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HCL Domino 12.0.2, Engage 2022 and HCL Factory tour Milan

 I haven't published my recap after Engage this year and the recent HCL Factory tour in Milan is a great opportunity to write a summary about what's happening in HCL (mostly Domino) space. It's a mix of news about 12.0.2, future directions, and my impressions, so it can be a bit chaotic, but I got the impression that many people see it similarly. 

Engage 2022

Engage 2022 was great (as always). I love the atmosphere in Brudges. I visited it once after Engage a few years ago and I was happy to come back. This was also the first time I had the opportunity to speak at Engage, which obviously made it a bit more stressful, but also more fun.

Together with Domino Jams, HCL continued conversations with customers and partners about the future of their products at Engage. Many of these ideas were now discussed in greater detail in Milan, some of them were even demoed. 

My main takeaways from Engage were:

  • Nomad (web and mobile) are a great addition to Notes family
  • Restyle is a great generic attempt to address the "Notes apps are ugly" narrative
  • Domino server is getting features to keep it relevant in the modern it landscape
  • If you want to do something new and more complex, you make need to look at Volt MX (Go)

HCL Domino 12.0.2

During the time between Engage and Factory tour in Milan HCL has published several "beta" versions of 12.0.2 versions to gather feedback and show us what's coming.  I personally don't like the version number. We had many discussions back in IBM days importance of version naming as a scheme with 3 digits + FP +IF (+HF if you need it) was really hard to explain, but yet were are here again. It's supposed the be the major annual version of a major product and all it gets is +0.0.1 (something you do in daily builds in many products). HCL clearly wanted to avoid v13 and probably needed more time than expected to make the decision, so they just used what they had. The next code stream is already being named v14 now, so in one year this should be resolved.

The version is about keeping the Domino relevant for existing customers. HCL has addressed many of the long-standing problems with email security, authentication schemes, etc. I'm sure that even people at HCL would like to have implemented things SPF, DKIM andOIDC sooner, but it's there now. I'm happy that even XPages got some updates with a newer version of CK Editor (and an updated Java version). It's mostly about backend changes that users (and management) won't appreciate. 

Luckily, we also have some wow features we can demo. 

Nomad Web for Domino

Surprisingly, it's not directly integrated into 12.0.2. HCL has different teams working on different subjects with different release cadences in order to get the results out as soon as possible. This is great for early adopters, but for anyone who does not live on blogs, Twitter (who does that these days) or Flexnet, it's hard to follow.  But in this case, it also means that you can run it even on 12.0.1 (it was released already in September)

This is a critical component of Domino story for 2 reasons:

  • it helps with the TCO reduction narrative (running Notes/Domino is cheap) because you can get rid of Notes client deployment
  • it provides Web app dev capability in a "low-code" platform

The previous SafeLinx Nomad Web deployment was something that many customers did not want to dive into. Especially if they were just trying to keep their Notes apps running, adding new software that you need to manage was not feasible. With running this directly on Domino, it's a different story.

I bet HCL will be able to convince many customers to renew/upgrade their Domino environments just because of Nomad Web, even when the customer has "just those few apps" that they will decommission "soon". What's more important, this will be the beginning of new conversations about what can be done with Domino

Restyle


We have heard over and over that Notes apps are old, and ugly. If you are a partner, you usually have custom UIs that look better, but the Notes app landscape is full of 20+ years old apps that nobody wants to touch (or give a few $ to touch), so it stayed like this. Other platforms, with fewer formatting capabilities, can just refresh the look&feel of their apps during product updates, but in Notes, with the complexity of RichText structure, it's not feasible. It would definitely also cause problems for those apps that look good now if you do something behind the scene. 

Restyle is trying to apply the default styling and refresh the apps. It won't make them look perfect, but it's the first step to show the management that the app can look different in 5 minutes, so they can prepare a budget for a bigger UI refresh. And if the app then runs directly in a web browser, we can start to have these conversations again. 

Factory Tour Milan

HCL organizes a few factory tours in different locations during the year. It's important to bring the conversations as close as possible to the partners/customers because nobody would fly across half of the world to HCL Domino conference these days as they did for Lotusphere. (The only exception is Engage and I bet HCL surely knows that doing a big event themselves would hurt Engage). Together with Domino Jams, this is important, especially if you have some topics to discuss.

The factory started as invite-only events, but I guess now it's a bit more open. Still, I'll try to only share my impressions without too much detail that could violate any NDA if applicable.

12.0.2

Domino 12.0.2 was released during the event. Many of the sessions were focused on what you can do with it. I have already mentioned Restyle and Nomad Web for Domino above. 

Container image structure change

Another interesting change is the container image update. It's now based on the community image. Daniel Nashed even explained the process of how HCL is integrating changes from the public git repo. It's an interesting concept that I hope can be used for other parts of Domino in the future. 

I also like that you no longer need to work with the intermediate containers, or actually think too much about choosing between the official or community image. If you just need to run Domino then the official image is ok. If you want to customize the image a bit more, just go for the community image. Even from a support perspective, you should be fine (unless you break it too much).

OIDC

I still need to test this, but any improvements to SSO integration of Domino are important. These days customers no longer think about servers/platforms, but about solutions. And seamless (and secure) transition and integration between different components is a must. 

Source control

This one was unexpected .. . At Engage we have repeated our complaints about the quality of source-control in Domino. It was even part of my session. HCL listened and now Dan Dumont is starting to take a fresh look at the problem. He is not using DXL, but a new Yaml format that should be easier to diff/merge. It's too early to jump to any conclusions, but Dan was able to do a demo, which was nice. He is also trying to do everything headlessly, without Domino Designer.

 Keep (Domino Rest API/DRAPI)

This is one of the typical examples of the confusion that HCL was struggling with recently. Initially announced as one of the key innovations, then silently integrated into other plans and then again released (hopefully) as a standalone feature. Many of us thought that it was coming with 12.0.2, but no. It should be GA later this month separately.

I'll have to wait for the final version to judge its usefulness. 

Nomad-based designer

I heard it at Engage for the very first time. Now it's listed on roadmap slides, so it's probably coming. It won't be able to support everything that Eclipse Designer can do, but for the low-code, classic, Notes apps, it should be sufficient. Together with the new admin interface, it could mean that some Domino deployments can be completely without thick clients - an interesting idea.

Sametime, Connections, DX

I don't work with these products anymore, but they seem to be getting some nice updates too. 

Factory tour final thoughts

It was my first factory tour, so I did not know what to expect. I think the atmosphere is a bit different when the event is held in the US at offices used by HCL Digital Solutions. In Milan, it was still HCL, but it was "the other" HCL, so I guess it could have been hosted at any location. The in-office feeling and ratio of HCLers vs. attendees made it even easier to approach anyone and start a conversation, but I don't see any difference compared to Engage (but it could be also influenced by my HCL Ambassador status). 

 App-Dev strategy

I care primarily about Domino app-dev strategy and coming from Java/XPages part of the stack, these events made a few things a bit clearer for me.

  1. HCL will continue to support (almost) any solution running on Domino. There have been only a few technologies removed from the platform over the years (like DB2 integration) and HCL is still trying to update most of them when it makes sense. Java and XPages are getting some updates, but I don't expect more than that.
  2. Future of low-code Domino development is in its roots - Forms/Views/LotusScript, which runs in the client, mobile and on the web with Nomad Web. Potentially can be developed in Nomad-based designer.
  3. If you want to build something more complex, you may need to look elsewhere. But HCL is giving you the option with Volt MX (Go)

I won't mention HCL Domino Leap (Volt originally, naming is challenging even for HCL) here as it's a tool for specific scenarios and I would not consider it a generic app dev platform like Notes/Domino or XPages or Volt MX. 

The biggest problem that I see for HCL is that bringing 20years old architecture of Notes apps will not save the platform in the long run. It will definitely stop some customers from migrating away now, but I see 2 problems:

  • people - there are not many developers doing classic Notes apps anymore. Many moved to Java/XPages when IBM told them to and now are more pro-code devs. HCL will need to make it attractive for a new group of low-code devs. 
  • technology - there are new use cases that LotusScript and Nomad won't cover. I think this was 1. concern from partners - extensibility of Nomad and Verse. Even simple apps like expense approval with attachments in OneDrive are something that I would not dare to do in LotusScript.

Too many different tools

Domino app dev used to be nicely integrated. Even mail used the same technology, so developers could learn from the core templates and incorporate tricks into their own solutions. This is not the case anymore. For every problem, we get a new tool and it's hard to pick the optimal solution, especially when considering long-term support. 


The last time I had to select an API to integrate with Domino I had to select C API - I had no knowledge of C, but it seemed like the best option from performance and long-term support. And it seems that HCL is making the same decision over and over. Here is a list of APIs (without too much thinking)

  • C API
  • Domino classic with Java or LotusScript - yes, you can create REST like agents with it ...
  • DAS - I never used that
  • XPages Java/SSJS -  very flexible, but getting outdated
  • AppDev pack - used to be the prime initiative 3-4 years ago? Now probably just in maintenance mode
  • Keep - mentioned above.

Then we have add-ons from HCL that rarely use any of these technologies. Nomad with WebAssebly is a special thing, but I think even Verse and Keep use APIs that are not accessible for partners (and documented). Which also means that HCL has other layers to maintain. I know that technology these days is about picking the best tool for the job based on the problem and team you have, but picking a different stack every time is what leads to microservices hell pretty soon.

HCL will need to start consolidating these at some point or at least encapsulate them within some unification layer. Every new add-on runs on port or even more, so maybe hiding this behind some internal proxy would be better (with handling of TLS, and authentication at this level, not in each of these tasks). 

Many different release schedules

One of the advantages of Domino was that it's a nicely integrated platform, maybe too monolithic for these days, but the simplicity of deployment and maintenance was an important part of the success. Now, almost every part has a different release schedule. Customers won't be able to follow this and even for partners, it's time-consuming and tricky to deal with (not to mention just knowing the latest version as Flexnet won't help).

You have Domino (with FPs, IFs) and then

  • Verse 
  • AppDev pack 
  • Keep
  • Nomad apps
  • Nomand Web

all these on quarterly schedules? Maybe not. 

Many of these add-ons are pretty new, so I can just hope that with v14 we get a more polished package with everything installed together.  I think it was again one of the key highlights on the roadmap slides.

Volt MX Go

Volt MX is the answer from HCL if you start to talk about more complex apps. HCL has the technology, so I understand that they want to use it. To make this easier for existing Domino customers they have created the Volt MX Go offering. It's a completely different technology, so you'll need to learn, deploy and pay to use this. It's up to you to decide if it's worth trying. 

HCL is working on better integration of Volt MX with Domino, but the roadmap is quite long to get to a state where these ideas should be usable. Having the possibility to run LotusScript in the Volt platform and even extend it (now it's called VoltScript) sounds interesting, but it's another language to maintain by HCL - and we have seen what happened to Server-side JavaScript in Domino, right? 

I have no knowledge about Volt MX, so I can't tell if any of the Go initiatives will improve the platform also for the non-Domino world. If not, I would consider many of this waste of resources that HCL could use to improve other areas.

HCL is listening

The messages and roadmaps that I have seen in the last months were consistent and I understand the direction, even when I may not like it in some cases. It's about making money for HCL and currently, the focus is still mostly on explaining to customers that Notes are a valuable asset and can support their business. With Nomad, Restyle, the customers can easily start to see the value. HCL is not pretending that this will attract many new customers to the platform, but it will help to refresh the current user base that may start saying again that their business apps still run on Domino without any hesitation or shame (yes, I have seen that).

Is the future bright?

Even when I'm positive about what's HCL doing, I'm still not sure. It's a business and as I have heard in Milan, IT is a fashion business. We all like to wear yellow, even when IBM tried to persuade us that blue or even pink is the current trend. Yellow is what works for us, but I'm not sure if it works for customers.

It will be tremendously hard for HCL to sell Domino as app-dev platform to new customers without existing partner solutions. In the past I saw 2 models where we were able to sell Domino:

  1. Mail solution with "free" app dev platform. A customer needed mail and then we were able to sell apps or services to build them without having to worry too much about licensing (with CCB it's even more simple than PVUs and calls)
  2. A solution for a business problem - let's say CRM - and then again services and custom app dev

Mail is a commodity that nobody wants to discuss much these days (or they want it as cheap as possible) and there are no great up-to-date solutions that run on Domino, because it's technically harder to develop them than on other platforms. So what remains is a low-code space for small-ish apps and integration with apps that are already running. 

XPages idea

After writing all the previous paragraphs I felt that there is still one area that I need to address specifically - XPages. It's dear to me and it's one of the reasons why I continued to work with the platform as I have a Java dev background. There were Java and HTTP stack updates in the roadmaps, but probably nothing big is planned for XPages. Since every new addon now runs separately, why not unbundle XPages from the HTTP task.

I know that Jesse has done a lot of work in this area with Liberty runtime (and other great improvements to the XPages stack). When I saw that HCL is now getting changes for the container image from a public git repo it made me thinking if they can do it for other areas. I know that OpenNTF had this discussion with HCL and XPages used to be the prime cooperation between IBM and OpenNTF during ExtLib development, but it would be cool to revisit this. It could be something like:

  • a dedicated XPages task on Domino (removing some of the limitations of the current http task)
  • developed in open-source mode and incorporated into the product (if wanted by HCL)

But HCL needs to decide if it's worth it for them to spend time even thinking and discussing such things. For now, it's Nomad or Volt MX Go for them and it may be already too late to try to keep the XPages devs/partners on the platform as they have more options than e.g. low-code classic Notes apps devs that know just Forms and LotusScript.

Conclusion

My feeling from the recent events was overall positive. It's important for me to see that all HCLers are aligned on their strategy and that they know pretty well what the other teams are doing. I think the most typical answer was "we know that and it would be better if we could do all this faster".  With Nomad Web for Domino and Restyle they may get some extra time from customers before they completely abandon the platform, but then they will see progress also in the next version. At least it may bring some renewal revenue to HCL, which they can then invest back into the product or marketing.


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