangement places less demand on the library for the technical management of its library automation system and offers a financial model that requires less up-front capital.
A press release from Citrix Systems, Inc., announced the participation of epixtech and 30 other companies as new participants in the Citrix Application Server program. It states: “Citrix application server software enables ASPs to centralize the installation, deployment, and administration of applications on their servers, and deliver them with high predictability, speed, and security across any network connection to users on virtually any platform and/or client device. A unique advantage of Citrix application server software is its ability to deliver the full richness and interactivity of Windows, UNIX, and Java applications over the Web or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in a thin, manageable manner.”
From a financial point of view, ASP offers the library a predictable budget model. The cost of the software is spread across the first 3 years of the contract. This annual fee may be more attractive to some libraries than the alternative of raising funds for the initial purchase of hardware and software up front. After the first 3 years, the library pays standard software maintenance.
From the library's perspective, the system will appear as if the library has a discrete server. Behind the scenes, multiple library systems may be grouped on consolidated servers, but scaled to deliver optimal performance. Libraries that use ASP will have full control of the configuration of their systems, retaining the ability to establish their own policies, preferences, and options.
ASP eliminates much of the need for on-site technical expertise, since the server side of the system resides entirely at the epixtech host site. The Horizon software—server and client components—is installed and maintained by epixtech staff. Upgrades to the software will be implemented as needed by epixtech staff.
The library operates the system in the same way as when the server is housed locally, and the same options for patron access apply. The staff software for Horizon is distributed through the Citrix MetaFrame environment. To access the software, staff will use either a Web browser or the Windows-based Citrix client. Only screen and keyboard information traverse the Internet. This approach requires much less network bandwidth than when the Horizon client software is loaded directly onto the desktop computers in the library. When a library accesses its system via the Internet, measures must be taken to ensure tight security. The epixtech ASP program uses Virtual Private Networks to prevent unauthorized access to the library's system and to ensure that data passed via the Internet is secure.
Wheelhouse indicates that this new arrangement will help libraries to be well positioned to expand their information environment in the future. The architecture of ASP will be developed in such a way that other resources and services can be easily integrated into the library's online catalog.
Epixtech offers only its Horizon system in the ASP arrangement. This will not be an option for Dynix or NOTIS.
The ASP service is available now, having successfully completed rounds of initial testing. The Jesuit-Krauss-McCormick Library that serves McCormick Theological Seminary and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago was a beta test site for ASP. Blake Walter, the systems librarian, indicates that the library has been impressed with the speed of performance of the Horizon system when accessed through ASP. The library is pleased to be in the forefront of this technology trend.
Some Interesting Implications
This model of library automation has interesting implications for the industry. If a significant number of libraries adopt this approach, their combined collections on a central server will in effect be a major Internet-based library. Taken to a logical conclusion, a collective group of libraries implementing this solution would build a virtual union catalog that could offer opportunities for libraries to gain efficiencies over a model where each library operates a discrete system. It is, however, too early to make any predictions in this area. How many libraries will be willing to relinquish local control of their systems and become entirely dependent on the performance of a vendor and on the stability and reliability of the Internet?
The epixtech ASP program is the first trial of a full-blown thin-client deployment of a library automation system. The thin-client architecture is gaining ground in other industries. Only time will tell if this is the beginning of an important new technology trend for library automation.
Marshall Breeding is the technology analyst at the Heard Library at Vanderbilt University, a columnist for Information Today, and a frequent writer and speaker on library technology issues. His e-mail address is email@example.com.