Epicor 9: Delivering What Oracle and Others Are Yet to Achieve? - Part 1

Undoubtedly, the recent major event at Epicor Software (despite concurrent unfortunate occasional and distracting shareholder power struggles, takeover bids, and CEO departures) was the launch of the next-generation Epicor 9 product suite in late 2008. Epicor hails Epicor 9 as an entirely new generation of business application that "redefines how enterprise systems are both built and used."

For one, Epicor 9’s functional footprint is based on the best of everything Epicor has developed (and acquired) since its inception.

The “converged” product consists of a unity of cherry-picked components from existing Epicor products (a similar feat has yet to be accomplished even by mighty Oracle within the upcoming Oracle Fusion Applications suite). This unity of once dispersed product modules in various Epicor products (on disparate technologies and data models) has required a substantial development project to converge these diverse capabilities.

In other words, the suite showcases the best of various brethren systems’ features and functionality available as Progress OpenEgde and Microsoft .NET Framework components (services or units of functionality). Thus, Epicor 9 (a.k.a., Epicor ERP [evaluate this product]) is a broad enterprise system with a raft of functional capabilities within “one version of the truth.” Namely, the suite encompasses the realms of enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management (SCM), product data management (PDM), manufacturing execution system (MES), customer relationship management (CRM), master data management (MDM), enterprise content management (ECM), etc., as loosely coupled native components.

The “loosely coupled” concept helps to enable easier upgrades. Additionally, customers have a choice of selecting desired parts from within the entire functional footprint menu’s options, due to the decoupling of business logic from the underlying technical platform. Still, all these functional modules run on the same data model rather than being mere bolt-on solutions with their own databases, middleware, or interfaces.

“Protect, Extend & Converge”-- to Protect and Serve Customers?

Therefore, Epicor 9 is also touted as the best of both worlds, i.e., a converged uber-product on one side (a la Oracle Fusion Applications), while on the other side offering the “protect, extend, and converge” approach of catering to its existing client base on current individual product lines, without forcing a wholesale “big bang” upgrade. “Protect” denotes continued investment in current products and solutions (in terms of periodic enhancements), while “extend” means standardization of key solutions and infrastructure (e.g., enterprise portal, enterprise performance management [EPM], workflow automation, Microsoft Office integration) across all existing product lines.

“Protect and extend” together mean that existing users of any of Epicor’s mature systems (e.g., Epicor Enterprise, Epicor Avante, or Epicor iScala) will be looked after in terms of support, regulatory upgrades, and system performance enhancements. These users can already, for example, leverage the consituent Epicor Productivity Pyramid tools: Epicor Information Worker, Epicor Portal, and Epicor Service Connect.

This three-part user experience (UX) solution will be detailed in a separate article, but for now it suffices to say that the Productivity Pyramid provides business users (managers and information workers) with opportunities to get more out of their core ERP data and processes (without the help of the IT department), by also enabling collaboration and business process automation (BPA).

Thus, the first two parts of Epicor’s three-prong approach somewhat resemble Infor’s “extend, enrich, and evolve” or “Three E’s” approach). Having already mentioned the similarity with Oracle’s fusion strategy on one hand, Epicor’s evolutionary principle of protecting customers’ existing assets is along the lines of Oracle’s Applications Unlimited pledge (of each existing principal ERP and CRM product being continually enhanced in the future) on the other hand.

But the crux of the matter here is the convergence of Epicor products into a next-generation product suite, or “fusion” in Oracle’s lingo. Logically, “converge” stands for the ongoing evolution of applications to a superset product, offering the best of all Epicor solutions within one suite. The users who want to upgrade to Epicor 9 (i.e., according to the “converge” part) will be able to harness as little or as much of the new system’s footprint as required. They will be able to expand or change the functional scope as the need arises, with a system configuration agility and flexibility tantamount to selecting a tick in the box.

To recap, in addition to protecting users’ investments and extending their systems' functionality through enhancements and new tools, there is also now a user-friendly convergence path in Epicor 9. For example, existing users of Epicor's Vantage ERP products that are on active maintenance contracts can upgrade, at their discretion, to Epicor 9’s equivalent functional footprint (which incorporates all of the existing Vantage functionality and more, given the underlying modernized technology and tools) free of charge. Some differential license fees might still be applicable in cases of a customer deciding to use significant new functionality or new modules in Epicor 9 (which the current product in use has never had), on an individual case by case basis.

I should also note here that Epicor 9 does not currently entail Epicor Retail Management solutions. This is a division within Epicor (contributing to about 30 percent of the company’s revenues), and its product portfolio is on a slightly longer-term development track to convergence. For more information on Epicor Retail, see my previous three-part blog series entitled “Is Epicor Poised to Rule the Mid-Market Retail Sector?”

An Embedded BPM Engine

This evolutionary upgrade path can be credited to the system’s adaptability of the underlying system architecture (which will be detailed shortly) and Epicor's new business process modeling (BPM) tools, which enable users to configure, change, and support their business processes in a point-and-click manner (without programming). Epicor BPM, which is also used in existing Epicor's service-based products like Vantage, is a hold and event management engine that allows users to intercept Epicor application processes and apply their own business rules.

Because Epicor’s service-oriented architecture (SOA) securely exposes all business logic, Epicor BPM is fully extensible. The tool is built into the Epicor 9 applications and allows a business user to configure events, conditions (conditional rules), and actions to make the applications support their business rules and processes. For example, one might use Epicor BPM this way: “for the EVENT of entering a Sales Order and the CONDITION of a discount greater than 25 percent, THEN take the ACTION of highlighting the discount field in red, popping up a message box saying, "Are you out of your mind?", put the sales order on hold, and notify a manager by e-mail to approve or disapprove.”

Epicor BPM uses a Microsoft Outlook-style business rules wizard so that business people can apply rules to ensure that the software supports their needs (without touching source code). Likewise, during system setup and configuration users would also go through a Microsoft Outlook-like rules engine with inherent user friendliness.

For administrators, there is a centralized Epicor Administration Console as a single administration area. The console features a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in solution for centralized management of users, rights/authorizations, companies, and all other system entities. In a contrast, most enterprise systems maintain multiple administration and setup areas. Some of the traits of Epicor BPM and Administration Console resemble SAP’s much touted Switch Framework (SFW), which is at the heart of the recently unveiled SAP Business Suite 7.

All of the nifty features mentioned thus far were made possible because of Epicor’s implementation of SOA, which the company calls ICE (Internet Component Environment) Business Architecture. Epicor ICE 2.0 combines SOA with modern Web 2.0 concepts to create a technology resource that integrates into existing IT environments and offers ease of use for all information workers.

Part 2 of this blog series will analyze enabling concepts and technologies within Epicor 9, such as Epicor ICE 2.0, which is based on Epicor TrueSOA™, and includes Epicor Everywhere Framework™. Your views, comments, and opinions about Epicor’s lofty strategy, or experiences with any above-mentioned Epicor solution are welcome in the meantime.
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