This article discusses software that runs in the wild, versus software running in potentially controllable environments.

There are many perspectives on software development. One particular perspective that has always interested me is the distinction between software running 'in the wild' versus software running in potentially controllable environments (such as corporate networks, including DMZs). Whether it's one or the other has a substantial impact on how you write, release and maintain software.

Historical perspective #

Software 'in the wild' is simply software where you don't know, or can't control, the install base. In the good old days (a few years ago) that typically meant software produced by ISVs such as Microsoft, Oracle, SAS, SAP, Autodesk, Adobe etc. The software produced by such organizations were/are often purchased by license and deployed by enterprise operations organizations. Even for ISVs targeting end-users directly (such as personal tax software, single player games, etc.), the software was/is typically installed by the individual user, and the ISV had/has zero control of the deployment environment or schedule.

The opposite of ISV Software has until recently been Enterprise Software. The problem with this term is that it has become almost derogatory, but I don't think that's entirely fair, because the forces working on this kind of software are very different from those working on ISV software. In this category I count specialized software made for specialized, internal purposes. It can be developed by in-house developers or a hired team, but the main characteristic is that the software is deployed in a potentially controllable environment (I originally wrote 'controlled environment,' but one reviewer interpreted this to indicate only software explicitly managed by process and tools such as Chef or Puppet). Even if there are several deployment environments such as testing, staging and production, and even if we are talking about Client/Server architectures with desktop clients deployed to enterprise desktops, an operations team should be able to keep track of all installations and schedule updates (if any). Often the original developers can work with operations to troubleshoot problems directly on the installed machine (or at least get logs).

Note that I'm not counting software such as SAP, Microsoft Dynamics or Oracle as Enterprise Software, despite the fact that such software is used by enterprises. Enterprise software is software developed by the enterprise itself, for its own purposes.

Enterprise Software can be a small system that sits in a corner of a corporate network, used by two employees every last weekday of the month. It can also be a massively scalable system build for a special occasion, such as the official site for a big sports tournament like the FIFA World Cup or the Summer Olympics.

Current perspective #

The historical distinction of ISV versus Enterprise Development makes less and less sense today. First of all, with the shift of emphasis towards SaaS, traditional ISVs are moving into an area that looks a lot like Enterprise Development. With SaaS, vendors suddenly find themselves in a situation where they control the entire installation base (at least on the service side). Some of them are now figuring out that this enables them to iterate faster than before. Apparently even such an Enterprisey-sounding service as the Team Foundation Service is now deploying new features several times a year. Expect that cadence to increase.

On the other hand, the rising popularity of Open Source Software (OSS) suddenly puts a lot of OSS developers in the old position of ISV developers. OSS tends to run in the wild, and the developers have no control of the installation base or upgrade schedules.

Oh, and do I even have to say 'Apps'?

Thus, we need a better terminology. Developing, supporting and managing software in 'the wild' sounds a lot like the duties of a Ranger: you can put overall plans into motion to nudge the environment in a certain direction, and sometimes you encounter a particular specimen with which you can interact, but essentially you'll have to understand complex environmental dynamics and plan for the long term.

If traditional ISV developers, as well as OSS programmers, are Rangers, then Enterprise and SaaS developers must be Zookeepers. They deal with a controlled environment, can keep an accurate tally, and execute detailed project plans at pre-planned schedules.

OK, I admit that it sounds cooler to be a Ranger than a Zookeeper, but the metaphor makes sense to me :)

As a corrollary, we can talk about Wildlife Software versus Zoo Software.

Forces #

The forces working on Wildlife Software versus Zoo Software are very different:

Advantages Disadvantages
Wildlife Software Since you can't control the installation base, you have to make the software robust, well-tested, secure, easy (enough) to install, and documented. It should be well-instrumented and possible to troubleshoot without being the original developer. Once you release a version into the wild, it must be able to stand on its own, or it will die. This is a rather Darwinian environment, but the advantage is that the software that survives tends to have some attributes we often associate with high 'quality'. Traditionally, producing software with all these 'quality' attributes has been an expensive and slow endeavor. It also leads to conservatism, because every change must be carefully considered. Once released into the wild, a feature or behavior of a piece of software can't be changed (in that version). To wit: Microsoft has traditionally shipped new versions of Windows, Office, Visual Studio, the BCL etc. years apart. The BCL is peppered with sealed or internal classes, much to the chagrin of programmers everywhere.
Zoo Software The Product Owners of Zoo Software will expect their programmers to be able to iterate much faster, since the installation base is much smaller and well-known. There are fewer environment permutations to consider - e.g. you may know up front that the software should only have to be able to run on Windows Server 2008 R2 with a SQL Server 2008 R2 database. The entire deployment environment is also well-known, so there are many assumptions you can trust to hold. This indicates that you should be able to produce software in an 'agile' manner. Because the Zoo is a much less dangerous place, the software can be less robust (at least along some axes), which again indicates that it can be produced by a smaller team than corresponding Wildlife Software. This again helps keeping down cost. There are certain quality shortcuts that can be safely made with Zoo Software - e.g. never testing the software on Windows XP if you know it's never going to run on that OS. However, once a team under deadline pressure starts to make warranted shortcuts, it may begin making unwarranted shortcuts as well. Thus, we often experience Zoo Software that is poorly tested, is extremely difficult to deploy, is poorly documented and hard to operate. This, I believe, is why Enterprise Development today has such a negative ring to it.

Now that former ISVs are moving into Zoo Software via SaaS, it's going to be interesting to see what happens in this space.

Conclusion #

Don't jump to conclusions about the advantages of either approach. This article is meant to be descriptive, first and foremost. This means that I'm describing the characteristics of Wildlife and Zoo Software as I most commonly encounter those types of software. I'm fully aware of initiatives such as DevOps, so I'm not saying that software has to be like I describe it - I'm just describing what I'm currently observing.


Great article! One of the very interesting things to see what happens will be scalability. Since with SaaS we are paying for each virtual machine (VM) that is running, the service must scale or else we have to pay for another VM to handle the load.
2012-12-18 10:30 UTC
Great article!

It's an interesting dynamic that while ISVs is moving into creating what can be thought of as Zoo Software due to the SaaS environment the fact that the client in a SaaS environment most often is browser-based means that they remain in Ranger-role on the client-side since the myriad of different browsers and browser-versions makes the new client-world as wild if not even wilder than a traditional desktop application environment.
2012-12-18 12:34 UTC
Given the lingo you introduce, as a Ranger there are many options that make it easy to deliver Zoo like software: e.g. creating an installer that has launch conditions requiring a particular OS, a particular database version. It's a bit of a misconception that all Rangers shrink wrap the entire package (with docs, vids, etc). As a Ranger delivering software for what is basically a Zoo, I can opt to have special trained cowboys that provide training, implementation guidance, or god forbid special customization services (SAP et al). Selling these extra services/consultancy to make up for poor quality is an entire business model in and by itself. I say this because there's more nuance to a Rangers (don't work in a Zoo so can't judge that) modus operandi. If I do any of these things, am I still a Ranger?
2012-12-19 08:43 UTC

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Tuesday, 18 December 2012 08:10:23 UTC


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Published: Tuesday, 18 December 2012 08:10:23 UTC