TEC’s previous article Demystifying “Vendor Shootout for ERP” Events talked about our attendance of the Vendor Shootout for ERP event that took place in Boston in mid-August 2011. We were able to experience this co-opetitive gathering of eight solution providers and several dozen end users seeking new solutions firsthand as a neutral (and yet very active) observer. The follow-up blog post series described abas-USA as a dark horse vendor and the event’s moral winner of sorts.
ABAS’ progenitor Abakus was founded by Peter Forscht, Werner Strub (current chief executive officer [CEO]), and three other fellow students in 1980. The company is located in Karlsruhe, Germany, and started as a custom programming firm for manufacturing enterprises, and had its name changed to ABAS shortly after its inception in 1980. In 1993, ABAS introduced its first complete enterprise resource planning (ERP) package, built from the manufacturing side and rounded out with financial, cost accounting, and planning/scheduling modules. The company first exhibited at CeBit in 1993 and founded its first German sales subsidiaries in the same year in Alzenau and Berlin.
In 1996, the company joined with its sister company Systems III, which was formed to develop exclusively for ABAS, and founded what is known today as ABAS Business Software AG. In the early 1990s, the vendor had a major rewrite and componentization of its initial monolithic product. Every line of code has been internally developed and supported. Each year, ABAS reviews 33 percent of the source code and includes it in an annual upgrade (the vendor guarantees a 24-hour–upgrade process). Initially written in C and C++, more and more of the new code is in Java. Currently, ABAS has more than 900 employees and 56 subsidiaries with 72 locations in 30 countries. The public company reported nearly $100 million (USD) in revenue in 2010.
abas-USA was formed in the early 2000s as a separate profit-and-loss (P&L) subsidiary with headquarters in Sterling, Virginia. During the mid-1990s, abas-USA cofounder Marko Becker worked part time for ABAS’ Berlin partner. He later went on to work for many years at the former Baan Germany (ending as the presales manager), before coming to the United States (USA) and working with a Baan partner in the USA, where he met Alan Salton, abas-USA’s current president and co-owner.
Salton joined Deltek Systems in early 2000, and hired Becker to work in the company’s manufacturing group. When ABAS Business Software contacted Becker to start the US subsidiary, Becker called Salton. Both left Deltek to start abas-USA in late 2002. The long-term business model has been that the parent company is a dedicated development house and the subsidiaries do all customer-facing activities. The US subsidiary has more than 100 small to medium enterprise (SME) customers and undertakes part of the product development for the entire corporation (the major development center remains in Karlsruhe).
ABAS offers the following three major products:
- abas ERP for production companies
- abas Distribution for sales and service companies
- abas eBusiness, the integrated Web-based e-commerce solution
abas ERP for production companies makes up about 70 percent of the company’s sales. The system includes all functions from master files, to sales, purchasing, production, scheduling, financial accounting, group accounting, cost accounting, fixed assets, service, customer relationship management (CRM), and forecasting. The company’s revenues come from more than 2,750 customers at 3,200 sites. A reported 93 percent of companies that purchased abas ERP since the company’s inception in 1980 are still customers today.
The typical customer has $20 to $150 million (USD) in annual revenues, but customers range from those with under $1 million (USD) to those with more than $1 billion (USD) in annual revenues. The average number of concurrent users is 25–50 per site. A typical customer is a midsize manufacturer, assemble-to-order (ATO), make-to-order (MTO), or engineer-to-order (ETO), especially in machine manufacturing, electronics, automotive, fabrication, and assembly. In addition, ABAS has a distribution ERP configuration that is especially effective for strong post-sales service or repair requirements.
Not a Typical Mid-Market ERP Vendor
The vendor has never used resellers and consultants, as it prefers to provide direct contact and service to customers. Still, ABAS works with partners to fill the required technology footprint of its customer base, which includes human resources (HR)/payroll providers such as ADP, sales tax services from Avalara, or rules-based configurators such as CAP by Arge Betriebsinformatik (ABi). ABAS also partners with open source solutions tailored for ABAS, such as Liferay Portal, Jaspersoft, and Red Hat, to provide the most cost-effective solution on the market.
ABAS believes that its most important feature is the total flexibility that comes from owning the technology stack, including the embedded database. That flexibility allows the vendor to upgrade seamlessly. It also gives ABAS a major advantage in product development planning and innovation, allowing the vendor to plan and develop to whatever end goal it needs, incorporating teams for graphic user interface (GUI), database, application, and technology resources. As mentioned earlier, ABAS also engages with the open source community to incorporate products and services that can create value to its customers. The open application programming interface (API) layer is also important, as it allows for computer aided design (CAD) integration and integration into Web services, such as Avalara for sales tax, or ADP for HR.
In addition to providing APIs to major CAD systems (e.g., SolidWorks by Dassault Systèmes), abas ERP includes an impressive document management system with optical character recognition (OCR)–based search through multimedia documents. Other capabilities that do not usually come bundled within an ERP system are abas ERP’s computer telephony integration (CTI), mobile solutions, and embedded business intelligence (BI) via Jaspersoft reports. In addition, an e-learning tool is built in to the software and tracks users’ progress as they interactively train on abas ERP modules.
abas Business Software is quite platform agnostic, as it supports Microsoft Windows 2000, 2003, and 2008, as well as Linux (the Red Hat, SuSE, and Debian) servers. The product can be deployed in both single-tenant and multi-tenant software-as-a-service (SaaS) models. abas ERP can work on Windows personal computers (PCs), ASCII terminals, Linux PCs, and Apple Mac PCs. Data collection is done via barcode scanners, radio frequency identification (RFID) readers, smartphones, and badge readers. Last but not least, abas Business Software can be integrated with Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org (OOo), and Google Docs. And customers can use the 40 additional tables in the system database to tailor the solution to their needs.
abas-USA President Explains Further
What follows now is our candid discussion with Alan Salton, president, abas-USA. Our prodding questions and Salton’s straight-shooting answers are as follows:
TEC: What are some of abas Business Software’s capabilities that you are particularly proud of?
AS: abas technology has the following two outstanding capabilities:
- The API layer allows for real-time integration with almost any third-party package, service, or Web application provider. This tool allows the integration at the system, module, table, or field level, with full workflow capability.
- The abas Business Software multi-tiered architecture is designed for a near complete modification without hindering the upgrade path. This allows customers to incorporate virtually any business rule into the system without being locked into any single version. We guarantee our US customers a 24-hour version upgrade, including the porting over of any of their unique changes in the system.
TEC: Has your competitive landscape changed of late and how?
AS: The continual contraction in the ERP market has changed the field significantly. Well, we are one of the last independents out there—self-financed, employee owned, and debt free. We are focused heavily on customer satisfaction, with a niche in discrete manufacturing, particularly ETO, ATO, and MTO, and some consider us to be a boutique solution in those markets.
It is easy now to be overshadowed by the “big boys,” owned by venture capital firms that value shareholder return over customer satisfaction. So we continue to try to build a differentiation as a true solution provider, but the capital available to our competitors makes out-marketing them an impossible task. The consolidation and acquisitions in the marketplace have created a lot of concern and uncertainty for continuity in support, development, and relationships—a nice contrast to our position.
TEC: How do you manage (and have you managed) to survive and thrive in SAP's backyard?
AS: We are a company that differs from SAP in its market and approach. We sometimes thrive as a comparison package with SAP: our strategy, product focus, and direction contrast those of SAP, while our clear evolutionary path, vendor-direct model, and especially mid-market heritage and focus help us tremendously.
TEC: What is your strategy toward social (E2.0) tools and roles-based user experience, and their deployment for your target customers?
AS: We are actively pursuing an E2.0 strategy, incorporating social networks into our portal, allowing for collaboration portals, ratings, and user feedback in our eBusiness solution, and put together wikis in both our ERP portal and our eBusiness solution. We have the potential to incorporate user and customer collaboration into expert knowledge bases in the system. We believe that E2.0 will allow for real-time behavior analysis and feedback for planning and transactions, and interaction through tools such as Short Message Service (SMS) and social networks.
Our development plan for the next two years includes a completely user-defined interface into the system based on roles and responsibilities. In all honesty, the mid-market manufacturing segment has been slow to adopt these practices, but we see the interest out there and hope to lead best practices to our client base.
TEC: What were the major highlights and messages from your recent user conference and industry events?
AS: Mobility, collaboration, and information transparency are our themes this year. Our user conference this year, which ended several weeks ago, was entitled abas 360˚ 2011, indicating that we believe that our system can be the center of a holistic approach to business processes and enterprise information. The four walls of an enterprise are coming down, and business is being done with real-time information on the shop floor, at the customer site, or in transit. abas Business Software needs to support this virtual office environment.
TEC: What is your mobility strategy (technology and platforms supported)?
AS: Our first solution is now in general release, supporting smart devices for sales and CRM functions. Our remote service application will be delivered in Q1 of 2012. We are currently delivering a Web-based solution developed for smart devices, but we are reviewing options for next-generation solutions, so it’s a little early to declare anything about our future technology and platform support. We see that in the near term, countless mobile devices will be in the economy, from smart cars, to smart appliances, to smart vending machines, to medical devices—all need to be able to communicate to the enterprise business platform in real time, and we want that business logic level to be abas ERP.
TEC: What issues or challenges are still keeping you awake at night? What trends are you seeing in the market?
AS: The economy is obviously a concern, as is the manufacturing base in the West. We think we are well positioned to support the ETO, ATO, and MTO businesses that will continue to depend on innovation. Technology life cycles are accelerating and we have to be certain that we invest in technologies with sustainability and application to our clients. The biggest challenge is to find great people, innovators, and those able to execute.
TEC: Given your huge research and development (R&D) investment and few marketing investments, how do you ensure that your business is sustainable over the long term?
AS: Quality, business planning, customer focus—that’s how we have done it for 31-plus years, and it is part of our corporate culture. We sell heavily through reference selling. When I left Deltek and came to ABAS, I asked them how they sell their products, and they said, “we take the prospect to the customer site, and come back a couple of hours later,” and it is true. We are debt free, and we carefully plan and control the business, and set realistic goals and targets that allow us to continue to succeed. Sometimes sex & sizzle sells, but sometimes the genuine solution (product, people, technology, and know-how) is a better sell.
TEC: Is there anything that you are at liberty to divulge on the company's future moves?
AS: We had a strategy session in late October, where we looked at a number of new features and functions: project management integration into production and procurement planning; a tablet-like interface that would allow users to drag and drop screens, fields, and tables into custom user interfaces; more mobile features for distributed functions, etc.
Incidentally, ABAS has a unique structure, with the parent company strictly involved in development and subsidiaries facing customers throughout the world. It is the closest thing to a private community as I have seen, with sharing and collaboration among all subsidiaries. It also has allowed us to build a very detailed project management structure, for both national and global projects, using a collaboration portal we call Domino. As we are all one network, we cooperate and collaborate, and leverage our clients’ investment across borders.
ABAS Log Database: A Worthwhile Deep Dive
One apparent differentiation is ABAS’ proprietary object-oriented (OO) database dubbed Log, which is self-contained and requires no database administrator (DBA) per se. At the aforementioned Shootout event, Alan Salton showed how end users can edit table fields in a casual manner with no need for structured query language (SQL) programming and stored procedures.
TEC: How do you manage to have a self-maintainable database?
AS: We designed the database to be self-maintaining, as most mid-market companies don’t have the luxury of a DBA. Below is a detailed description of the database functions.
The Database Engine
Since version 2003, abas Business Software has been equipped with a Log database in the standard. This technology not only comes at no additional charge (i.e., no need to buy a separate license to a Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, or IBM DB2 database), but also differs fundamentally from conventional relational database concepts. As of the 2003 release, existing data objects can no longer be modified, but new data objects can be created, and the existing database object will be labeled as no longer valid and subsequently removed from the database using the "garbage collector." Compared with traditional database strategies, this process has the following advantages:
- Online data backup—Data backup can be carried out without any interruption to the ongoing operation.
- Increased write performance—As the database files are written only in a sequential manner, a gain in performance compared with conventional database systems is achieved—i.e., the performance of the processor of the used computer is increased.
- Shadow database—i.e., a simultaneous copy of the real client (instance) can be maintained on a different hard disk, even on a different computer. As the copying process only has to move the same amount of data as the proper write process on the real client, the strain on the network is drastically reduced, so that the shadow database can, e.g., also be utilized on the other side of the firewall for Web applications. The Web applications are therefore not operating on the real client, but always on a current copy. Moreover, we plan to pass on the data selectively—e.g., without financial accounting. By running a shadow database, it is possible to continue to operate on the copy, without any loss of data since the last data backup (high availability).
- Parallel processing of read processes—As only new data objects are created, it is not possible that part of a data object has already been altered, and another has part not. The database process for read and write access no longer has to run in sync, but can be divided into many read processes and one write process. Modern multiple processor installations are therefore able to process the read and write processes on different processors in parallel, and thus we expect to see an improvement in performance, especially with a larger number of users.
- Copying a database in an instant—A logical copy of the database, e.g., to test particular procedures or for simulation, can be created in an instant, independent of the size of the data set.
- Transactions can be virtually any size—When using conventional procedures, the size of the transaction is limited by the main memory.
- Versioning—This concept allows versioning, i.e., archiving of previous states of a data object. For example, the change history of an order can be traced and an UNDO function with reset to the nth status is provided.
- Online upgrades—The Log database supports the ability for upgrades during ongoing operations. A change of the data model therefore does not require any reorganization runs during which no work can be carried out, but can be implemented during ongoing operations. Extensive evening, night, and weekend upgrade operations no longer need to be carried out.
Other Features of the abas ERP Database
Object definition of the database—abas ERP knows very complex data objects: e.g., a product, including its production list, is a single data object in a database table (and not, as is the case in a relational database, recorded in at least two tables). If a production list is changed, no complex transaction is required, as the lock of the single involved data object is sufficient.
The database recognizes polymorphic references—A single reference can therefore refer to different data objects. The operation can be significantly simplified. Example: In financial accounting, the following data objects can be entered as references:
- General Ledger (G/L) accounts
The user, however, only sees one field, into which the various data objects can be entered.
Database administration—With the administration tools of the database, the following options are available (even if data has already been integrated):
- Change existing formats of database fields (e.g., instead of 30 characters of text, 60 characters are required or the number of whole number places is insufficient), without the field content being lost.
- Extend database tables by new fields.
- Use new database tables for your own purposes.
- Insert references to one's own new database tables from standard tables and vice versa.
- Adapt screens or create new screens.
- Export data directly to OpenOffice (e.g., Open Calc) or to Microsoft products (e.g., Excel) or Web-based services (e.g., Google Apps). For this, programming knowledge is not necessary, even if database tables have to be linked using joins.
- Add individual keys. The key may consist of several fields that are not connected. The keys can then be used again in one's own selections.
The database can be accessed via a number of interfaces, either in read or write mode. These include the open database connectivity (ODBC) interface, the Java API, the EDP interface (ERP data access log; abas Business Software’s interface is similar to ODBC but faster), as well as the ActiveX interface.
During write operations, both the methods available by abas ERP in the standard and those added by the user are run. This is essential in order to maintain a consistent data set. The chosen technology of write interfaces automatically ensures this.
Enter the FO Language
The proprietary Flexible User Interface (FO) syntax enables the user or the supporting software company to add individual, project-specific adjustments. Adjustments are carried out by means of Flexible User Interface Programs (FOPs). An uncomplicated script language is available, which can be easily learned even by persons that are not computer savvy. For complex adjustments, Java can also be used as the programming language. Script language FOPs can be called from Java programs as well.
In the script language, as well as in Java, the user can define transactions, which are linked to the standard transactions of abas ERP. An example: The saving of one's own data objects together with the saving of a sales order can run in the same transaction. This ensures that either both the sales order and one's own data objects or none are saved.
These FOPs as well as the Java FOPs can be coupled to events, which are called Event Controlled Flexible User Interface Programs (EFOPs). Events can be as follows:
- Screen entry (the call of a screen, e.g., to set default values)
- Screen validation (status: abas ERP has not yet completely checked and completed, the object is not yet on the hard drive, and the transaction is still open)
- Screen exit (status: abas ERP has checked and is 'content,' the object is on the hard drive, and the transaction is still open)
- Screen cancelling (status: user has canceled action, and the transaction still open)
- Filling in the field (status: entry in the field has not been checked yet by abas ERP; used, e.g., for the entry of "MAX" into a numerical field, and then an EFOP is to determine the maximum value permitted and enter it)
- Field verification (status: content checked by abas ERP, an EFOP can carry out a more rigorous check and reject the content, as the case may be—e.g., customer has exceeded his limit and is not allowed to issue another order)
- Field exit (used for follow-up actions such as entry into another field of the screen owing to the entry just made, e.g., an individual price finding)
- Before and after pressing a button
- Before and after inserting, deleting, or moving a line
Further database administration tools enable the following:
- Menu design
- Creation of new, user-specific, and user group-specific menus
- Integration of charts into screens
- Display of data in user-defined screens and providing data with drill-down functions (Infosystem in ABAS’ lingo)
And the decisive point: with all the adjustments made in the database using FOPs and EFOPs, the instance still remains upgradeable. In spite of the extensive adjustments, we are still able to make the most up-to-date version of abas ERP available to the user, leaving the individual, project-specific applications unharmed.