Innovative Interfaces to Launch Sierra: A New-Generation Automation Platform

By Marshall Breeding |

Innovative Interfaces has joined the fray of library automation vendors launching new-generation library automation platforms.  With Innovative’s new system, dubbed Sierra, they aim to offer the depth of functionality equivalent to their current Millennium ILS. This system leverages current technology architectures that include open source components, with full-featured API bundles that enable greater extensibility and flexibility in the way that libraries make use of the system.

The Sierra Platform

The launch of a new system affords Innovative the opportunity to take advantage of technology components, architectures, and methods consistent with the times, and hopefully to anticipate what features will be popular and neccesary in the future.  Innovative has chosen the service-oriented architecture, open source database and indexing components, RESTful web services and APIs, and engagement with library developers as some of the key elements of its new technology strategy.
Following a service-oriented architecture, the new Sierra platform has been constructed in four layers.  The foundation database layer will make use of PostgreSQL as the transactional database engine and Lucene for indexing to support search and retrieval operations.  Use of these open source components stands in distinct contrast to Millennium, which uses proprietary database and indexing technologies developed by Innovative, or the commercial Oracle database.  The database layer connects to the rest of the application through a data access object layer using a component called Hibernate which lends database independence and the ability to maintain persistent transactions through workflows executed at higher levels.  Since the database layer also supports standard SQL, third party tools such as Crystal Reports can be used to create reports or other data extraction or manipulation operations.  Use of the open source PostgreSQL also results in significant cost savings relative to commercial database engines.

A services layer implements the business logic that represents all of the functionality of the system, including the detailed tasks and workflows involved in ILS modules such as cataloging, circulation, acquisitions, a set of services for managing electronic resources, and another others for discovery and delivery of content. The services of this layer are exposed to higher-level applications through SOAP wrappers.

A set of new Sierra applications sits on top of the services layer.  The heart of this layer will be a new Sierra App that implements the staff functionality of the system through a unified, non-modular approach.  While Millennium offered specialized clients for each of its functional modules, Sierra delivers all functionality through a single application, avoiding the need to switch among modules depending on the task at hand.  This application layer will also include components to deliver bundles of API’s to support a variety of external interactions, all delivered through RESTful web services (Representational State Transfer). 

A top presentation layer will operate above the application layer, including the client to the Sierra application, web and mobile public interfaces.  This presentation layer would also include third-party applications built on top of the published API’s, interfaces to social media applications, or other end-user applications that might be created.

The new Sierra platform will be offered as software that can be installed locally in a library or consortium and will also be offered through software-as-a-service, hosted in a cloud infrastructure. 

Sierra Strategy

The new Sierra platform represents a new strategic approach for Innovative.  Over the years, the company has gained a reputation for having a closed approach and for offering highly proprietary software that gives libraries too little flexibility in how they access its data or use the system.  With Sierra, Innovative aims for the opposite end of the spectrum. The goal is to be more open, by making use of more open source components, but more importantly, by providing libraries access to the data through standard SQL interfaces and to higher level functionality through a full set of published APIs and RESTful web services. 

Many libraries will use the Sierra system entirely as delivered by Innovative; others may want to create and implement their own custom applications in different areas of the system.  Innovative indicates that it will promote the establishment of library developer communities where library programmers across institutions can collaborate to create new functionality based on the Sierra APIs, share their work, and to engage with the company’s own developers. 

The Sierra applications will not be delivered as open source software, but rather will deliver access to data and functionality in ways that do not require access to the complex internal programming of the system.  In an environment where many libraries resonate with open source software, companies like Innovative that have traditionally offered proprietary systems struggle to find ways to offer similar benefits and values.  Time will tell whether the openness designed into Sierra strengthens Innovative’s ability to compete against the growing onslaught of open source ILS products and the expectations of open source enthusiasts.


Work has been underway on Sierra for quite some time.  Innovative plans to deliver the initial phase of the software by the end of the 2011 calendar year, with two additional phases to follow.

Although Sierra represents a fundamentally new technology platform, the company isn’t starting from scratch.  All of the business logic, detailed functionality, and workflows of Millennium will be transferred into Sierra and will be available from its earliest release.  The delivery of Sierra will follow a phased release schedule, with the initial launch including all existing Millennium functionality, and the core of the new Sierra platform, such as the PostgreSQL database with its third-party reporting options, the single-client architecture and the new configurable staff client, API bundles, and other new services.

The second phase of deployment will include delivery of a Web-based circulation client and extend functionality for workflows related to management of electronic resources, additional API developments, such as for NCIP patron authentication and e-book circulation integration, web services for item availability lookups, and other REST APIs.  Corresponding to the availability of these Web services and API’s, Innovative will launch the development community and sandbox.
Plans for the third phase currently include the delivery of a table editor for the PostgreSQL data, integration with social media applications, new functional enhancements, and a new set of workflows for acquisitions.    

Innovative has made its public announcements about Sierra after competing projects such as Kuali OLE and Ex Libris Alma.  But if the company is able to hit its target dates, it may deliver its initial release sooner.

What about Millennium?

According to Neil Block, President of Innovative, the company is not abandoning Millennium or pressing its customers for an abrupt change.  Millennium will continue to be supported and development of its next release is underway.  This strategy rings true with the way that Innovative has handled product transitions in the past.  The company began a phased development and deployment of Millennium beginning in 1997, with customers shifting away from the character-based INNOPAC modules over the course of the next decade.  

Pricing for Sierra has not yet been finalized, though Block indicates that it will be set to make it attractive for customer libraries to easily navigate toward the technology uplift it offers.  Pricing may focus more on a services model than on licensing. 

While the technologies and functional approach of Millennium were suitable for when it was initially conceived and developed, today’s technological and competitive environment set the context for the creation of the company’s next-generation system.   On the technology front, service-oriented architecture has become well established and is the preferred approach for interoperable business applications.  The library automation industry today includes a growing interest in open-source ILS products.  Offering a system with the powerful and nuanced functionality and open API’s, engendering a developer’s community, and designing a system that gives libraries flexibly ways to access their data seems like a reasonable strategy to compete with open source systems. 

The launch of Sierra comes at a critical time when the library automation industry is entering a new phase.  Many new products that embrace new approaches to library automation are brewing.  OCLC’s Web-scale Management Services, which offers ILS functionality as an extension of WorldCat has already begun its early adoption cycle, with a handful of libraries already in production and with others underway.  Ex Libris has been developing its new Alma framework, with initial delivery set for early 2012.  The open source Kuali OLE project, which aims to produce a new automation platform for academic and research libraries is well into the software build process and anticipates releases beginning in 2012. 

Academic and research libraries, hard hit by economic pressures and needing to realign strategies and operations to balance increasing reliance on electronic content and diminishing print priorities, may find some relief in this new slate of automation alternatives.  Public libraries need automation platforms that allow them to engage their patrons in new and creative ways and to have the flexibility to deliver services beyond the constraints of traditional ILS products and online catalogs. 

Through its development of Sierra, Innovative has claimed a position among the ranks of these new systems and seems ready to take a new turn in the way that it creates software and interacts with its customer libraries.