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.

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  September 21, 2008

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."


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