Meeting point

ERP systems lie at the very core of a successful enterprise – and yet many companies settle for their choice without fully investigating the options available. ACN travels around the world to look at the latest in ERP offerings.
Meeting point
By Imthishan Giado
Mon 22 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

ERP systems lie at the very core of a successful enterprise - and yet many companies settle for their choice without fully investigating the options available. ACN travels around the world to look at the latest in ERP offerings.

Microsoft Dynamics AX

Microsoft has essentially built an ERP offering through aggressive assimilation of leading companies from the marketplace, in order to offer a portfolio that caters to every business segment, from SMB to enterprise. To whit, Microsoft now offers Microsoft Dynamics GP (from its Great Plains acquisition), Dynamics NAV (formerly Navision) and now Dynamics AX (previously Denmark's Axapta).

Customers will be looking to reconcile the somewhat contradictory goals of a solution to meet their own needs but in an almost pre-configured fashion.

The latter is the IT giant's high-end enterprise ERP product, targeted at larger organisations - a fact which is not terribly easy to discover from a cursory evaluation of the Dynamics website.

However, once you drill down deeper in the Dynamics mini-portal, you'll find ample information. It would be nice, though, if Microsoft provided some semblance of an overview for CIOs with less time on their hands.

Like arch-rivals SAP, what Microsoft is trying to do with Dynamics AX is provide a feature-rich, comprehensive product eco-system, so that once sucked in, an AX user never has to go elsewhere.

To whit, the firm offers front-end integration with its Dynamics CRM product, in addition to collaborative workspace tools, business intelligence capabilities and extensive human resource management capabilities.

One key differentiator of AX versus other offerings will be the foreign language capabilities it's inherited. Axapta achieved greater success globally as opposed to the US, so as a result it proved to be very adept at dealing with foreign languages and currencies - something which can often be an afterthought for many enterprise-focused vendors.

With its impressive feature-set, what's holding AX back from greater success? At the moment - and ironically - it seems to be Microsoft, which is not well known as a vendor of enterprise ERP software, while rivals like SAP have instant recognition. The company should be pleased however - many rivals would prefer an inefficient marketing machine to be their only issue.

IFS

Continuing the international flavour begun with the Danish provider Axapta, Sweden's IFS is another entry from the frigid artic north. The company's flagship product IFS Applications boasts customisation as its USP - a puzzling choice when one considers that nearly every ERP product - by their very nature - is designed to be flexible.

How IFS goes far farther than most is creating a number of extensions developed for specific industries including aerospace, construction, manufacturing and the telecommunications sector - and the firm claims that a majority of these extensions are designed with significant input from key customers.

The component-based IFS Applications allows IT managers to swap in and out modules as and when required - an approach which may not seem terribly innovative, but takes on a whole new meaning when a firm begins to grow. Then, a system which is efficient but inflexible will be more a liability than an asset.

Another IFS specialist area is its portal system, allowing suppliers, customers and partners to use the same business portal to interact and ensure that goods, raw materials and manufacturing can flow in sync with one another. Employees in particular are well catered for, with their own private portal which can - you guessed it - be customised to each user's preference.

The portal also claims to require no special training - a tall tale, to be sure, since most ERP systems are legendarily cryptic applications to operate. If IFS's application screenshots are anything to go by, the Swedish firm is not quite there yet - but when they get there, other vendors will need to watch out.

VisiDocs Cosmic EMS

Our next ERP contestant comes from India, where document management specialists Vicisoft have branched out into the ERP world with its new Cosmic EMS (enterprise management system) product.

According to the vendor, Cosmic EMS is a modular system based on Oracle technology - so the fundamentals are assuredly sound. Modules on offer range from Financial to inventory control and supply chain management, as well as job costing, job analysis and human resource management.

SAP in a box

Traditional ERP deployments tend to be extremely complex affairs, typically taking up to several years to completely cover all departments within an organisation. SAP is no stranger to this phenomenon and in March this year, unveiled a product in partnership with SUSE and processor giant Intel.

The partnership has created what is essentially an ERP-in-a-box - OEM systems featuring Intel Xeon processors will run SAP MaxDB on the SUSE Linux operating system from Novell. The offering is targeted mainly at midsize firms in verticals like manufacturing where there is often a need for quick, uncomplicated deployments at predicable costs.

The speedier nature of the deployment can mean significant savings for enterprise, since it requires less planning and design attention from the end-user perspective. However, enterprises must be careful that this fast-food approach to technology does not leave them with a system that is too inflexible and unable to deal with the fast changing needs of IT.

Ray Boggs, vice president of small and medium business research at analysts IDC commented on the offering at this year's CEBIT: "Industry-specific capabilities that can be readily implemented in an affordable way will be key, but so will having offerings that are easy to access, with hardware and software already aligned. In effect, customers will be looking to reconcile the somewhat contradictory goals of a solution designed to meet their individual needs but in an almost pre-configured fashion to minimise time and cost."

The inventory control system is particularly impressive considering it integrates barcode functionality - a feature that many far large rival products such as Microsoft Dynamics GP have struggled with.

Since many regional enterprises favour the use of barcodes to track their stock, having a working system out of the box without requiring third-party customisation is obviously a feather in VisiDocs cap.

But Cosmic EMS doesn't stop at just barcodes - it also works with a number of other external hardware devices including point-of-sale terminals and swipe cards.

Industry-specific capabilities that can be readily implemented in an affordable way will be key, as will easy-to-access offerings.

Cosmic EMS seems to have the opposite problem from Dynamics AX, which seems to be a good product overshadowed by the antics of its parent company.

VisiDocs's product, on the other hand, could well use a more visible sponsor to improve its visibility within the marketplace and show some of the bigger vendors that big marketing budgets are no substitute for local expertise.

SAP ERP 6.0

Our globe-spanning tour of the world of ERP makes a pitstop at Germany, the home of enterprise software giant SAP AG, whose SAP ERP 6 (formerly-known as SAP R/3) is one of the industry's best known applications.

SAP's product covers four broad areas: financials, human capital management, operations and corporate services. That's just scratching the surface, because each section is powerful and feature-rich enough to work as a standalone product. SAP claims that ERP Financials, for instance, is used by 30,000 businesses globally with more than 45 country-specific versions - an eye popping number.

With all that experience to call upon, SAP's fine-tuned its latest version to match the current mood within enterprises. As a result, ERP 6 now features more extensive use of Adobe interactive forms which provide an opportunity to cut down on paper usage while of course, being inline with the global trend towards conservation of natural resources.

Other improved areas include newly redesigned sections for attracting and retaining employees. There's little doubt that SAP ERP has one of the most complete feature sets and an industrial-strength brand name.

However, it must be noted - once again - that SAP AG's regional history has been particularly rocky with a well-documented troubled relationship with its local distributor SAP Arabia. The two had one of the messiest of separations, with SAP AG ultimately buying out SAP Arabia's contract for US$280 million.

In the interim year, SAP has been hard at work rebuilding its relationship with end users but it's hard to ignore the fact that many regional enterprises remain deeply mistrustful of SAP and have flocked to competitors instead.

So SAP certainly has it all to do - but then, there is what they say about sleeping giants...

Sage X3

The ERP world tour comes to rest in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK, where finance specialists Sage are headquartered. The firm's flagship enterprise product is Sage ERP X3 - and like most of the firms featured in this piece, it's yet another acquisition.

Formerly known as Adonix, Sage ERP X3 appears to focus chiefly on ease of use and a ‘lightweight' footprint. What that means is that a firm can implement X3 with the minimum of disruption to existing business processes, while the system is geared towards being user friendly - but not at the cost of complexity.

Another X3 feature is geared towards providing employees with the best possible information via the decision support Portal. Sage claims this "enables users to create customised scorecards for real time monitoring of the relevant indicators for a specific activity."

Slash through all the marketing and what that basically boils down is that users can receive information in the form of graphs and tables, with the ability to have a complete audit trail.

X3 also has another trick up its sleeve when it comes to printing out information; it incorporates the well-known Crystal Reports report generator, alongside a library of nearly 400 report and statement formats. The accounts department should be thrilled to bits.

In this region, Sage is well known for its AccPac ERP system targeted at SMBs, while X3 is positioned in the enterprise sector. The baseline feature-set of X3 looks solid - but one could say that about all the products in this feature. And like them, Sage will need to settle on one key differentiator whether that's price, support, or so on -  if it's to put its stamp on the region with ERP X3.

ERP: A tale of growth and waste

A March report by analysts IDC and sponsored by ERP vendor Agresso stated that the mid-size ERP market will continue to witness a compound annual growth rate of 11.6% through to 2011 - 8% more than the entire ERP market growth rate.

But the report was - a survey of more than 250 companies - was not completely sunshine and roses for the ERP market. Buried further down were some startling statistics about the relationship between budgets and application deployments in the ERP market. For instance, 47% of respondents said that their financial application budgets typically overrun by as much as 100% - by any measure, a dangerously large figure.

This is largely due to the fact that 83% of ERP customers continue to keep buying from the same vendor, regardless of past performance, support or cost issues. IDC warned that this trend could be costing enterprises millions of dollars yearly.

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