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Fikret Hasovic
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 Interview with FrontRange
 Contributed by Fikret Hasovic on 17 April 2005 05:10 PM

Last week Angel Alexander Magaņa announced that FrontRange would be using Firebird in its successful "GoldMine" product line. He kindly agreed to being interviewed and you may find some of his answers surprising...

1. Can you give us some background on FrontRange?

FrontRange Solutions is a leading provider of CRM and Service Management solutions for the SOHO and SME market. We are publicly traded on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) and headquartered in California, with additional offices in Colorado, UK, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Singapore and China.

FrontRange Solutions has been in business for approximately 16 years, formerly having been known as GoldMine Software Corporation. Our solutions portfolio includes the award winning GoldMine and HEAT products, in addition to call center communications solutions and ITSM, our ITIL compliant service management offering.

On the GoldMine side, we serve well over a million users, representing a wide range of industries, and as varied as manufacturing and real estate. You will find GoldMine in use in organizations ranging in size from small .mom and pop. shops to large Fortune 500 organizations.

2. FrontRange is listed on the South African stock exchange, but it seems to be based in California. Can you explain?

It is a bit of a long story, but the condensed version is as follows...

FrontRange Solutions Inc. is the result of a couple of acquisitions and subsequent mergers. Approximately 7 years ago, GoldMine Software, a California based CRM organization, was acquired by Bendata, an IT Helpdesk organization based out of Colorado. Bendata, in turn, was owned by a South African holdings company, previously known as Ixchange, a JSE listed company.

After the purchase of GoldMine Software, Bendata and GoldMine Software were merged. Headquarters moved to Colorado, and a bit later, the merged entity was renamed to the present "FrontRange Solutions USA Inc." After some time, Ixchange also changed its name to FrontRange Solutions, and that's how FrontRange came to be listed on JSE. The last piece of the puzzle is the relocation of headquarters to California within the last year.

3. What is GoldMine? Why is it so immensely popular?

GoldMine is a market leading, award winning CRM solution. It offers powerful sales force and marketing automation tools, coupled with rich calendar, e-mail and contact management capabilities. It helps users manage customer relationships by providing a variety of communication tools and leveraging a centralized approach to information storage and sharing. The workgroup philosophy behind all its features make it easy to not only share data, but also quickly identify specifics pertaining to customer interactions such as who was the last person to talk to a specific contact, when the interaction occurred, and what it was about.

In my opinion, there are a variety of reasons for its popularity. Its workgroup philosophy is often valued, but putting that aside, many of our customers come to like GoldMine because it offers a tremendous amount of powerful features. Secondly, all that functionality is offered at a very low price. Simply put, GoldMine is a great value. Some of that value is also derived from its scalability. The current product is capable of handling significant volumes of data. In fact, we know of a customer that has a GoldMine database approximately 40GB in size.

Next, we have a very experienced Partner channel that is capable of adapting the technology to a wide range of business processes and needs. As a result, customers are able to quickly realize a return on their GoldMine investment.

Lastly, I would add that many of our customers appreciate the application's to grow alongside their organization. GoldMine has many features that perhaps one wouldn't think about as a single user, but do become critical in multi-user environments. And guess what? That functionality is usually there, waiting to be uncovered or used, at no extra cost! It is always great to see a customer's reaction when you tell them that what they want to do is indeed possible and in the version they already own. Sometimes they don't believe me until I show them. <g>

4. Is GoldMine written in C++ or Delphi or Java or ...?

GoldMine is a C++ application.

5. Which library is used to connect to Firebird?

We will be using a combination of ADO and ODBC to connect to Firebird.

6. You are technical product manager. What does that mean? What do you do?

It depends on the day on which you were to ask. <g>

I have a variety of responsibilities, but they are probably best summed up by saying that I look after the GoldMine product line. Sometimes that means being a liaison between development and other parts of our organization, customers or partners. In other cases, it means working hand-in-hand with development to ensure we are designing the product in ways that would be most beneficial to our user base. Or, it can simply mean providing an answer on a feature or technical aspect of GoldMine.

I also tend to spend a lot of time gathering feedback from our customers and partners on current features and possible future needs. I enjoy that portion of my work quite a bit, as it allows me to see the different ways in which GoldMine is deployed, or as I like to call it "out in the wild."

Lastly, it is pretty common place to also find me spreading the word pertaining to the latest GoldMine news and happenings.

7. For most (all?) of us this announcement came out of the blue

  • How long has this decision been in the making?
  • Have you participated in the devel and support lists?
  • Did you work with Firebird support companies?
The decision was in the works for quite some time, but there were a number of issues that we had to work through. Whenever possible, we revisited the matter and eventually arrived at a point where we could start evaluating the various technology options that were available to us.

A number of us were already familiar with Firebird since we had previously supported InterBase, but much of the credit has to be given to Guy Naor, GoldMine development manager, and his team. Myself, as well as the GoldMine development team are long time Open Source advocates and users, but it was through their efforts that we were able to analyze and experiment with the different technologies at deep enough of a level to be able to make a properly informed decision. I am very fortunate to be able to work alongside these folks.

Regarding the timing of the communication, as the relationship between ourselves and the Foundation proceeds, I am sure that you will hear from us on a more consistent basis, so we don't surprise you again. <g>

8. What is your impression of the Firebird community?
  • what do we do very well?
  • what do we do not so well?
  • Some people would argue that the FB community falls short on promoting its project. Do you (dis)agree?
My impression is that it is well organized, responsive and helpful. For example, when I take a look at the Firebird web site, I get the following messages:
  • We are an informed group of individuals and want to share our knowledge with you.
  • Lets make it easy for someone to find what they need to successfully use Firebird.
  • Lets share what we are about in as concise of a manner possible. No marketing hoopla.
  • The community is hard working and dedicated.
An example of the responsiveness would the communications that I've received in response to my original message to the Foundation where I mention our support of Firebird.

I can't really comment on the things I would perceive as not being done well due to my limited experiences. I'd be speaking out of ignorance and that would not be fair to the community. Especially since I sense you are asking because you'd want to work on ways to improve those areas.

I would disagree on the point about falling short on promoting the project. But, I would add that I do believe that there are some helpful actions that could be taken. For example, something I think would be very beneficial to others like myself, are comparisons between Firebird and commercial alternatives such as MSDE. As I state that, I am also coming to the realization that this is an area in which I might be able to help the Foundation, assuming they would like to accept that work.

In my opinion, I feel the discussion of Firebird vs. MSDE (or other commercial alternatives) is of greater importance than the discussion to differentiate Firebird from other Open Source RDBMS systems like MySQL or PostgreSQL. If you can convince more developers to adopt Firebird based on its merits over non-Open Source solutions, you would be able to grow it significantly. I think you will see this happen to some extent with GoldMine's move. As it starts to spread within the GoldMine community, some of our ISVs and perhaps even some end users may start to adopt it for their own purposes too.

9. Which other open source databases did you consider?

We considered other popular open source options such as MySQL, PostgreSQL and more recently, Ingres. The folks at MySQL have actually expressed great interest in us adopting their technology in the past. However, we were unable to further explore a possible relationship with MySQL at the time the opportunity was presented. Hopefully we will be able to revisit this in the future. I hope that the good folks at MySQL do not take our selection of Firebird as a negative against them, as it isn't.

Conversely, my comment about MySQL should not be interpreted as taking anything away from Firebird. We would not have selected Firebird if we didn't feel it was the best option and fit for our needs. Firebird was not "second best," it was the leading and best option for our needs.

The other options remain a possibility for future development efforts, but we will have to wait and see what our customers tell us. We also feel that MySQL, PostgreSQL and Ingres would need to be handled differently due to technical reasons, licensing and other variables.

10. What was the 'killer feature' to select Firebird? Or was it the combination of it all?
  • low/no admin?
  • speed?
  • "xcopy install"?
  • feature set?
  • standards compliance?
  • cross-platform?
  • Vulcan? Fyracle?
  • something else...?
It is a combination of factors including licensing, install process, performance, administration, feature set and cross-platform capabilities.

Something that was equally important to us, and many would likely consider irrelevant, is the Firebird footprint.

Many people would argue against that being a factor given that we live in a world where 1 GB of disk space can be had for less than a dollar. However, many of our customers rely on being able to upgrade or purchase their copy of GoldMine via the Internet. When you look at it through their eyes, increasing the size of our installer by any significant factor means longer download times, which equates to an increased amount of time away from one's primary work responsibilities.

That is a real issue for us, as we do not wish to impact our users in that manner. Other possible database alternatives would have significantly increased the size of our installer, in some cases, by a magnitude of almost 200%.

One of the main principles of GoldMine is to provide tools that help one be more productive. Asking someone to wait online while a 130 MB installer downloads would start you off on the wrong foot and is contradictory to the productivity philosophy.

11. You have users using mssql and users using other databases. Which are the other databases?

It depends on the version of GoldMine in question. Our current version has the ability to use an MS-SQL database or dBASE IV files for its datastore. If you want to get technical, one could argue that the only true RDBMS that we support is MS-SQL.

Older iterations of GoldMine did provide support for certain versions of Oracle and InterBase. Considering the size of our user base, there is a good chance there are still some customers using it in one of those environments.

12. What can the Firebird community do to help you?

I think we have already started off on a very positive note. The purpose in establishing a relationship between ourselves and the Firebird community was not in the self-interest of selling a few more copies of GoldMine to community members, but instead to leverage each other to help promote both GoldMine and Firebird.

From my perspective, heads are bound to turn the moment our Firebird enabled version of GoldMine hits the market. Especially given the fact that we have been closely associated with Microsoft for such a long time and I believe we are the first application in the SOHO market space to adopt Open Source. I think that our move will help mainstream consumers understand and realize the value of the Open Source movement, and of course, Firebird would be a significant factor and us being able to accomplish that.

I would greatly appreciate it if the community would be available to assist in answering questions of a technical nature, especially on topics such as performance, memory usage, tuning, etc. That would be extremely helpful to us. In the meantime, we'll look around on the web site and see what we find and what remains unanswered.

The second item would be more of a development requirement. That is to simply be made aware of significant changes to code that may impact our application. It looks like a lot of this is already communicated, but I want to mention it because it is critical to us.

13. What sort of things would you be willing to do to help the community?
  • assign a developer to assist with FB development?
  • give developer grants?
  • work with the community to promote FB?
  • something else?
We are definitely available to help promote Firebird in whatever manner possible. In addition, I think we can be a source of significant documentation on success stories of a "mainstream" developer adopting Open Source, and success of retail applications that are powered by Firebird. We can also provide real world analyzes of how Firebird is holding up in comparison to MS-SQL, or from a historical standpoint, the reduction in data related problems we obtained by moving our customers from dBASE to Firebird. In my opinion, these would be extremely helpful in the promotion of Firebird.

14. You mention that sqlserver users will have the option to use FB or mssql:
  • What will be the default option in the installer?
  • has the new sqlserver licensing policy influenced this descision?
GoldMine is actually sold in two different flavors. The retail flavor uses dBASE IV exclusively, while the second flavor, sold primarily through our Partner channel, has the ability to use dBASE IV or MS-SQL.

Firebird will be the only option available to our retail customers, while MS-SQL will continue to be the default option for our other customers although they will also have the ability to use Firebird. In fact, some of our Partners have already asked if it will be possible for customers to do the latter.

The licensing policy really didn't come into play.

The primary influencer in our decision was really the needs of our user base, their pain points and feedback. As many of your readers may already know, dBASE is a fragile file format. This can result in corrupt data, which in turn wreaks havoc with the functionality of any database driven application. Moving our dBASE customers to a stable platform like SQL allows us to provide them a better user experience in a way that is close to transparent from an end user perspective. I am confident that moving all our customers to Firebird will help us achieve our goals.

15. Which version of FB are you using?
  • 1.5.2?
  • Classic or Super?
  • Windows, Linux, Solaris, OS-X, ... ?
  • Will you use 2.0 once it is released?
All of our current development efforts are being conducted with Firebird 1.5.x (Super Server) in mind. We do not have a Mac or Linux/Unix version of GoldMine which means that Windows is a must for us. All our customers currently run some version of it. In the future, we hope to support the Linux version of Firebird, but we will have to approach it differently than the Windows version because it presents some challenges for us from an installation standpoint.

At bare minimum, we do hope to be able to support Linux implementations of Firebird that are already installed or will be manually installed by customers.

As for 2.0, we definitely want to be onboard as quickly as possible. Traditionally, we have always attempted to support newer versions of complimentary or reliant technologies by the time they become available or as soon as possible thereafter. Hopefully we won't need to completely rewrite GoldMine to support 2.0 <g>.

16. The software company SAS is using Firebird as embedded database in its products and has funded Vulcan development.
  • Has this factored into you decision to use Firebird?
  • Have you been in touch with SAS for references about Firebird and its community?
I haven't talked to SAS, nor am I aware of anyone else having talked to them. I guess the answer would be a simple "no". Maybe I'll drop them an e-mail to connect with them.

17. What are your developers lacking in Firebird? Is there anything we should add?

The development team seems to be doing well with what we have right now, but perhaps a need will come up in the future. We'll continue to get more involved with the community so the community can get to know them as well. They did express to me that they are finding Firebird to be a joy to work with due to its close adherence to SQL standards.

To reiterate a previous point, there is one thing that would be greatly appreciated: documentation. Anything we can get our hands on that would teach us performance tricks, etc. would be of tremendous help.

I've noticed there are several books for sale. Is there any one in particular that the community feels is the best or would recommend over others?

This is an important topic for us because the better we understand the technology, the easier it will be for us to help empower our partners, which in turn will serve to make the entire project a greater success.

18. Please, wish something to the Firebird community.

I wish them continued success with the project and even greater exposure and growth. Thanks again for all your efforts!

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