Contributing to the Rejuvenation of Legacy Systems in the Enterprise Resource Planning Field

SSA Global's Contribution to the Rejuvenation of Legacy Systems

Lawson Software's upcoming Landmark platform (see A New Platform to Battle Software Bloat?) and Infor's Corestone have been described during our recent The Blessing and Curse of Rejuvenating Legacy Systems series, whereas Microsoft's, SAP's and Oracle's platform related forays have been duly reported as well (see SOA-based Applications and Infrastructure—The Next Frontier? and Multipurpose SAP NetWeaver). But the time has now come for us to describe the corresponding moves of SSA Global, whose equivalent platform is branded SSA Open Architecture.

This is Part Two of the six-part series The Enterprise Applications "Arms Race" To Be Number Three.

The common thread to all these platforms is a service-oriented architecture (SOA) strategy built to meet current market requirements, such as hidden complexity, and low total cost of ownership (TCO). Sound product architecture is critical to enabling faster implementations, easier upgrades, easier integration to other non-native applications, and more flexibility to change processes on an ongoing basis. For acquisitive vendors, there is the benefit of lowering acquisition cost; they can assemble component pieces that are non-proprietary, with an upgrade path to greater functionality, while still maintaining the replaceable nature of these components (due to their standards-based quality). The idea is to build anew only what cannot be assembled from the existing component repository. SOA is the unifying integration factor, whereby one can assemble composite solutions from disparate components: some that are built internally; some that come with acquired companies; and some that come from partnering with best-of-breed vendors.

One can thereby thin down a monolithic application's bloated and unwieldy core, while putting increasing amounts of functionality in thinner layer components that can be snapped onto or shared with several application kernels as required. Software built in an object-oriented (OO) fashion is thus less unwieldy; the leaner, more modular architecture can result in quicker implementations, improved flexibility, and easier upgrades. This framework also provides agility and flexibility for integrating industry niche solutions, and for development of industry-specific solutions, with insulation from the vendor's major release cycles. For instance, SSA Global has recently been striving to add new functionality to support the food and beverage industry needs in the form of business logic that supports country of origin labeling (COOL), bioterrorism preparedness, and global trade item number (GTIN) compliance.

Although SSA Global has many service, software, and technology alliances or partnerships with companies around the world (such as Atos Origin, Accenture, Fujitsu, Cognos, Sirius, CSC, and Capgemini), its quintessential partnership is with IBM. This partnership was cemented in mid-2004, and aimed to more easily modernize and integrate disparate SSA Global systems across the extended enterprise. Under the terms of the agreement, the two companies jointly market SSA Global extended enterprise solutions built on IBM middleware, including IBM WebSphere Portal, IBM WebSphere Business Integration, IBM WebSphere Application Server, and IBM DB2 Universal Database. IBM Business Consulting Services and SSA Global also collaborate to offer implementation and consulting services.

With thousands of customers already running SSA Global solutions on IBM eServer xSeries, iSeries, pSeries, and zSeries technology, the joint solution should further reduce TCO and time-to-value, while helping these companies adopt a growing list of industry standards and information technology (IT) mandates. In other words, while Intentia, Lawson, and Infor are certainly major IBM partners, SSA Global has possibly become the most exclusive. SSA Global justifies this exclusivity decision by referring to the following three concepts:

  1. Synergy: Together, SSA Global and IBM should offer a more complete and extensive solution, meeting both business and technology needs. Namely, SSA Global has been providing customers with the industry solutions they need for competitive differentiation, whereas IBM has been contributing leading technology and infrastructure (this technical standardization should ultimately lower the TCO).
  2. Affordability: The two vendors have been developing solutions for large global customers—solutions that can be scaled down and made affordable for small and medium customers as well.
  3. Interoperability: SSA Global is standardizing on the renowned IBM WebSphere middleware platform, providing its customers with industry-standard integration infrastructure.

Industry Trends

Like its peers, SSA Global has thoroughly analyzed the industry trends and issues affecting manufacturing and distribution companies worldwide. Business is now moving faster than most companies' ability to adapt. The velocity of business transactions—from orders by mail, to orders by phone, fax, and now the Internet—is ever-increasing, and as a result there are increasing demands on IT departments. In addition, executive strategies passed down through the organization are expected to be implemented faster and faster, which is putting further pressure on IT departments to be more agile and to implement solutions quicker and more efficiently. Globalization is also introducing new levels of complexity, and virtually no company, big or small, has been unaffected by globalization. Whether a company has operations across borders or whether its supply chain extends overseas, it must contend with economic, cultural, linguistic, and regulatory differences, putting more pressure on the IT infrastructure to efficiently accommodate these needs (see Merging Global Trade Management with Global Finance).

The trend towards lowering TCO requirements also needs only small mention, since top executives are wiser today than they were several years ago (given they are apt to have had direct or indirect experience with IT projects that failed to deliver promised business benefits). They are also under more competitive pressure to obtain a tangible return on investment (ROI) and to extend the value of their IT infrastructures. The level of detail for ROI studies has meanwhile increased, and executives demand information that tells them what the true, long-term cost of a technology investment will be (without a credible ROI forecast, the odds are that a given project will not be approved).

Bundled with this is the trend towards application portfolio rationalization; over the last few decades, we have seen a move towards decentralization, as a result of which companies have built elaborate localized technology infrastructures to support the needs of remote locations. Despite the flexibility and agility of autonomous remote divisions (see Standardizing on One ERP System in a Multi-division Enterprise), many top executives have realized that there is a high cost of maintaining a software infrastructure characterized by a disparate set of standard and customized applications. To achieve greater efficiency, cost reduction, and security, many user companies are moving to consolidate and standardize their applications and associated technology platforms, whereby the objective is to align IT infrastructure with business needs.

Technology landscapes are also consolidating, since customers are beginning to realize that they can get significant cost benefits by reducing the number of technology platforms they support. In addition, there is an inclination toward supporting open nonproprietary standards that offer more control over the applications they use and the vendors with whom they work. The industry consensus is that more than 75 percent of new enterprise application development is now built on platforms based on either Microsoft .NET or J2EE.

In summary, everyone needs more business agility, as well as the ability to conduct more transactions (including quality, service, management, production, and so forth) with fewer resources and assets (in terms of supporting applications and hardware). Like most of its peers, SSA Global is focused on providing business value via underlying technology improvements, such as solving the business problems of supply chain visibility, master data unification, vendor-managed inventory (VMI), and so on.

While the vendor is tackling recent buzzword-based technological concepts like Web services, composite applications, extensible markup language (XML), enterprise service bus (ESB), SOA, and so forth, the point is to map these concepts to true business value (in order to prove that this horde of whiz-bang terms and concepts really adds some value).

To that end, SOA describes modular software which is constructed using discrete executable tasks as the primary unit of subdivision, and which uses exposed service interfaces as the primary method of modularization (see Understanding SOA, Web Services, BPM, BPEL, and More). As mentioned earlier, users have an increasing need for greater simplicity, manageability, and agility, and if their business processes have changed, they want to know exactly how long it will take for an IT department to modify the software accordingly. As for what SOA means for customers, it should enable more rapid integration with existing systems, whereby customers can acquire new services without going through full upgrades. Additionally, it supports hybrid solution rollout and insulation against technology changes, and enables business process configuration and orchestration specific to vertical industries and distributed deployment.

SSA Global's Technological Vision

The SOA enablers of agility in SSA Global's case too are Web services, commonly accepted development standards, and common modules with standard service interfaces. This technology strategy has been driven by the customers' requirement to implement and manage their solutions quickly and effectively, while maintaining the lowest possible TCO. SSA Global's technological vision is thus characterized by the following objectives:

  1. To support its recently minted corporate product strategy of "modernization, convergence, integration and industry focus." Obviously, the first three pillars have considerable technical implications. Industry focus has technical implications that are less obvious, but remains very important to companies that have specific technical requirements (for instance, specific industry electronic data interchange [EDI] requirements). In particular, some of SSA Global's ERP products have been helping companies comply with the requirements of Part 11, Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which applies to pharmaceutical manufacturing; and with International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), the financial reporting mandates for companies doing business in the European Union. In addition, SSA Global has integrated tax capabilities with its ERP products, so that customers can more easily and accurately process sales and consumer-use taxes for US and Canadian requirements.

  2. To provide a common environment in which customers can model, administer, and deploy their solutions, since many SSA Global solutions that currently have their own proprietary infrastructure should greatly benefit by leveraging a common set of tools and technologies (commoditized standard technologies).

  3. To provide the lowest possible TCO by leveraging technology standards like J2EE and Web services as the vendor strives to provide more tailored solutions with fewer customizations and quicker deployments, all at lower cost.

Business Strategy

SSA Open Architecture follows a logical approach based on strategic business processes in order to deliver a message platform which is organized around four basic service tiers:

  1. people-oriented services
  2. decision-making services
  3. business process services
  4. application services

We will get into more detail shortly as to what these different service tiers represent. For now, let us explain what this strategy intends to deliver, starting with the most important element, which is preserving customer application and technology investments, rather than imposing a rip-and-replace approach. SSA Global pledges to protect customer investment as much as possible, while still modernizing user applications.

Another key component of the strategy is the adoption of the SOA model, whereby software is implemented in the form of modular services that can be reused across the enterprise. In order to do this, the vendor wants to leverage commodity technologies and standards to implement software faster and more cheaply than the competition.

Furthermore, given that SOA technology is not enough without industry-based context and experience, SSA Global also plans to focus on core competencies, and to leverage its selected deep industry expertise to deliver the best and most flexible solutions. Lastly, the vendor pledges to partner whenever someone else can provide value to the customer quicker and more efficiently. By standardizing first on an IBM technology stack (with some other upcoming complementary close partnerships), SSA Global emphasizes that it is not in business to create proprietary technology platforms, but rather to maintain its philosophy as a solution-oriented company.

As for the abovementioned four service tiers, they can all be depicted rather simply. Namely, people-oriented services provide users with personalized UIs to provide a more effective experience and operating environment, allowing them to be more efficient employees. They also provide the ability to aggregate information across applications to give a single, consolidated view of the user enterprise, while they also enhance intracompany communication by providing the ability for employees to collaborate more effectively with the desktop and each other. Decision-making services provide reporting, analysis, and monitoring tools to decision makers within the user company, so that they can make informed decisions via better and faster manipulation, configuration, and analysis of business information. Under the SSA CPM suite (which is powered by Cognos business intelligence [BI] technology), the SSA Financial Reporting, SSA Enterprise Scorecarding, and SSA Analytics modules provide insight into business performance and required changes.

Business process services, as the term implies, aim at enhancing operational efficiency through improved business process management (BPM) functionality for automating, integrating, and collaborating across the enterprise and into the supply chain (see Business Process Management: A Crash Course on What It Entails and Why to Use It). Standards-based integration infrastructure opens up applications and allows automation of business processes, whereas collaboration allows users to interact more closely with their customers and suppliers. These advantages have been best illustrated with SSA Global's other recent focus on the area of financial and regulatory compliance; SSA Global's compliance framework appears throughout multiple product areas, including functionality in the SSA BPM, SSA CPM, and ERP product lines.

Within the SSA BPM suite, the SSA Workflow capability (with the embedded iFlow technology from Fujitsu) helps companies establish preventative controls to ensure that predefined business processes and business rules are strictly adhered to. In addition, the SSA Event Management capability helps companies identify processes and data that are not compliant. Several SSA Global ERP products have been tightly integrated with the SSA BPM, SSA CPM, SSA FM, and SSA HCM suites to provide a broad range of compliance capabilities. The use of BPM and graphic modeling tools can speed implementation and aid flexibility. For instance, the vendor has lately built a series of templates for its BPM engine, to allow WMS software components to be quickly assembled for particular industries, or styles of warehouse operations.

In recent years legislation and regulations have been introduced to ensure good corporate behavior or governance, but unlike the Y2K issue, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) in the US, and IFRS and Basel 2 in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), are not issues looking for a technology solution. Compliance is achieved only through management best practices, and SSA Global recognizes that technologies such as corporate performance management (CPM) and workflow management can be used to facilitate the adoption of such practices. For these reasons, the availability of CPM and workflow integrations is standard within the SSA FM suite, whereas report and process templates will be available as SSA Global engages with customers to define them. For more pertinent information, see Joining the Sarbanes-Oxley Bandwagon; Meeting the Needs of Small and Medium Businesses.

Last but not least, the application services tier provides a common infrastructure across applications, which allows for more efficient modeling, administration and deployment of solutions. Their potential benefit is in reducing the complexity and cost of application management by providing a common, enterprise-wide administration tool set.

Solution Application Framework

The Solution Application Framework (SAF) delivers the previously described service tiers, and allows customers to model, administer, and deploy their solutions using a common set of tools and technologies.

The first SAF component is the studio environment, which provides a single integrated development environment (IDE) for modeling and customizing SSA Global solutions. This includes portal, UI, workflow, reporting, data warehouse, integration, and development environments for solutions built with J2EE, existing SSA 4GL environments (in other words, fourth-generation languages from Baan and BPCS AS/Set technology), iSeries, and others. This is a good example of SSA Global's ability to leverage commodity technologies, since Eclipse IDE is an open source tool (originally developed by IBM, but then donated to the open source community) which is freely available to SSA Global and its customers.

While IBM has provided a number of free plug-ins to support different languages, SSA Global has been providing its own plug-ins to enable developers to use a common development environment for coding in Java, Report Program Generator (RPG), or SSA 4GLs. This industry-standard technology is providing significant value to SSA Global, its customers, and system integrators who can leverage the same tooling for their own customizations.

As far as the administration section of SAF is concerned, common services like unified user management, single sign-on, central deployment, licensing, logging, and configuration should ease deployment and maintenance costs. The run-time services component actually powers UI, portal, collaboration, integration, workflow, application server, and other needs, and it also provides the common infrastructure that supports the various platforms and databases SSA Global currently supports (for example, IBM DB2, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, and mySQL). Finally, the repositories of metadata, solution registry, and global solutions represent a significant move toward adopting the SOA model by externalizing functionality in its solutions in an effort to reduce the cost of customizations. As is well-known, customizations requiring coding add significant cost to application ownership, whereas SOA reduces costs by componentizing functionality for reuse and by allowing customization of business behavior by changing the order in which the components are executed. SAF repositories thus externalize configuration to allow for changes in behavior, since by reconfiguring the repository, users can change the business logic and provide the custom logic they might need without incurring the cost of the customizations of the past.

SSA Global's strategy for delivering future solutions is certainly not a "big bang" approach; rather, it is evolutionary in nature. The vendor started by releasing people-oriented services components with the SSA ERPLN product launch in 2004, whereas with the SSA ERPLX launch some components of the decision services and business process services have been added. Shortly after the ERP LX launch in mid-2005, SSA Open Architecture 5.0 was released, and the vendor then initiated a cycle of two releases per calendar year (one in the spring and one in the fall) to continue to provide enhancements.

In September 2005, at its annual Global Client Forum, the vendor announced the general availability of SSA Open Architecture 5.1. The latest version of SSA Global's technology architecture, SSA Open Architecture includes enhancements to SSA Portal Studio, SSA Collaboration Services, and the new Eclipse-based SSA Studio for modeling and customizations. The latest release features new unified user management and single sign-on capabilities, in addition to other administrative enhancements. SSA Global also designed SSA Open Architecture, so that customers of its predecessor product, SSA Technology Architecture 5.0, could easily upgrade to the new product.

But the best way to describe SSA Global's technological vision is to invoke the idea of customer-controlled introduction of innovation, which is a key strategy for allowing customers to adopt technology at their own pace. If customers start down the path towards SOA, the vendor pledges to work with them to find the best course of action based on their set of implemented solutions. It is not a matter of rip-and-replace, since customers can introduce components to work in their existing systems as they choose. While most articles in the press focus mainly on new SOA applications, most of what customers will likely be investing in is the technology that will enable their current solutions to participate in SOA scenarios. This path should provide the best ROI in the short term and the best TCO in the long term.

Along these lines, at the end of March 2006, SSA Global announced the general availability of the next release of SSA ERPLN, a significant upgrade to its flagship ERP solution for discrete hybrid manufacturers. The new release provides customers with enhanced capabilities in logistics, finance, projects, planning, sales, purchase, and service, and is a key milestone in SSA Global's strategy to help companies better understand and meet actual customer demand by leveraging an agile, standards-based IT infrastructure. It is based on the above-depicted technology architecture, which provides a Web-based UI, eases the transition to SOA, and enables standards-based cross application integration. The new release embeds specific solution templates for its primary target industries: hi-tech and electronics, and industrial machinery and equipment. It also extends the global reach of SSA ERPLN (with new embedded localizations for southern European countries and Japan), and in addition to a range of other capabilities, adds an intuitive interactive graphical planning board to simplify the workload for planners.

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