The term “Software as a Service” (SaaS) is so yesterday. Those who are au courant know the term now for using software applications hosted by a third party over the Internet is “cloud computing.” Enterprise resource planning (ERP) is no stranger to SaaS or cloud. And ERP keeps improving.
Cloud computing reduces much of the capital expense of equipping a raft of information technologies (IT) for on-site computing. Off-loading IT also reduces a user company’s on-going maintenance, support costs, and energy consumption, to name a few Big Ticket items. Instead of file servers and database servers and print servers and the rest of IT infrastructure, a company basically needs a bunch of desktops, laptops, and even mobile computers (such as tablets and smartphones), a web browser, and an Internet connection. All the supporting IT—software, servers, and the like—is hosted by a third-party provider available through the Internet; the web browser is the application user interface (UI). Software usage is by subscription, typically paid monthly, and typically provided a la carte (by number of users, ERP modules, and so on). The hosting provider is responsible for data security, server maintenance and up time, updating the software, and rolling out new software features. (Sound familiar? Well, it does if you’re a certain age. About 40 years before SaaS and cloud computing, there was “time sharing.”)
One of the advantages of the cloudapproach is that the supplier keeps things up to date. “We release changes every single day,” says Mark Symonds, CEO of Plex Systems, Inc. (plex.com
) about the Plex Online ERP system. “New features and functions are rolled out continuously and are available immediately. We don’t have the traditional `waterfall’ development schedule with a version 1.0, 1.1, 2.0, and so on. Instead, new features and customizations are automatically folded into the base application. Users never face the hassles of an upgrade. They always access the most current version of the software. We surround these new features with configuration settings that can be turned on by the customer who requested those features. Otherwise, the features are turned off for everyone else and are available as an opt-in enhancement.”
Last June, Plex added a set of new features for new product development, program management and parts information to its Plex Online. New controls and options in auto-revisioning and new hyperlinks in bills of material (BOM) give users better control over changes in product development. Add to this new user-selectable flags to prevent editing changes based on product development status. New features also let users easily generate reports that track actual hours to budgeted hours, as well as to access summary reports and task assignments screens that have more-complete, relevant data. There’s also now a general ledger account for controlling the parts’ purchase account; additional subtypes, links, and templates let users capture more detailed information. These additions, says Symonds, are “all about rapidly revising parts, BOMs, and process routings until they’re ready for production. These are all part of the countless communications that must happen within an organization and its suppliers.”
When ERP isn’t enough
ERP typically focuses its resourceplanning within the enterprise. However, last fall, Infor (infor.com) reached beyond the closed enterprise of its automotive clients by introducing Infor AutoConnect, a demand management and shipping system for automotive suppliers. AutoConnect integrates ERP (such as Infor ERP LN and even third-party ERP systems) with multiple electronic data interchanges (EDI). Think of it as an ERP-independent EDI system optimized for the automotive industry. It complements ERP’s order-to-cash focus. The result is a single view into the planning, production, and shipping across a manufacturer’s entire supply chain in the automotive industry. “The critical business pressures that AutoConnect addresses are managing OEM orders in multiple ERP systems, complying with multiple customer systems and processes, and managing export growth with customers,” writes Kevin Prouty, research director, enterprise applications, at the market-analyst firm Aberdeen Group (Aberdeen.com).
AutoConnect’s consolidated view helps manufacturers respond to variations in the supply chain, such as those from changes in customer orders and shifts in demand, and to the needs of their trading partners. “If a customer mandates a change involving an EDI document, barcode label, bill of lading, or another requirement, [AutoConnect] handles it automatically, so you can focus on expanding and diversifying your manufacturing and customer base,” says Infor. User companies are better able to comply with differing import/export regulations across regions, and they profit from improved global logistics visibility, delivery execution, and shipping accuracy.
Infor recently announced Infor Workspace, a role-based UI that provides real-time, in-context business intelligence (analytics) for faster and more accurate decision making. (More important, it replaces the UIs of individual Infor products, which are not standard across the Infor product universe.) Workspace gathers outside information, including key performance indicators, dynamic alerts, currency and time conversions, and locations of goods, inventories, assets, and supply chain networks. Because Infor Workspace is based on Microsoft SharePoint, an enterprise portal/collaboration system, the data it collects need not be on the same server or even the same data center. Being that it’s context aware, Workspace will automatically “anticipate” user needs and help with task management, such as in service level agreements and exceptions. Infor Workspace is currently available for Infor ERP LN, Infor ERP SyteLine, Infor EAM, Infor FMS SunSystems, and Infor Expense Management.
Microsoft Goes to the Cloud
The latest entrant to the cloud-ERP market is Microsoft (microsoft.com/en-us/dynamics/default.aspx). The company’s next ERP releases—figure early 2012—will be available on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Just like their terrestrial cousins, each cloud-based ERP product will also have non-cloud enhancements. For instance, Dynamics AX 2012 will include industry best-practices templates (what Microsoft calls “unified natural models”) for five target industries, including manufacturing and distribution. The templates cover new role centers and ad-hoc, selfservicebusiness intelligence and reporting.
This Plex Online ERP screen shows the major modules available through the “cloud” in the engineer-to-order manufacturing process.