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Back to the Future of Collaboration Applications

Can a Domino change its spots?

Sponsored Feature Remember Lotus Notes? Introduced in 1989, it was one of the earliest modern collaboration systems, uniting remote teams of people long before the likes of Teams and Slack came on the scene. But not only is Notes still around, its new owner – HCL Software - is modernizing it for a cloud-native world.

IBM acquired Notes from Lotus in 1995 and renamed its server component to Domino. It built a solid business on the product for over two decades until 2019, when HCL Technologies acquired the products. The latter has been steadily innovating with new releases ever since.

With over 10,000 customers, Domino has a strong position says HCL Software senior vice-president Richard Jefts. His company's job is to support those customers as they modernize their applications for what he calls a 'digital-first' future.

Being a digital-first company means using modern technologies to change the way the organization works from the inside out. A company applies digital technologies that transform how it operates internally from end to end, including how it deals with customers and employees. It's about using modern software tools to differentiate the business rather than just keeping up.

"These companies are thinking about how they optimize their communication channels, their content, their data, and their culture and processes to really emphasize digital elements," Jefts says.

HCL Software wanted to bring that digital-first approach to Domino and is courting hundreds of companies to kindle fresh interest in the product. These include some companies which are completely new to Domino, but also others who have let their contracts go dormant and are using older versions of the software without upgrading. The plan has been to re-engage them by offering more modern functionality for Domino.

Updating Domino for the modern age

The foundation for this move has been laid with three major releases. Firstly HCL Software removed the product's dependence on a thick client, making it easier to run applications in the browser.

It then made a significant investment in cloud native capabilities for Domino which enabled it to run in any cloud environment, opening up more opportunities for customers to use it in their specific setup.

Third, the company focused on simplifying Domino's application development capabilities. These traditionally targeted mission critical applications embedded deep into business processes – essentially the applications that run their business such as inventory, supply chains, loan approvals and HR processes..

Developing these in Domino has previously required expert coders with knowledge of Domino's native language, LotusScript. That restricted application development to a niche cabal of developers. But what about the many smaller, less-critical applications that would make everyday jobs easier? Many business employees without coding experience have implicit knowledge that they could easily turn into small, automated tasks, if only the tools existed.

"To that end, we've built our own citizen developer platform that sits on Domino today. It's all forms-based, and it enables anyone who knows Excel to build an application," Jefts says.

Launched two years ago as Domino Volt but now rebranded as Domino Leap, this software supports situational applications across all parts of the business – those that don't transform the underlying business process but which make them simpler and more efficient. You wouldn't try to code an entire ERP application in Domino Leap, but you would use it to get data out of Excel and into usable online forms and workflows. It is available as an incremental addition to the base Domino license.

Volt MX: A low-code solution for developers

Having helped business executives to develop simple applications, HCL Software then turned its attention to empowering coders who wanted to create complex software more easily.

To that end it signed a deal with Temenos, a banking software company which had acquired SaaS-hosted multi-experience, low code platform specialist Kony. Temenos kept Kony's IP on the banking side, evolving it into its Temenos Quantum development platform. HCL Software subsequently acquired that IP and personnel for use in industries outside banking, developing it into a low-code development platform called Volt MX. This uses an entirely different application platform to Domino.

Volt MX targets developers that want to build applications more quickly. It includes a front-end IDE called Volt Iris for designing and coding responsive web, PWA, mobile, wearable, Microsoft Windows and kiosk applications. On the back end, the Volt Foundry service handles integrations, API management, workflows, and microservices. Developers can use it to define business rules and manage data transformations.

"We've got some amazing brands on Volt MX that run billions of transactions and millions of users on it," says Jefts. Customers use it for applications including touchless commerce, and even production scheduling apps that tell workers on the manufacturing floor where to go hour by hour, to maximize efficiency. There are also augmented reality applications that help medical workers to examine and triage wounds.

HCL Software has assigned an entirely separate team from its Domino developers to develop Volt MX, he adds. Its investment has propelled the product into Gartner's magic quadrant, where it earned Visionary status for multi-experience development platforms last year.

Volt MX Go: Powerful low-code apps for Domino

There was still a gap in the lineup though. Volt MX offers powerful low-code development capabilities for mission-critical developers in the form of Volt MX, but it was not Domino-focused. Domino Leap covers situational application development for Domino users but stopped short of tackling more intricate mission-critical apps.

As such HCL Software needed a product that bought Volt MX's low-code mission-critical development capabilities to Domino. This would enable it to court Domino customers that want to enhance their existing development environments or are preparing to fly the coop entirely.

"Some customers want to leave Domino and take their simpler applications to another platform," says Jefts. "But then they realize that they'd have to pay huge amounts to re-platform their more complex apps." Most would rather avoid spending millions redeveloping a couple of Domino applications on another platform if they could modernize them instead.

This is where the latest product, Volt MX Go, comes in. Launched in late May, it focuses on modernizing existing legacy apps built on Domino.

"We're packaging the best pieces of Volt MX - the IDE, the underlying architecture and framework and some of the more modern coding standards - and bringing them together to use the Domino back end," Jefts says. "Customers will be able to build new applications on MX Go while maintaining all of that intelligence, all of that investment that they've made in Domino over the last two or more decades."

Volt MX Go enables customers to modernize their existing Domino applications and build entirely new ones without leaving the Domino platform. While customers can carry on using Domino's native Lotus Script for development if they wish, Volt MX Go will include two new low-code languages, VoltScript and VoltFormula. It also offers an adaptor that lets Volt Foundry work with the latest Domino back-end databases.

With a replete set of development environments covering all of its bases, HCL Software can better pursue two other strategies designed to help its customers evolve into being digital-first organizations. The first is what it calls hyper automation, a starting point for the company's application development focus. This is now being given further investment while making good use of the Volt MX integration with RPA tools like Red Hat's Process Automation Manager (PAM) platform.

Whereas traditional automation projects are often isolated, hyper automation evolves the concept to operate at scale, automating as many business and IT processes as possible. It brings multiple technologies to bear, ranging from robotic process automation (RPA), which mines and codifies everyday worker behavior in business apps, through to machine learning, event-driven software architecture, and BPM.

Low-code technology is also a linchpin here, one which is getting increased or continual investment from over 80 per cent of organizations according to Gartner.

Upgrading the customer experience

HCL Software also wants to help companies offer a better customer experience (CX) as part of their digital first focus. Enhancing the CX is a focal point in many digital transformation projects, and the company has developed a rich resource set to help companies improve it, whether they're putting together commerce interfaces, upgrading their marketing workflows, or creating digital customer portals.

It additionally offers a design and consulting service, called Volt MX Studio. This sees HCL Software work remotely with a customer's business and IT leadership to assess the current application portfolio, identify those which are worth investing in, and formulate a plan to deliver successful business modernization outcomes.

The Volt MX Studio designers work with the customer to develop core interface components as part of a proof of concept application. They focus on giving the customer the resources they need to move forward on their own with more applications by developing usability and design guidelines, and templating parts of the application for later reuse.

"As we're building the proof of concept we're training the customer too," explains Jefts.

The future of Volt MX and Volt MX Go

HCL Software has plenty of plans for its low-code portfolio. One involves the ability for Volt MX Go to bridge Domino and other application development platforms. Customers might still have a strategic direction that eventually sees them leaving Domino, but Volt MX Go will eventually allow them to move Domino-based applications to other databases if required.

Both Volt MX and Volt MX Go already support multi-experience and mobile application development. But in the future they will also allow the development of super apps. As apps become more complex, this concept allows them to be modularized into component parts so that their developers can add new functionality to them more quickly. It's an app-as-platform approach that digital-first companies like Uber and Tencent have already embraced to good effect.

Finally, expect a marketplace for developers to share their low- and no-code applications. This focus on reusability is a key part of HCL Software's strategy, promising to cut development time further and let customers choose to deploy their Volt MX platforms in either the cloud or the data center. It is already most of the way there from a technical perspective, offering the ability to deliver the portfolio via its HCL SoFy cloud-native catalog.

Breathing new life into Domino has been a heavy lift, but Jefts believes the company is well-equipped to help customers create modern apps on that venerable platform - and to assist them on non-Domino road maps if they so wish. We're a long way from the days when Lotus shipped the first Notes client and server more than three decades ago. Who knows where we'll be in three decades' time? 

Sponsored by HCL Software.

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