In a letter to its customers dated December 7, 2001, SIRSI Corporation announced that it intends no further development of the Taos library automation system it acquired through its acquisition of Data Research Associates, Inc. SIRSI will focus its development energies exclusively on Unicorn.
The company will complete Version 1.2 of Taos, scheduled for release in February 2002. At that date, development of Taos will cease. SIRSI will continue to provide maintenance releases and bug fixes for all the former DRA systems for an indefinite period. Development efforts will be concentrated on the Unicorn library automation system and its associated iBistro and iLink portal environments. Many of the technologies and features of Taos will be built into Unicorn, extending that system's capabilities significantly. With these extended capabilities, SIRSI expects that Unicorn will be well equipped to satisfy the requirements of libraries that had previously planned to implement Taos.
In preparing for this article I have spoken with Pat Sommers, President of SIRSI, Pat Mullin, head of the DRA Users group, and representatives from both the largest and smallest libraries running Taos. I've also corresponded with Mike Mellinger, Chairman of DRA as well as a number of DRA customers in the United States, Canada, and France. I felt it important to understand this development from the company's and the customer's perspectives.
Impact for Current and Potential Taos Customers.
One fact is clear. Libraries currently running Taos have a system migration in their recent past and will have another in their not-too-distant future. Operating an automation system that is no longer being developed is generally not a viable option for most libraries.
SIRSI also gained three other library automation systems as a result of the acquisition: DRA Classic, multiLIS, and INLEX/3000. DRA had been grooming the libraries running each of these systems for an eventual migration to Taos. Although some percentage of these libraries had gone out on the market to purchase other systems, the majority did indeed seem to be on the road to Taos. With the demise of Taos, these libraries will enter a new evaluation process do decide what other library automation system will best serve their future needs. SIRSI, naturally, will work hard to convince these libraries to implement Unicorn.
SIRSI's decision to terminate Taos comes with strong incentives for existing and potential Taos customers to migrate to Unicorn. These incentives come in the form of assistance with migration and financial considerations. Libraries that have signed contracts for Taos will be entitled to migrate to Unicorn with no additional cost beyond what they paid for Taos. Data conversion and training will be provided without charge. Those libraries running DRA Classic, multiLIS, or INLEX will have the option to purchase Unicorn under similar terms that they would have received for Taos.
Library automation companies generally offer discounts to their existing customers as they upgrade from one system to another. Those that are migrating from another vendor's system or that are automating for the first time, usually pay full price for the software. Libraries running any of DRA's legacy systems are entitled to upgrade pricing for Unicorn, based on the price that DRA had previously established for its existing customers to migrate to Taos. According to Sommers, DRA customers will pay roughly 10 percent of what it would cost a new customer to purchase Unicorn. Libraries that have already paid for Taos are entitled to a one-for-one swap with no additional charge.
DRA had established liberal policies to its customers running its legacy systems for migration to Taos. No library would be forced to migrate—each would choose based on their local circumstances and their perceptions of the readiness of Taos. DRA also offered generous cost consideration. Libraries would pay for the license fees related to the ObjectStore database software, but would not pay for the Taos software itself.
Migrating from one ILS to another is a costly process for a library—even if no money is paid to the system's developer. A library spends an enormous number of hours in testing, staff training, verification of data, designing new procedures that integrate the automation system into its daily work routines. Library users will also need to adjust to the new system. Even in the best of circumstances changing library automation systems is a time-consuming and disruptive process. The amount of staff time and the level of disruption are proportionate to the size and complexity of the library.
Currently, about 35 libraries have implemented Taos. These libraries range in size from the University of California at Los Angeles with 6.4 million volumes to the Park City Public Library in Utah with a collection of about 45,000 volumes. While most of these libraries are in the U.S., libraries in France, Argentina, and Australia are also represented.
One can easily suggest that from SIRSI's perspective, it would be preferable for libraries to move to Unicorn as an upgrade rather having them engage in a full-blown selection process. A number of libraries running DRA Classic, multiLIS, and INLEX had elected to go to the marketplace and purchase other systems rather than wait for Taos. When these libraries selected from the full array of systems on the market, more often than not these libraries chose systems like Millennium, Voyager, or Aleph above Unicorn.
An obvious concern for SIRSI at this time is that they strive to retain as much of the DRA customer base as possible. An ideal future for SIRSI would be one where they offer a single library automation system—Unicorn—to all its customer libraries, retaining all those that previously ran any of DRA's four library automation systems.
SIRSI appears to be strongly motivated to hold on to DRA customer libraries. To do so it must demonstrate the strength of Unicorn as a viable next-generation system and build confidence in SIRSI as a library automation company with its customers' interests at heart. Considerations like these often outweigh the bottom-line financial costs as libraries make decisions concerning their library automation environment.
One of the largest concerns that I heard from DRA customers centered on the lack of communication from SIRSI regarding the status of Taos and other issues between the time of the acquisition in August and the announcement to drop Taos made on December 7th.
Events leading to this announcement
SIRSI announced its intent to acquire DRA in May 2001. The acquisition was completed by August 29, 2001. At the time of the acquisition, the company's position was that “SIRSI and DRA are committed to the aggressive Taos development schedules.” One of the most striking aspects of the announcement involves the short time that it has taken SIRSI change its position from “aggressive Taos development” to “no additional development.”
According to Pat Sommers, President of SIRSI, the company underwent a thorough evaluation process to take a very deliberate look at the technologies that comprise both Unicorn and Taos and make a decision in the shortest possible time. An external consultant was engaged to assist with in the evaluation. In the end, it was decided that there was nothing compelling about the technologies in Taos, and the focusing on Unicorn made sense from both technology and business perspectives.
The decision to cease the development and marketing of Taos will have a major impact on the libraries that currently use the Taos system and those DRA Classic, MultiLIS, and INLEX customers that DRA had groomed for migration to Taos. The number of libraries that had actually purchased and implemented Taos was relatively small. It is less clear how many libraries had planned to migrate to Taos.
It is my observation that the library automation industry has generally been especially accommodating in its support for library automation systems relative to the mergers and acquisitions that have taken place. One need look no further than DRA, which continued its support and development for multiLIS which it acquired in July 1994 and INLEX in October 1993. DRA demonstrated a commitment to the support and development of these two products for many years beyond their initial acquisition.
As I consider Unicorn and Taos, the following observations come to mind:
Business factors. From a business perspective, Unicorn is by far the stronger product in comparison to Taos. The business performance of Taos has been poor. Following a six-year multi-million dollar development effort, having revenue from only about 30 libraries can hardly be counted as a business success. Given the modest number of new-name sales of Taos and the sluggish rate of migration from the existing Classic, MultiLIS, and INLEX customer base, there is little reason to predict that the number of libraries that would adopt Taos would reach the threshold needed to be viable from a business perspective. Unicorn, on the other hand, enjoys a large and growing customer base. With about 1000 installations serving over 6,000 libraries, Unicorn has gained a significant position in the library marketplace.
Functionality factors. Unicorn has evolved over a course of over 20 years. New functionality has steadily been added to the system. All the major modules have long been part of the system. Taos, while a sophisticated system in many respects, is still a work in progress. There is little doubt that in a feature-to-feature comparison, Unicorn offers richer functionality.
Technology factors. Taos, given its more recent vintage, relies on more up-to-date technologies. The object-oriented ObjectStore database, CORBA (common object request broker architecture), and native Unicode support are components of an impressive technical design. The complexities involved in working with these more modern technologies may well have overshadowed their benefits given that the lengthy development process of Taos was likely the key factor that led to its demise. Unicorn's simpler underpinnings, while less glamorous, have held up surprisingly well as building blocks of a very sophisticated library automation system. Object-oriented technologies have not taken hold to the extent predicted several years ago. Concerns remain regarding the ability for an object-oriented database, such as ObjectStore, to deliver good performance in a high-volume transaction environment.
SIRSI concluded as a result of their internal evaluation process that Unicorn will be the system on which the company will focus future development. In their view, this is the system that provides the company the platform for its long-term objectives in the library automation marketplace. The consultants engaged for the review largely validated the strengths of the technologies upon which Unicorn is based. SIRSI views the system as mature in functionality and one that scales to all types and sizes of libraries. Unicorn servers are built on industry standard relational database management systems and have a robust Application Programming Interface (API) that can be used to extend functionality and to communicate with other systems. SIRSI released the Windows-based WorkFlows staff clients in 1998. WorkFlows is SIRSI's second-generation graphical interface for Unicorn, specifically designed to facilitate the efficient flow of work as library staff use the system in their day-to-day library work. Unicorn does not currently support Unicode, the industry-standard approach for supporting non-Roman language scripts. Sommers indicates that SIRSI has been working on Unicode support for Unicorn, and expects that work to be complete by the end of 2002.
SIRSI has long had a Web-based online catalog for its Unicorn system. In recent months, the company has released a version of its Web interface that extends the basic online catalog to more of a comprehensive library portal environment. The original version of this library portal product goes by the name iBistro, and SIRSI recently released a version specifically for its academic customers under the name iLink. These products include enhanced content such as book jacket images, table of contents, summaries and book reviews, offer personalization features allowing the library user to view information from the system tailored to their specific interests, and deliver a significantly updated interface that more closely competes with commercial interests on the Web such as Amazon.com.
As part of SIRSI's product integration strategy, iBistro will be offered for all of its library automation systems. While originally developed specifically for Unicorn, SIRSI plans to offer iBistro for systems it acquired from DRA including DRA Classic, multiLIS, and INLEX by early 2002.
SIRSI concluded that the Taos system would require considerably more development before it gains the full suite of functionality expected in an integrated library system. The time and expense required for its continued development were considerations in the evaluation process. Realistic estimates now predict that a fully finished Taos library automation system would be at least two years away.
Even though Taos will not continue as a long-term option in the library automation arena, selected aspects of the system will continue. SIRSI indicates that it will incorporate some of the best technologies that DRA developed for Taos into future versions of Unicorn.
In its acquisition of DRA, SIRSI acquired significant technical assets. It gained the technologies developed by DRA for Taos, which may well prove to be directly applicable to future enhancements to Unicorn. More importantly DRA's development team joins SIRSI's, effectively tripling the company's technical staff.
Historical background of Taos
Data Research Associates established itself as one of the major library automation companies in the mid 1970's. The system it developed, now know as the DRA Classic system enjoyed broad success in the library marketplace. That system had the misfortune to be based on the VMS operating system, which fell out of favor by the early 1990's. The demise of VMS and a number of other factors let DRA to the decision to begin the process of building an entirely new library automation system by about 1995.
During this period, the company began talking to libraries about its vision for its next-generation automation system, and found an eager audience. As early as 1996 some of the country's most forward-looking libraries and library consortia began to sign letters of intent and contracts committing them to DRA's next generation system—even before it had a name or was fully defined, much less developed.
One of the earliest adopters of DRA's vision was the University of California at Los Angeles. The press release dated August 1996 stated, “UCLA is among the first to purchase DRA's next-generation system, which currently is in late stages of development and incorporates an object-oriented, client/server design.” The contract with UCLA was valued at about $500,000. UCLA went forward with its implementation of Taos, but it was not until about March 2000 that the system was functioning to the point where it could be used throughout the UCLA campus. UCLA with a collection of 6.4 million volumes is one of the very largest and most complex libraries in the United States—a major challenge for any library automation system.
Other large libraries followed UCLA in an initial wave of enthusiasm about Taos, as it was called by 1997. In December 1997 the University of California at Santa Barbara selected Taos, another contract worth about $500,000. The Illinois Library Computer Systems Organization (ILCSO) announced their plans to migrate to Taos, having purchased DRA Classic in 1995 for $3.6 million for their 45-library consortium. Other major commitments to Taos in this timeframe included the State of Alaska Libraries Consortium, the Tacoma Public Library, and the Minnesota Library Information Network (MnLINK). Harvard University signed a letter of intent to purchase Taos in June of 1998 for a contract whose value was expected to exceed $1 million. National University selected Taos in September 1998 to replace its NOTIS system for its multiple campuses spread across the country. Cobb County in Georgia and the Fairfax County Public Schools were other large library systems that selected Taos in 1998. Cobb County implemented DRA Classic, in a remotely hosted arrangement with the server located in DRA's St. Louis facility, with intentions to move to Taos once it became available.
The creation of Taos turned out to be a much more lengthy process than ever imagined by DRA or the libraries that chose to adopt it. Among other factors, DRA found that technical staff able to perform object-oriented programming were in short supply. While DRA had the financial resources available to build its new system, work progressed slowly. This system that was stated to be “in the late stages of development” in 1996 was not totally finished even by 2001, still lacking a complete acquisitions module. While no system is ever “finished” the development cycle of Taos proved to be much longer than the patience of many of its potential library customers. According to Mike Mellinger, Chairman of Data Research Associates, “A significant contributor to the time taken to implement was that in Taos we chose to implement great depth of functionality. The pace of development was delayed by decisions reached in consultation with Taos customers regarding the depth of features to be included in each of the modules. This was particularly true with regard to complex policy options, index structures, cataloging, and circulation.”
The initial enthusiasm for Taos faded once it became apparent that its development was lagging—missing many of the milestones that had been set in the UCLA implementation. As the early and steadfast adopter of Taos, other major libraries focused UCLA's experiences as the benchmark of the readiness of Taos. Despite the tardy delivery of software, UCLA persisted in their implementation of Taos and is now the largest library—by far—running this system.
By about late 1998 and 1999, many of the large libraries that expressed interest in Taos early on decided to reconsider their options. Harvard let its letter of intent expire in October 2000 and is now in the process of implementing the Aleph 500 system from Ex Libris. UCSB and MnLINK also ultimately elected to implement Aleph 500. The ILCSO consortia announced its selection of the Voyager system from Endeavor Information Systems in July 2001. Save UCLA, all the high-profile libraries and consortia that expressed an interest in Taos early in its marketing effort have since gone on to select other systems.
Clearly, the prolonged development process of Taos cost DRA several major contracts worth many millions of dollars. Success in these libraries would have led to many other sales. Today there are only about 30 libraries running Taos in production. Several others were in the process of migrating to Taos, mostly from DRA's legacy systems: DRA Classic, multiLIS, and INLEX/3000.
The options narrow
The library automation industry, like many other business sectors, continues to experience a steady consolidation. The number of companies decreases through mergers and acquisitions. While fewer companies remain, the survivors are larger and stronger. SIRSI's acquisition of DRA falls well within this broader trend. As companies gain control of multiple software products through mergers and acquisitions, we cannot expect all to be developed and supported indefinitely. The number of software choices available will inevitably decrease.
In my opinion, SIRSI is not to be faulted for its quick decision to terminate Taos. If that was their eventual strategic direction regarding Taos, making that intent known sooner rather than later limits the number of libraries negatively affected. As it is now, only 30 or so libraries will have to migrate from Taos to another system. The number of libraries affected would have increased had SIRSI delayed the announcement by a number of months.
It will be interesting to observe how the former DRA customer base will accept SIRSI's product strategy. What portion of the libraries running Taos, DRA Classic, MultiLIS, or Inlex will choose to migrate to Unicorn? While it is likely that many will find Unicorn to be a very attractive option, SIRSI's competitors will also likely see this as an opportunity.