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Portrait of Joannes Vermorel

I am Joannes Vermorel, founder at Lokad. I am also an engineer from the Corps des Mines who initially graduated from the ENS.

I have been passionate about computer science, software matters and data mining for almost two decades. (RSS - ATOM)

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Entries in Lokad (15)

Monday
Mar192012

Bizarre pricing, does it matter? (B2B)

My company has just released quantile forecasts upgrade. It's no less than a small revolution for us, however, unless you've got some inventory to manage, it's probably not too relevant to your business.

Another salient aspect is our new pricing for quantiles (the old pricing for classic forecasts remains untouched). Lokad is selling a monthly subscription, and if $q_i$ represents one of the actual quantile values retrieved by the client during the month, then the monthly cost $C$ is given by:

$$C = $0.15 \times \left(\sum_{i=0}^n q_i^{2/3} \right)^{2/3}$$

We hesitated to round 0.15 as $\frac{\pi}{2}$ because formula look better with Greek letters. Obviously, it's not simple, and most people would go as far as saying it's downright obscure, but it is really a good pricing, or just plain insanity?

To understand a bit where Lokad is coming from, let's start with the fact that we are a B2B software company. About 95% of competitors don't have any kind of public pricing: you can only ask for a quote, and then a talented sales guy will contact you to figure out your maximum budget, only to get back to you with a quote at 120% of the figure you gave him.

However, I strongly favor public pricing, not because it's more transparent, honest, fair, whatever, but because it's a massive time saver. At Lokad, we don't enter into time-consuming pricing negotiations except for the largest clients, where it does make sense to spend time negotiating.

The cardinal rule of software pricing is that it should capture the willingness to pay of the client, which, in B2B, is typically related to the economic gains generated by the usage of the product. In the case of demand forecasting, benefits can be accurately computed. However, turning this forecasting benefits formula into a pricing formula is insaly complex in the general case.

Hence, we decided to settle for heuristics that somehow mimic this theoretical willingness to pay, ran many simulations over our existing customer base, and finally figured out the formula. I do not claim that this pricing formula is optimal in any way: it is not. However, it does bring a very reasonable pricing for clients ranging from 1-man companies to 100,000+ employees companies.

Pros:

  • (As far we can judge) It's aligned with the value Lokad creates for clients.
  • It's still simple enough to be memorized in 20s.
  • It does not put incentive to game the pricing by excluding slow movers (i.e. products with low sales) from the forecasting process.
  • There is no threshold effect, where the pricing jumps to a much larger number just because the company has 1 more product than what the license would support.

Cons:

  • It certainly falls into the category of bizarre pricing.
  • The only way to know for sure the real monthly cost is to give a try (1). 
  • Some prospects try the pricing formula on their own, and get it wrong (2).

(1) This statement applies to most metered SaaS, even if the pricing is linear. For example, at Lokad we had very little clue about our exact bandwidth consumption until we migrated toward the cloud (with dedicated servers, bandwidth was part of the package).

(2) I believe this partly explains why 95% of our competitors don't put any public price on display. That, and the fact that a very expensive pricing is likely to scare away prospects, before getting the chance of cornering them into the sales process.

I would be interested to see if other B2B niches have designed their own bizarre pricing formulas. Don't hesitate to submit them in comments.

Wednesday
Feb222012

Cloud questions from Syracuse University, NY

A few days ago, I received a couple of questions from a student of Syracuse University, NY who is writing a paper about cloud computing and virtualization. Questions are relatively broad, so I am taking the opportunity to directly post here the answers.

What was the actual technical and business impact of adopting cloud technology?

The technical impact was a complete rewrite of our codebase. It has been the large upgrade ever undertaken by Lokad, and it did span over 18 months, more or less mobilizing the entire dev workforce during the transition.

As far business is concerned, it did imply that most of the business of Lokad during 2010 (the peak of our cloud migration) has been stalled for a year or so. For a young company, 1 year of delay is a very long time. 

On the upside, before the migration to the cloud, Lokad was stuck with SMBs. Serving any mid-large retail network was beyond our technical reach. With the cloud, processing super-large retail networks had become feasible. 

What, if any, negative experience did Lokad encounter in the course of migrating to the cloud?

Back in 2009, when we did start to ramp up our cloud migration efforts, the primary problem was that none of us at Lokad had any in-depth experience of what the cloud implies as software architecture is concerned. Cloud computing is not just any kind of distributed computing, it comes with a rather specific mindset.

Hence, the first obstacle was to figure out by ourselves patterns and practices for enterprise software on the cloud. It has been a tedious journey to end-up with Lokad.CQRS which is roughly the 2nd generation of native cloud apps. We rewrote everything for the cloud once, and then we did it again to get sometime simpler, leaner, more maintainable, etc.

Then, at present time, most our recurring cloud problems come from integrations with legacy pre-Web enterprise software. For example, operating through VPNs from the cloud tends to be a huge pain. In contrast, modern apps that offer REST API are a much more natural fit for cloud apps, but those are still rare in the enterprise.

From your current perspective, what, if anything, would you have done differently?

Tough question, especially for a data analytics company such as Lokad where it can take 1 year to figure out the 100 magic lines of code that will let you outperform the competion. Obviously, if we had to rewrite again Lokad from scratch, it would take us much less time. However it would be dismissing that the bulk of the effort has been the R&D that made our forecasting technology cloud native.

The two technical aspects where I feel we have been hesitating for too long were SQL and SOAP.

  • It took us too long to decide to ditch SQL entirely in favor of some native cloud storage (basically the Blob Storage offered by Windows Azure).
  • SOAP was a somewhat similar case. It took us a long time to give up on SOAP in favor of REST.

In both cases, the problem was that we had (or maybe it was just me) not been fully accepting the extent of the implications of a migration toward the cloud. We remained stuck for months with older paradigms that caused a lot of uneeded frictions. Giving up on those from Day 1 would have save a lot of efforts.

Wednesday
Nov232011

Lokad.Cloud vs Lokad.CQRS, tiny insights about the future

Among the (small) community interested by the software practices of Lokad to develop entreprise software over Windows Azure, Lokad.Cloud vs Lokad.CQRS comes as a recurring question.

It's a good question, and to be entirely honest, the case is not 100% solved even at Lokad

One of the core difficulty to address this question is that Lokad.Cloud and Lokad.CQRS come:

  • from different backgrounds:
    • Lokad.Cloud orginates from the hard-core data analytics back-end.
    • Lokad.CQRS originates from our behavioral apps.
  • with different intents:
    • Lokad.Cloud wants to simplify hard-core distributed algorithmics.
    • Lokad.CQRS wants to provide flexibililty, auditability, extensibility (*).
  • and different philosophies:
    • Lokad.Cloud is a sticky framework, it defines pretty much how your app is architected.
    • Lokad.CQRS is more a NoFramework, precisely designed to minimally impact the app.

(*) without compromising scalability, however scalability is not the primary purpose.

Then, historically, Lokad.Cloud has been developed first (which is a mixed blessing), and, as we have been moving forward, we have started to partition into standalone sub-projects:

  • Lokad.Cloud.Storage, the O/C mapper (object to cloud), dedicated to the interactions with the Azure Storage.
  • Lokad.Cloud.AppHost, an AppDomain isolation layer to enable dynamic assembly loading within Azure Worker roles (aka reboot a VM with new assemblies in 5s instead of 5min). (**)
  • Lokad.Cloud.Provisioning, a toolkit for the Windows Azure Management API.

(**) Lokad.Cloud does not leverage Lokad.Cloud.AppHost yet, it still relyies on a very similar component (which was developed first, and, as such, is not as properly decoupled than AppHost)

Those sub-projects end-up combined into Lokad.Cloud but they can be used independently. Both Lokad.Cloud.AppHost and Lokad.Cloud.Provisioning are fully compatible with Lokad.CQRS.

The case of Lokad.Cloud.Storage is a bit more complicated because Lokad.CQRS because Lokad.CQRS already has its own Azure Storage layer which focuses on CQRS-style storage abstractions. In particular, Lokad.CQRS emphasizes interoperable storage abstractions where the local file storage can be used in place of the cloud storage.

The Future

As far I can speak for Lokad.CQRS (see the projet boss), the project will keep evolving focusing on enterprise software practices, aka not so much what the framework delivers, but rather how it's intended to structure the app. Then, Lokad.CQRS might be completed by:

  • tools at some point such as a maintenance console.
  • refined storage abstractions (probably event-centric ones).

In constrast, Lokad.Cloud will continue its partitioning process to become decoupled and more flexible. In particular,

  • the cloud runtime
  • the service execution strategy

are still very heavily coupled to other concepts within the execution framework, and likely candidates for sub-projects of their own.

Combining Lokad.Cloud and Lokad.CQRS?

I would not advise to combine Lokad.Cloud (execution framework) with Lokad.CQRS within the same app. At Lokad, we don't have any project that adopts this pattern, and the resulting architcture seems fuzzy.

However, if we consider the sub-projects of Lokad.Cloud, then the combination Lokad.CQRS + Lokad.Cloud.AppHost + Lokad.Cloud.Provisioning does make a lot of sense.

Then, it's possible to adopt a SOA architecture where some heavy-duty functional logic gets isolated, behind an API, into the Lokad.Cloud execution framework, while the bulk of the app adopt CQRS patterns through Lokad.CQRS. This pattern has been adopted to some extent at Lokad.

Monday
Jan112010

Scaling-down for Tactical Apps with Azure

Cloud computing is frequently quoted for unleashing the scalability potential of your apps, and the press goes wild quoting the story of XYZ a random Web 2.0 company that as gone from a few web servers to 1 zillion web servers in 3 days due to massive traffic surge.

Yet, the horrid truth is: most web apps won’t ever need to scale, and an even smaller fraction will even need to scale out (as opposed of scaling up).

A pair of servers already scales up to millions of monthly visitors for an app as complex as StackOverflow. Granted, people behind SO did a stunning job at improving the performance of their app, but still, it illustrates that moderatly scaling up already brings you very far.

At Lokad, although we direly need our core forecasting technology to be scalable, nearly all  other parts do not. I wish we had so many invoices to proceed that we would need to scale out our accounting database, but I don’t see that happen any time soon.

Actually, over the last few months, we have discovered that cloud computing have the potential to unleash yet another aspect in the software industry: the power of scaled-down apps.

There is an old rule of thumb in software development that says that increasing the complexity of a project by 25% increases the development efforts by 200%. Obviously, it does not look too good for the software industry, but the bright side is: if you cut the complexity by 20% then you halve the development effort as well.

Based on this insight, I have refined the strategy of Lokad with tactical apps. Basically, a tactical app is a stripped-down web app:

  • not core business, if the app crashes, it’s not a showstopper.
  • features are fanatically stripped down.
  • from idea to live app in less than 2 weeks, single developer on command.
  • no need to scale, or rather very unlikely.
  • addresses an immediate need.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have released 3 tactical apps based on Windows Azure:

Basically, each app took me less than 10 full working days to develop, and each app is addressing some long standing issues in its own narrow yet useful way:

  • Website localization had been a pain for us from the very beginning. Formalized process where tedious, and by the time the results were obtained, translations were already outdated. Lokad.Translate automates most of the mundane aspect of website localization.
  • Helping partners figuring out their own implementation bugs while they were developing against our Forecasting API was a slow painful process. We had to spend hours guessing what could be the problem in partner's code (as we typically don’t have access to the code).
  • Helping prospects to figure out how to integrate Lokad in their IT, we end-up facing about 20 new environments (ERP/CRM/MRP/eCommerce/…) every week, which is a daunting task for a small company such as Lokad. Hence, we really need to plug partners in, and Lokad.Leads is helping us to that in a more straightforward manner.

Obviously, if we were reach 10k visits per day for any one of those apps that would be already a LOT of traffic.

The power of Windows Azure for tactical apps

Tactical apps are not so much a type of apps but rather a fast-paced process to deliver short-term results. The key ingredient is simplicity. In this respect, I have found that the combination of Windows Azure + ASP.NET MVC + SQL Azure + NHibernate + OpenID is a terrific combo for tactical apps.

Basically, ASP.NET MVC offers an app template that is ready to go (following Ruby on Rails motto of convention over contention). Actually, for Lokad.Translate and Lokad.Debug, I did not even bother in re-skinning the app.

Then, Windows Azure + SQL Azure offer an ultra-standardized environment. No need to think about setting up the environment, environment is already setup, and it leaves you very little freedom to change anything which is GREAT as far productivity is concerned.

Also, ultra-rapid development is obviously error-prone (which is OK because tactical apps are really simple). Nevertheless, Azure provides a very strong isolation from one app to the next (VM level isolation). It does not matter much if one app fails and dies suffering some terminal design error, damage will be limited to app itself anyway. Obviously, it would not have been the case in a shared environment.

Finally, through OpenID (and its nice .NET implementation), you can externalize the bulk of your user management (think of registration, confirmation emails, and so on).

At this point, the only major limitation for tactical apps is the Windows Azure pricing which is rather unfriendly to this sort of apps, but I expect the situation to improve over 2010.

·         not part of your core business, if the app crashes, it’s annoying, but not a showstopper.

·         features are fanatically stripped down.

·         from idea to live app in less than 2 weeks, single developer on command.

·         no need to scale, or rather, the probability of needing scalability is really low.

·         addresses an immediate need, ROI is expected in less than a few months.

Saturday
Jun202009

Lokad mentioned on Microsoft Senior VP blog

My small company is getting visibility momentum. After managing to get copied by the Chinese Government itself, Lokad is now listed on the blog of S. Somagar, senior vice president of the Developer Division at Microsoft.

I am not exactly sure how S. Somagar ended-up on Lokad, but I don't think that he personally spend time to carefully review each one of the 15.000 bizspark companies. Thus, I guess I have to thank Julien Codorniou for that :-) .