Seven steps to SCM selection

11th December 2013
Nat Bowers

Version management, or Software Configuration Management (SCM) systems have become an integral part of the embedded software development process, as they help keep (distributed) teams and vast amounts of information on track in the face of tight deadlines. By Mark Warren, European Marketing Director at Perforce Software.

For organisations that have not reviewed their SCM requirements in several years, it is definitely worth taking a look at what is out there. Sometimes change is forced upon organisations, perhaps as a result of mergers and acquisitions, which can lead to a mis-match of inherited SCM systems that need to be rationalised. This article aims to provide a guide through a process that can seem daunting but can be relatively pain-free, as long as certain ‘best practice’ steps are followed.

Step 1: Determine why you want a new SCM

This may sound like an obvious question, but there is a difference between being a ‘first time’ user of SCM (increasingly rare) and, for instance, a company that has inherited multiple SCM tools and now wants to standardise on a single system to reduce complexity and costs. Another driver might be a desire to collaborate on the same SCM platform as partners or customers.  Other issues include global expansion (where the need to have systems that support cross-border collaboration becomes more pressing), or the need to have SCM systems that support development trends such as Continuous Delivery and Agile.

Step 2: Define what you need from a SCM

First of all, it’s important to specify requirements for the electronics industry.  Taking a top level view, electronics designers typically require SCM systems that support rapid time-to-market, but at a more ‘grass roots’ level, other needs include integration with tools such as IDEs, defect-tracking and continuous integration, rapid prototyping and components-based design. The ability to include electronics diagrams, chipset designs and associated documentation in the SCM system is likely to be important too.

Also consider whether collaboration with third parties is required (for instance, if working in an OEM or sub-contractor environment) and what platforms and operating systems need to be considered (is support for open-source software necessary?)

Step 3: Define your users

The range of people using SCM systems has widened over the past few years. Traditionally, SCM was the sole province of software engineers, but these days, we see SCM being used in just about every part of the organisation. Of course, who needs to use SCM will vary considerably according to the organisation but in the electronics design market typical users can include technical staff, marketing and product management staff (who are responsible for getting the product out into the marketplace) and external third parties (for instance, independent testing organisations). Each of these roles will have a preferred interface and process for interacting with the SCM, be it via a GUI, a seamless plug-in or even an integration that allows use of an offline versioning tool, while maintaining full accountability with the enterprise versioning system.  Each role may also require different levels of training and support.

A good starting point is to interview a diverse cross-section of staff to find out their pain points and where in the product lifecycle they interact with SCM. Alternatively, consider inviting a few representatives from different job functions to form a SCM tool selection team.

Seven steps to SCM selection - DRAFT

Step 4: The evaluation process

Consider three to five vendors to evaluate; more than that can become overwhelming, fewer can be problematic too because it may inspire questions down the line about how the decision was made. Three forces the selection process to be narrowed down to ‘good, better, best’. 

Scheduled demos are clearly needed, but make sure to provide requirements and processes in advance, so that the demo is truly tailored to the organisation’s needs. Of course, skipping this step and going straight to free trials is an option, but demos can provide a sense of what it is like interacting with the vendor (important for future support calls). 

Having made the likely selection, ask for a free trial and it is often wise to keep this to a pilot team, or to ask different stakeholders to evaluate different tools and report back.

Step 5: Calculate real costs

Calculating ROI can be complex, as there are a lot of factors to consider. The vendor should be able to help with this, but make sure to include administration, hardware, project hosting, training, consulting and support costs. Also, be aware that while open source software may be ‘free’, it is certainly not immune to those associated costs (plus does it provide the required performance, reliability and scalability?)

If migrating from more than one existing system, then it may be wise to invest in consultancy services, whether from the vendor or one of its preferred partners; some organisations can have half a dozen legacy SCM systems, often as a result of mergers and acquisitions and bringing all of that legacy data into a single new SCM environment is certainly not impossible, but it can be challenging.

Step 6: Support and community

Given that SCM is usually at the heart of the product development process, this needs to be top-notch, so ask around and find out what other users think of the support offered by the SCM under the spotlight.  Ask if the vendor also provides community, training, best practice resources, consulting and user events.  Check the vitality of the ‘eco-system’ around the tool in terms of third party integrations, consultancies, customer-built mods and forums.

Seven steps to SCM selection - AVAILABLE NOW

Step 7: Will it make a real difference?

This final check-point matters, because SCM systems can provide a competitive edge, enabling users to bring products to market more quickly. SCM vendors should be viewed as strategic partners, because after all they are entrusted with their customer’s valuable IP. It can be tempting to choose an SCM tool just because it is well established, or because it was what was used in a previous job or by the main competition. 

Ask for customer examples in the electronics design market; attending user events and conferences is a great way to check out references informally. Seek out analyst reports to gauge the strength and staying power of the vendors. How often is the product portfolio refreshed and does the vendor have a forward-looking product roadmap?

Changing SCM or version management systems can seem daunting, but by following some simple ‘best practice’ steps, it can enable electronic design companies to reap the benefits that today’s SCM systems have on offer. 

Images courtesy of Stuart Miles/

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