The 'Force remains strong

The 'Force remains strong

By Develop

June 13th 2008 at 1:45PM

Jon Jordan finds that the bulletpoints for Perforceâ??s eponymous version control software are robust, simple and reliableâ?¦

Product: Perforce 2007.3 (2008.1, summer)
Company: Perforce
Price: $800 per user ($900 from July 1st)
Contact: +44 845 345 0116
w: www.perforce.com

"Sure, we eat our own dog food. We’ve been using Perforce to make Perforce ever since the system could check itself in. One of our servers has been in constant operation for over 10 years now, ” says a proud Christopher Seiwald, founder, president and CTO of Perforce.

Granted, version control software, or a Software Configuration Management (SCM) system as labelled by Perforce, doesn’t often generate headlines but few programmers would disagree it can have a big impact on their day-to-day work.

“It’s a specialised tool that sits in a specialised place in the development process. You have your compiler, your editor and your SCM,” Seiwald agrees. Perforce’s role in that ecosystem over the past dozen years has been cemented by simple yet highly effective features; it’s stable, doesn’t get in the way, offers a flexible API, supports plenty of client operating systems and is sensibly priced.

At the core sits the Perforce Server that manages access to a central file repository and tracks activity as users access the database through a variety of visual, web-based and command line clients. A reporting system, defect tracking and merge tool are also available, although Perforce’s business
model means you buy the server and pay for the number of seats accessing it, so all related software is effectively free.

BRANCHING OUT
Seiwald says that despite the seeming temptation of branching out into other areas, he’s happy to keep his focus on ensuring the things Perforce currently does well, it does even better in future.

“We’ve always been wary of cashing our success in one area for failure in another,” he jokes. “We’re pretty solid on what we know we can do, so our challenge is who’s not using Perforce and why not?”

Aside from this, even if it wanted to branch out, Seiwald argues, there is a lack of obvious partners. “SCM has been around long enough that people are broadly in agreement about what works and what doesn’t. That’s not the case when it comes to build systems or testing systems, and there must be 50 defect trackers out there,” he says.

“We try to provide some integrations ourselves if we see there’s enough feedback and sometimes we work with individual customers on a consultancy basis but by and large, customers do it for themselves. A lot of companies invest in infrastructure because that’s what gives them competitive advantage so they’re willing to put effort into making it work.”

The games industry has had an effect on Perforce’s direction however. Competition from the art-focused Alienbrain resulted in a thumbnail viewer so users could get a visual idea of what assets are stored on the server. The sheer size of games is also forcing basic requirements.

“We don’t get into content any more than noticing the difference between binary and text files and if it’s a binary file we rely on a tool to manage it,” Seiwald says. “We now do integration with 3ds Max, Maya and XSI. Games pushed us in terms of what we need to support because there are a lot of file types but there are also very large files so some customers run up along the edge of what we can handle. It turns out that even with the fastest networking, if you’ve got to make a copy of 50 GB of data, it’s going to take a certain amount of time to get across the wire.”

A SIMPLE PLAN
Part of Perforce’s success, according to Seiwald, is the company’s approach to licensing.

The evaluation licence is fully functional and supports two users and five client workspaces, while educational and open source licenses are available. Commercial licensing is transparent, too, with the first 20 users being charged at a rate of $800, dropping to $750 for the next 30 and so on to a flat rate of $500 per user for deals of more than 1,000 seats. After some years of stability, prices are set to rise on July 1st with a $900 opening price, dropping to $430 for more than 10,000 users however. Annual maintenance remains £160 per user.

“We occupy a unique niche in that we have a product that is used across some very large companies but is sold like individual software,” Seiwald says. “Generally, if you’re buying something for thousands of users, the price is heavily negotiated. Equally though, there’s the saying that if you spend $25 on a piece of software and it doesn’t work, you take it back. But if you buy a million dollar piece of software, you know you’ll be spending a million in consulting to get it working. Our price reflects the fact that if you buy Perforce, it will work.”