This month I sat down with Christopher Seiwald - who founded Perforce in 1995 and is currently president and CTO - to talk about his vision for the company, why version control still matters, and whether he's likely to take the privately-held company public.
Christopher Seiwald, Perforce founder, president and CTO
How and why did you start Perforce?
I had been working at Ingres on porting products from system to system. We'd developed something that sat on the Ingres database that basically ran on its own, but when we came to thinking about Piccolo 2 we weren't sure we wanted to write it on Ingres. We were thinking it might make sense as something open source, but about that time Ingres was bought by Computer Associates.
I left and realised I had experience of porting, networking and databases. I had the idea that I could do a better SCM [software configuration management] tool. We started coding in 1995 and incorporated the company in August '96. We've been profitable every year, ever since.
Not every company made it through the last two technology recessions...
I think the key to us surviving the 2000 and 2008 busts is that we've aimed for measured growth. We haven't tried to go stratospheric instantly.
Yet you have some pretty large accounts both here in Europe and in your native US.
We do. SAP runs Perforce for 5 or 10,000 users. Adobe, Google and Qualcomm all use Perforce. Our biggest customer is using it for 15,000 seats.
What makes your version management technology superior to rivals - what's your USP?
One of the big things is that it can be used to version software, for software developers working in a team, but it can also be used to version any binary file. That's why we use the tagline 'Version Everything'. It's also completely cross-platform thanks to my knowledge of integration and porting: we've got all the Unixes covered, as well as Mac and Windows, and it will run over any network very well. The architecture is incredibly scalable: you can run thousands of users on a single sever.
You say you can version more than just software for software developers, can you give us any examples?
19 of the top 20 video games makers use Perforce. They use it to version source code as well as non-source-code assets. There are all sorts of examples where companies are versioning non-source-code assets. Qualcomm, Nvidia and Cambridge Silicon Radio use it for design; Apple has 1,000 hardware developers using Perforce version management.
Are you seeing demand from customers wanting to run version management in the cloud?
We're keeping an eye on it. You can run a trial of Perforce in the cloud for free, but we're not seeing huge uptake of cloud-based version management just yet: people still hesitate to put their data in the cloud. I think SMBs will definitely be looking to do this in the cloud though. We have a close partnership with VMware so we're ready and willing to run Perforce in virtual environments over the network.
So what's coming down the line next from Perforce?
Well now that we see so many organisations are using it to version something other than source code, we've got something we call Commons. The idea is it's for ordinary people who need version management but need a very simple tool . So as a user, I drag a file over to the Commons icon on my desktop and it tells me whether this is the latest version, if so whether I want to update previous versions, merge previous changes and so on. This gives you back control. We already do this for Word documents and we'll also be adding PowerPoint.
We've also just announced Perforce Git Fusion. Git [a version control system] is a free and simple tool but it has some failings. Perforce Git Fusion solves those, giving developers the flexibility but adding the security, process management, traceability and accountability that the enterprise still wants to maintain.
You're privately held and have been since 1995. Will you sell or look for an IPO?
I originally thought not, because there might not be such an enthusiastic response for a company that was historically doing tools for developers. But now that we do much more than that, and since GitHub raised $100m in VC funding, there's a better chance now. If people find Commons as useful as we think, it could raise our profile much further.
In the nicest possible way, some founders who are quite technical give way to more business-focused people at a certain stage in their firm's evolution. Have you thought about that?
I have thought about it, and I do reassess it from time to time. I stopped programming two or three years ago and have other people alongside me who have more of that business experience you are talking about. I enjoy taking decisions on the business side that are good for our customers, products and staff. While I'm enjoying it, I'll probably keep doing it!
Now watch a CBR video in which Perforce explains its version control vision in more depth.