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The Five Ubiquities of ERP

Enterprise resource planning (ERP) keeps transforming as vendors find new ways to solidify this system's standing as the fundamental data backbone of any company. Here are key things to consider.


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1. Ubiquity in mobility

Wireless data communications replaced broadband cable which replaced dial-up. The result: Instant on and continuous availability from anywhere and from just about everywhere. (3G wireless is even available on Mt. Everest.) At one end of the data pipe are mobile platforms (laptops, iPads, and other tablet computers) and smart phones (such as Androids, BlackBerries, Droids, iPhones, and Windows phones). At the other end, the business enterprise and all its issues of global competition, lean staffing, 24/7 operations and customer service, geographically remote sites, and mobile employees jetting between those sites, commuting to work, or ostensibly on vacation. Research firm Gartner, Inc., (gartner.com) predicts that by 2013, "mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide." Moreover, "although not every individual with a mobile phone or Internet access will transact electronically, each will have the ability to do so."

No wonder the focus on connecting mobile people and devices to immobile ERP and other software applications. IQMS, for example, offers a BlackBerry application that accesses the IQMS EnterpriseIQ ERP system. People who are on-the-go or who don't have access to a laptop or PC can manage and view data regarding customer relationship management, work flow, inventory, customer pricing, sales orders, capable-to-promise, shop floor production information, and more on their phone. The application uses existing BlackBerry software and web services to maintain a constant, live link between various types of mobile devices and EnterpriseIQ. Neither BlackBerry servers nor batch transfers are required. (When other mobile devices become available through multiple phone services, then companies like IQMS will find value in having their software connect to those other devices, as well.)


2. Ubiquity in social networking

The world is full of experts. So too the virtual world, the Internet. "Crowd sourcing" and other aspects of Web 2.0 are the new "normal" in customer service, technical support, training, sales, general griping, and other areas of business-to-business and customer communications. Several "channels" exist for finding application software expertise on the Internet: blogs, wikis, Twitter, and both general and specialized interactive online forums on the Internet (public and vendor sponsored/managed).

ERP vendors are tapping into all those data sources. For instance, Plex Systems, Inc., no stranger to Internet-based data and access with its Software as a Service (SaaS)-based Plex Online ERP system, has launched a variety of online forums and wikis for its customers to share best practices, recommend and vote on enhancements to Plex Online, and comment on existing features. Today, Plex Online users, potential users, and the rest of the world could find Plex on Facebook, rummage through "tweets" on Twitter and tweet its registered "followers," and converse with Plex employees through LinkedIn. Rest assured, conventional "face time" is still possible with Plex employees and customers (and the company's next user group meeting, PowerPlex, is in May).


3. Ubiquity in scalability

ERP systems are out there. Somewhere. What was once remote hosting, then handled by application service providers (ASP), and then provided as SaaS) is now referred to as "cloud computing." It's all boiling down to two options: online (where software applications and data are hosted offsite), and managed service (where hardware and software applications or just the data, or both, are on-site). In both cases, the goal is to minimize the system administration related to ERP, which reduces IT costs. It also reduces IT complexity, which is basically the same thing as reducing IT costs. (Warning: On-line and on-site services have different contributors to pricing. What a company might save in lower implementation costs may cost more in the long run through monthly and yearly subscription costs.) Gartner predicts that by 2012, 20% of all businesses will not own any centralized IT hardware. Business computing will be through "cloud-enabled services, and employees running personal desktops and notebook systems on corporate networks."

 Among other considerations in cloud-based computing are, of course, security and data accessibility. There's also the ubiquitous war on standards. IT decision makers who have survived the "SOA wars"—which vendor's service oriented architecture (SOA) was more open, robust, easy to implement, and so on—now have to contend with the same issues regarding cloud technologies. Some ERP vendors are cutting to the chase by going for a default. For example, in July 2010, Infor (infor.com) launched Infor24, a cloud-based version of its business software, including expense management, asset management, and ERP. This year, Infor plans to replace its cloud-based technologies with Windows Azure, a set of cloud technologies from Microsoft Corp. (microsoft.com/windowsazure). Azure is popular, readily available, and fully integrated with other Microsoft products, including Microsoft SharePoint collaboration and file sharing products. This change lets Infor focus on enterprise management stuff rather than the IT-plumbing stuff. (However, it makes Infor more dependent on Microsoft for IT infrastructure. Infor has also announced it will "align its key business applications with a wide range of complementary Microsoft products," including Sharepoint, Silverlight, SQL and Windows Server, and business intelligence technologies. The speed and cost of technology development being what it is, expect more enterprise information software vendors to align themselves with IT-centric companies.)

QAD has also standardized on Microsoft technology. QAD Enterprise Applications 2010, the latest version of the company's ERP software, features the QAD .NET UI (user interface). (.NET is a set of software technologies—middleware—from Microsoft that act as building blocks for distributed comput-ing and language interoperability.) At the very least, the .NET-based UI reduces customization costs, increases IT simplification, and provides a UI infrastructure open to future changes in IT technology. QAD customers sub-scribed to QAD maintenance can update the UI of some QAD ERP versions to QAD. NET UI—without additional cost or upgrading to Enterprise Applications 2010. (Visit qad.com/erp/net-ui?WT.svl=2010.1_Uplift_Button.)


4. Ubiquity in the enterprise

ERP really isn't "complete" without hooks to the factory floor. There are apps for that. Always have been. And more get added to all the time. For instance, the RealTime Process Monitoring module from IQMS directly connects production machines with EnterpriseIQ. It captures, displays, and analyzes standard and user-defined process data as parts are produced. Data can be viewed directly or collected for statistical process control (SPC) charts and graphs, dashboards, overall equipment effectiveness calculations, the injection molding SCADA system from RJG, Inc. (rjginc.com), and more. The module generates visual alerts and text messages as required based on SPC rules, and displays them and process data on web-based devices. Data is stored in an Oracle database by part number, work order, or lot number so users can drill-down for additional process details and traceability analysis. Because everything is designed and developed by IQMS, there are no cumber- some or costly third-party interfaces.

The ERP industry's consolidation isn't so much ubiquitous as ongoing. See the ERP Graveyard Scorecard at erpgraveyard.com/tombs.html. Plex Systems has also beefed up its factory floor functionality by adding features to its Advanced Planning and Scheduling module (also known as Finite Scheduling). Plex Online users can now create a variety of scheduling scenarios and pull up scheduling parameter reports that show all jobs, operations, and constraints that contribute to the results of a particular scenario. Users can then tweak these "test" scenarios for maximum operational efficiency by changing sequencing, prep times, and other parameters. Users can auto-run and approve a scheduling scenario all in one step. They can also more precisely track the jobs that run through individual work centers and, if needed, "auto run" jobs through select work centers.


5. Ubiquity in decision making

Getting data into ERP is one thing. Extracting useful, relevant, and timely information is something quite different. Getting data out and making it look pretty and easy to understand has been a goal since ERP was spelled "MRP." That's become more difficult with the information explosion that includes both transactional and analytical data, and new kinds of data from social networks and the Internet. This is where business intelligence (BI) fits it. BI helps turn data into information. BI now runs throughout ERP, it operates in real time, and it's smart enough to anticipate user needs (for an increasing number of user "roles"). The upshot is that BI helps eliminate the number of individual queries required for employees to get their work done and for executives to best manage their enterprises.

The "executive center" in Microsoft Dynamics GP (Great Plains) 2010 ERP system (microsoft.com/dynamics/default.mspx) is a centralized web-based portal to business information, including key performance indicators and metrics that work with live data. All metrics are clickable links to additional metrics and detailed reports. With Drill Down Builder, the drill-downs to data in GP 2010 can be embedded in a Word document, an Outlook e-mail message, an Excel or SQL Server Reporting Services report, a SharePoint page, or all of those places. Plus, instead of being limited to pre-defined metrics, people can use SQL Reporting Services to develop customized metrics within GP 2010, essentially opening up all the data within the ERP system to analysis.

Then there's the newly announced High-Performance ANalytic Appliance (HANA) from SAP America, Inc.. This "appliance" is basically in-memory technology applied to databases and software applications, such as SAP's ERP systems (including venerable R/3) and new SAP software tailored for HANA. (In-memory technology stores data in main memory, RAM, making applica-tions faster because they no longer have to read and write to disks.) Running SAP's Business Objects BI software on HANA should yield high-speed analytics for business users to instantaneously access, model, and analyze transactional, analytical, and web-based data in real-time and in a single compute environ-ment, without affecting the corporate data warehouse or other compute systems. (Note: SAP's HANA has competition. Specifically, Oracle Exadata.)