“I was talking to a friend once about what our software does. She manages lawyers. Right away she got it: ‘Oh, it’s like a legal document management system,’ she said. The next thing she said was, ‘Our system is awful,’” recalls Christopher Seiwald, CEO and founder of Perforce in Alameda, CA. “She starts talking about rogue documents and I thought, she’s speaking our language.” Her lawyers were balking thanks to a system that was built on 30-year-old SCM technology, Seiwald explains: basic concepts such as allowing two people to edit one document. When the legal document management system didn’t fit their workflow, they abandoned it and went back to email.
CEO Christopher Seiwald at Perforce Launch Party
In the last 16 years, Perforce has grown to dominate software version management, with a customer base of 5,500 customers, a marquee list of brands and breathtakingly big deployments. That success has led Perforce to rethink its problem space.
“What we’ve noticed in the last 10 years is that people are using Perforce for more than just software. It started out with things that look like software, like Web pages, which are HTML files,” says Seiwald. But then companies like Pixar began using Perforce for more.
“Every frame, image, graphic, sound and video in the Toy Story movies are stored in Perforce,” says Nigel Chanter, COO. It was gradually becoming clear that versioning could apply to more than just code, and that as digital assets proliferated, there was an enormous need to manage their history and content.
This year marks the launch of a simple, two-word vision for Perforce: Version everything. But could Perforce really beat out domain-specific tools for document or other asset management? It’s already happened, Chanter points out: “One big example was the game industry. At the time, we were adopted by quite a few game companies, who chose us over game-specific products. One of them, Alienbrain, actually dwindled away because of us. We stored massive binary assets so well, it just made sense. Then we added integrations with graphics tools to appeal to artists and we quickly became the de facto standard.”
One Vision, Three Major Initiatives
Launching January 2012 is a web content management system called Chronicle, which, though it requires no Perforce knowledge, is built on top of Perforce and provides all of its advantages.
“Although that’s a crowded market now, no company has more than 2% market share,” said Chanter. “Chronicle offers customers deep versioning, provides concurrent editing and allows for the easy duplication of content. Being able to branch off another site is a very powerful Chronicle feature which pretty much no other company can offer right now.”
According to Seiwald, “The feedback is that people like the simplicity of its interface and how easy it is to use.”
Next comes Perforce Commons, a simple desktop interface for versioning. “You drag it out, work on it, and drag it back when it’s done. The system keeps track of what doc you’re working on, what the other person’s working on, and where they both came from.” The product will be open-sourced in hopes of sparking mashups from other vendors and customers.
The enthusiasm users have for Perforce and the ways they adapt it are legion. That’s where the third initiative comes in. Soon, the new Ecosystem will be a vibrant user community built out of this enthusiasm. The goal? Elevate individual contributions and provide direct feedback mechanisms for future Perforce development. The cornerstone will be a full-featured forge for community and Perforce developers alike to create plugins, extensions, scripts and other apps via an open source model. “Even some previously internal Perforce projects will be moved to the forge and developed in the wild to allow more transparency,” says Chanter.
Bumps in the Road?
But could a competing trend spell trouble for version everything? Distributed version control is all the rage in certain circles. Perforce is listening, however, and has its own answer. All too often, Seiwald and Chanter note, debates around DVCS devolve into religious arguments. “We don’t see it as an either-or situation, but rather one where DVCS functionality can complement a centralized server architecture,” according to Chanter. Perforce will soon offer P4Sandbox, a private branching tool that was enthusiastically received by customers at the June user conference.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is cloud-based storage, such as Apple’s iCloud for consumers. Could these efforts obviate version everything? Seiwald explains why there’s a need for Perforce’s more rigorous approach, even in a world of iPads.
“Whether it’s iCloud or Dropbox or the versioning in Lion, most of those systems are just doing automatic backup. That’s like ‘level one’ of versioning. The next level is where you use versioning as part of your workflow,” says Seiwald. That’s where we see versioning, as part of the workflow, not just a safe backup copy.
Intelligent branching behavior, the ability to see where changes have occurred, and the power to trigger workflow actions are reasons why Perforce continues to expand the boundaries of SCM far beyond source code. How do you see version everything making sense of your world? Let us know.
The former editor in chief of Software Development magazine, Alexandra Weber Morales shares many interests with her technical readers: Relentless curiosity, musical skills, and education in such languages as Scheme and C++. A winner of multiple editorial awards, she currently freelance writes for SD Times, DevX, AuntMinnie.com and for clients including Microsoft, IBM and Intel.