April 2009
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When CMS Memes Attack!

“Oh no,” says the Sergeant. “I’ll have no such chat,
And neither will I take it from snappy young brats,
For if you insult me with one other word,
I’ll cut off your heads in the morning.”

In the beginning there was the CMS Vendor Meme, which turned into a light hearted and entertaining exercise in which over 20 CMS vendors participated. As a response to this, Vignette posted a second meme which appears to have backfired. There aren’t going to be many (any?) responses, and Luis Sala has posted a rather biting response on his *personal* (not Alfresco’s) blog.

Before I comment on this, I’d like to say for the record that there is a lot about Vignette that I like. They were, without doubt, CMS pioneers. When Vignette V7 was released many moons ago, I genuinely believe it was the best Content Management System out there. Apart from a couple of major gripes, I still like the CMS and think certain aspects of it are uniquely attractive. VAP is one of the leading portals too. I hate the Dynamic Portal/Site integration but that’s just me. But I would still happily implement Vignette and do currently work with it.

Bad Meme

Before reading this, make sure you read Luis’ post Vignette tries to start a WCM Vendor Meme (yawn!). I wonder if Vignette are going to respond to this, or just leave it at that. Vignette have lost their way a bit and I agree with a lot of the comments that Luis made. They have also been in the press quite a lot recently for a number of reasons, and I’m not going to repeat things that have been already said elsewhere. Some of the points in Luis’ post have been discussed in the CMSWire article Five Reasons to Choose Vignette (or Not…) by John Conroy and Irina Guseva. I am, however, going to add my thoughts to a few of Luis’ comments.

I would argue that one of the main reasons that happened was because Vignette, Interwoven and Documentum are entrenched in 7-15 year technologies and mindsets that have resulted in stagnation while the smaller, more agile vendors that ranked a little higher on the list can more successfully innovate and adapt to changing market conditions.

I think is completely true that the speed of development of the ECM vendors mentioned is much slower. Compare Vignette VCM to 7.6 – not as much progress as one would hope in about 5 years. It isn’t only Vignette – we’re still waiting for TeamSite 7 for example having had a sneak peak 2 years ago at GearUp 2007. But I blame the technologies more than the mindsets. In the Vignette CMS case, I’m going to point the finger at an extremely complex J2EE implementation using some technologies that are pretty old by current standards. Aim some monitoring software like SpotLight at the VCM, change and publish a simple content type, and watch the party. Quite staggering just how much is going on behind the scenes. Not surprising that it is complex to extend and change. In addition, I think the larger players are hamstrung by backward compatibility promises as they tend to support much larger, business critical implementations. You’d think this means that their upgrade paths are easier and more reliable, but sadly recent history his taught us the opposite.

That’s probably one of the main reasons Vignette’s earnings continue to drop and, more alarmingly, Vignette Professional Services account for roughly 50% of their revenue. Very scary…

Yes, Vignette’s PS account for a large part of their revenue. From the agency/systems integrator (that’s where I live) perspective, we are very cautious of this model. It doesn’t make our lives any easier when we need to compete against the vendor’s PS team if we recommend their CMS for an implementation. More and more small vendors are moving to the Partner Channel only model, which makes life much more pleasant for everyone. And I appreciate that the vendors need to ensure that partners have the skill to implement correctly and want to certify some parts of the solution, but I believe the Professional Services should be contracted to the partner, not directly to the client.

All vendors must be very careful about claiming “massive scalability” as every implementation is unique and while the software may be capable of scaling in one use-case, it could die in sputtering, driveling fits in the other.

Of course. Bad implementation can kill any software. Let me tell you a story that depresses me a bit. 10 years ago, Vignette had what I consider an excellent caching model. They used “Components” which actually ended up as output cached HTML fragments. They used Server Side Includes (SSIs) to allow for an extremely flexible mix of cached and dynamic content on the same page. They didn’t have a very sophisticated dependency graph based de-cache back then, but no-one really did. They were very proud of it, claimed it had multiple patents, and I think it was the dog’s bollocks (that’s a good thing for the non-UK readers). The model vanished in later versions, and was replaced completely when Vignette Application Portal (VAP) become the recommended delivery mechanism.

A couple of years ago I was presenting at Vignette Village 2007 with a customer. One of the main themes of this Village was that Vignette had the fastest, most scalable delivery mechanism in the universe, ever. Another main theme was that the product roadmap was very driven by customer demand. “You asked, we listened” kind of thing. So I found it quite ironic that a major product launch at Village was a brand new component that sped up the delivery even more: Vignette High Performance Delivery (HPD). Now the fastest delivery mechanism in the world is even faster! And the architecture behind HPD is remarkably similar to the caching model they had in the late 90s!

I’m going slightly off topic here, but I don’t like the way the blurb on the site for this product says “HPD lets organizations deliver fresh, customized content online without either the high cost of hardware or the unacceptable cost of slow site performance“. There are other options. For example, Vignette really did a great job on the Atlanta 2004 Olympics site. It looked excellent and performed well under massive load. But this was all Akamai fronted. I’m a big fan of CDNs and ESIs for massively scalably delivery.

After wasting investing hundreds of millions buying OnDisplay, DataSage, Revenio, Epicentric, Intraspect, Tower Technology and most recently Vidavee, one could argue that Vignette could *possibly* address all those areas, but the dirty little secret is that even over a decade after some of those acquisitions occured, Vignette has positively and quite spectacularly failed in truly integrating all those services.

I think the key word here is “truly”. Some of the products are reasonably well integrated, but these are point integrations between product A and product B. I’d like to see a generic integration architecture instead. A single repository (or illusion thereof) for the different products would be the dream, but that seems unlikely. I think the word wasting is unfair, although some of the acquisitions have been worse than others. I’d also like to add that I believe Vignette are aware of these issues, do embrace and support enabling emerging standards (JSR-168/286, JSR-170/283, maybe the new favourite CMIS) which could help with their integrations, and still have some really smart people. But their current product stack makes this a really difficult problem which is going to take them a lot more time (which maybe they don’t have?) to solve.

The Vignette Application Portal is pretty much the only *simple* way to render content. While the sales and sales engineers might say that customers can create websites using any web framework and programming language, a realization of the effort involved will serve as a near-instant death-knell to such foolhardy notions.

I’m going to disagree with this on two points. I like the VCM Content API and have successfully implemented systems that use a non-Vignette (this doesn’t mean bespoke!) delivery framework. Surely one of the main benefits of the “decoupled” ECM approach is that one does have the option to use the ECM suite simply to manage content to be consumed by any delivery channel. My second disagreement is that VAP is a simple way to render content. For a public facing site that does not need a portal, I believe that using VAP (or any portal) is overkill and fraught with peril.

Customers foolish enough to buy from Vignette are faced with an 8 page-long pricesheet (please take a look!)

Actually, the PDF version is more like 30 pages. In response to the “Simple Price List” question in the initial meme, part of the response was “Look out for a pricing innovation coming soon to a price sheet near you … it will probably be simple enough for a five year old”. Vignette are aware of the over-complication and hopefully will address it. If they don’t, they’re in trouble.

Vignette’s product suite is so expansive and disjointed that the typical Vignette sales engineer cannot even fathom how to install them all. So Vignette has a “Sales Enablement Team” whose primary job function is to figure out how to install all these moving parts and set up a hosted VMWare environment so that they can demo it. I pity my brethren there who still have to run more than one Vignette app on their laptops.


Anyway, enough of this now. Let me close my coffin on this near extinct meme with a final thought. I still believe Vignette has some really good software and some really good people. They’ve also got some really big architectural and software problems. I, for one, hope they can sort them out before it is too late. If they don’t, they wouldn’t be the first US Pioneer to die in Texas. And it is only 81 miles / 1 hour 22 mins drive from Vignette Corporate Headquaters to the Alamo.

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11 comments to When CMS Memes Attack!

  • Thanks for yet another insightful post. (I really like the graphic, btw. Do you have T-shirts of it by any chance?) You’ve provided some useful counterpoint to Luis’s post.

    Vignette is obviously facing some difficult issues now, not least of which is how to prevent the kind of irreversible brand deterioration that can set in when a highly visible onetime market leader lets things get so out of hand, for so long, that it actually becomes fashionable to throw stones at the company. It’s much easier to gain momentum going downhill than uphill. That’s a real problem for Vignette right now. Somehow it has to reverse the downward momentum. That’s a hard thing to do in good times, let alone in the middle of one of the worst economic downturns in recent history.

    If turning things around were as simple as having interesting and useful products, and restructuring a company for better operational efficiency, Vignette would be doing much better than it is. But you can’t cost-cut your way to success, and an interesting product catalog doesn’t translate directly to market share.

    I don’t know the answer to Vignette’s problems. But I have a feeling it doesn’t involve vendor memes.

    Maybe the main takeaway here is that vendor memes can’t be subclassed. They’re public and final.

    • Sorry, no T-shirts. And I don’t know the answer to the problems either, but I think this tweet from a Vignetter sums it up nicely: “We know the perception and reality. Working to change them both.”

      > Maybe the main takeaway here is that vendor memes can’t be subclassed. They’re public and final.

      Damn, you’re a geek! I’d add that this meme is also pretty static :-)

  • The first time I ever heard the term Content Management System was at one of the first UK conference events dedicated to ‘online brand building’ in 1996, where Vignette presented a case study of one of their early deployments. 5 years on from that conference, I was being trained to train others in the use of Vignette V5 for a ‘Fortune 2000’ ECM deployment.

    What that illustrated to me was the advantages and disadvantages of being the ‘first mover’. The advantages were clear from the many millions of dollars that the company I worked for was prepared, and able, to pay out for its ECM deployment and no doubt Vignette’s earnings during its lifespan eclipse anything a Web Content Management provider can hope for in today’s highly fragmented and competitive industry.

    The main disadvantage is the ability to re-invent yourself and maintain relevancy in a fast moving industry. As Luis Sala’s post shows, Vignette’s approach to buy rather than build/innovate newer technologies may have made for topical and widespread press coverage to keep investors happy at the time but has not improved customer experiences and was undoubtedly a distraction from its core competencies.

    The other disadvantage is that if you develop complex systems to help complex organisations (like global telecommunication companies with tens of thousands of employees across 150+ countries in 20+ languages) manage their global web presence then there simply aren’t many of those organisations who need such systems. Therefore you have to look to ways of extracting more revenue from the ones you’ve already sold to – hence the growth of the PS functions in more established CM providers.

    When I saw inside the Mediasurface operation after the acquisition of Immediacy, a similar scenario was playing out and, indeed, the acquisition itself was an attempt to maintain relevancy as organisations were shifting to simpler, lower cost alternatives. I certainly don’t think the issues identified are specific to Vignette – it’s just that as it was first into the WCM space it’s always the first to feel the pain.

    • 1996. Yikes. That’s 3 years before I started playing with StoryServer.

      You make an excellent point on First Mover Disadvantage. I was super-impressed when Vignette bit the bullet and completely rewrote the CMS for V7. Their CMS Core is much newer than some other ECM vendors. I just think they were a bit unlucky to do the re-engineering at a time when everyone thought J2EE was the best thing out there for everything. So ended up with this very complicated implementation.

      If your theory is true, maybe Vignette are in a reasonably place. They’re work though the current bump, and come out the other end smiling while all the other vendors hit problems. Time will tell …

  • Hey Jon,

    There is NO doubt we have faced tough times. But I feel very optimistic about our pipeline of development, more so than in the three years i have been employed at Vignette. Last week we released the next version of our Social media solution which was well received at the web 2.0 expo and are well under way working on the next major release of our core WCM offering that we believe will make inroads into changing perception & reality.

    We have been listening very closely to our customers and are completely aware of the issues they’ve had. We are working on solutions to simplify their experience. There has also been a number of changes in our channel model which will drive more revenue for our partner organizations.

    A meme, blog or twittering certainly cant change market momentum, only delivering on the promise of your brand, its products and creating raving fans will. This is not an overnight transition, but is one we are working to accomplish.

    Look forward to keeping the dialog going.


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