Epicor 9: Delivering What Oracle and Others Are Yet to Achieve? - Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series outlined Epicor 9 (aka Epicor ERP [evaluate this product]), Epicor Software’s next-generation converged product suite. A similar feat has yet to be accomplished even by mighty Oracle within Oracle Fusion Applications.

The article also discussed Epicor’s accompanying “Protect, Extend, and Converge” strategy for providing customers with  a migration path choice on their own timetable and convenience. The article then continued on by digging deeper and explaining a number of enabling technologies and concepts within Epicor 9, starting with Epicor BPM (Business Process Management).

Part 2 of this blog series analyzes the major enabling concepts and technologies within the product, such as Epicor ICE 2.0, which is based on Epicor True SOA™, and includes the Epicor Everywhere Framework™. The article also digs deeper into the suite’s built-in business intelligence (BI) and enterprise performance management (EPM) capabilities.

ICE, ICE, Baby...

Let me step back here a bit, and start from the statement that Epicor ICE (Internet Component Environment) is the vendor’s overall agile and collaborative technology architecture blueprint. As said in Part 1, the framework leverages C#.NET- and Progress OpenEdge-based business logic.

Epicor ICE provides an adaptable foundation that can change as customers’ businesses change. The idea is to help align enterprise software with the business, make integration straightforward, and deliver ever-more business productivity. Epicor ICE was also devised with the idea of reducing the cost and complexity of technology adoption by being ready for business users from the word go.

For its part, Epicor True SOA™ is the architectural approach that Epicor ICE 2.0 offers; it is part of Epicor ICE and the technical model for Epicor 9. In other words, Epicor ICE is based on what the vendor refers to as "true SOA," and applies the moniker for the following two main reasons:

  1. The applications themselves are built with granular business services (or components and entities) that interact with one another and are then exposed using extensible markup language (XML) and Web services. Components can be easily configured and orchestrated using the Epicor BPM tools mentioned in Part 1, without requiring IT staff or coding, in a way that survives upgrades and avoids product version lock.

  2. Epicor ICE is not just about service-oriented architecture (SOA) on the server side, but is also SOA for the client-side user experience (UX) design. The entire user interface (UI) is captured in XML metadata and the ICE tools allow users to easily customize and personalize the UI and run both a smart (rich) client and a browser-agnostic Web client from the same metadata (including users’ customizations and personalizations, which are stored in "layers" in the metadata).

Much More than an Integration Tool

It is important to point out again that Epicor True SOA considers both server business logic and client business logic as abstracted “business services.” Few other ERP systems are written using SOA concepts that consider both client and server business logic. In fact, many other systems tend to use SOA or Web services for patchwork enterprise application integration (EAI) purposes only.

While Epicor ICE is the encompassing name for Epicor’s technology framework, Epicor True SOA™, which is a subset of ICE, is Epicor’s way of describing its approach to SOA. Namely, SOA should not just be a means to easier integration, but also an approach to enterprise business software development (just as client-server computing was an approach per se).

Epicor calls its SOA approach True SOA, and the vendor referred to “100% SOA” in the Epicor Vantage 8 release a few years ago. What is the difference? Epicor Vantage offered a C# smart client and then a services-based middle-tier business logic. There were over 600 business services, and each was then delivered as Web services with anything from 5 to 40 methods each for easy discovery, integration, and re-use.

Epicor 9 builds on the approach used in Vantage but extends service-orientation to the client-side, and converts all of the C# code to XML metadata services. From this single source of metadata, Epicor 9 is able to generate various client-side experiences for users.

True SOA for Epicor Everywhere

Furthermore, the technology that allows this diverse UX design is called the Epicor Everywhere™ Framework. The Framework is a concept that is enabled by Epicor ICE and encompasses the capabilities to access the application from a Microsoft Windows client, a Web client, or a mobile Web client.

The Epicor Everywhere Framework is a byproduct of the True SOA technology that epitomizes what Epicor means by SOA on the client side (by ensuring that all client-side code is stored as tagged XML metadata). Web forms are then generated from XML metadata that describes the client business logic.

The framework provides a single source of client code to be used to generate multiple yet similar user experiences. In contrast, most enterprise systems need to create and maintain different code lines for Windows desktop, Web, and mobile forms.

With Epicor Everywhere, users can use Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint, AJAX, Windows Internet Explorer, Apple Safari or Mozilla Firefox browsers, Web store front applications, and you-name-a-technology-or-gadget. The framework supports virtually all commercial mobile devices (Symbian OS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, iPhone, etc.) using the Web as opposed to a particular mobile operating system (OS).

The Epicor Everywhere Framework also refers to the underlying application architecture that allows for localization layers to comply with regulations and best practices in countries around the world. To that end, another related technology, Epicor Layered Client Stack, separates and stores client attributes for the purposes of personalization, customization, localization, verticalization, etc.

The client stack provides a means of extracting UI elements into different self-contained layers to cater to the need of differing user roles, sizes of business, types of industry, and even country requirements effectively, without differing code lines. With Epicor Layered Client Stack, one only sees what and when one needs, by user and by role. It is quite easy for users to personalize their experience and modify their UI without recourse to source code.

In other words, with these two technologies (Epicor Everywhere Framework and Epicor Layered Client Stack) users can bring ERP data to whatever roles they need and in whatever format they want. Ray Wang’s recent blog post provides a number of screen shots, to provide some of the flavor of Epicor 9.

Nothing Without Intelligence and Performance Management

Epicor Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) is Epicor’s end-user-driven, search-enabled, and role-based delivery of in-context business insight. The new real-time and contextual BI platform includes an operational data store (ODS) for storing summarized data, a data warehouse for storing analytic data, and an online analytic processing (OLAP) cube builder called Epicor Cube Connect.

Epicor 9 moves online transaction processing (OLTP) data over to an ODS using Microsoft SQL Server Information Services (SSIS), which in turn populate a data warehouse within Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS). Epicor EPM Server then pre-populates OLAP cubes based on Epicor 9’s functional suites.

Epicor Cube Connect is then used to let end users (as opposed to IT staff) use a wizard to step though and create their own views and key performance indicators (KPIs) based on understandable business entities. Users can then deploy these KPIs and OLAP cubes wherever they want (on Microsoft SharePoint pages, on a mobile device, and, more importantly, within the ERP application).

Epicor Cube Connect ships with around 500 predefined KPIs to help users mange their business, without the requirement of any knowledge of data warehousing or OLAP design techniques. The graphical visualization of these KPIs is based on whatever tool the user wants, such as Microsoft Excel Pivot Tables.

In addition, Epicor offers Epicor Performance Canvas. The Canvas is a Web 2.0-based (includes search capabilities and offers publish/subscribe services for creation of in-context business insights) OLAP visualization tool for creating and viewing KPIs and assembling role-based scorecards (i.e., heads-up graphics).

Epicor Performance Canvas is an intuitive and easy-to-use environment for building, deploying and consuming analytical insights enterprise wide. The environment enables seamless deployment to Windows desktops, Web, and mobile devices (via Epicor Mobile EPM).

Dashboards and Trackers

Epicor Dashboards is a combination of multiple different capabilities such as inquiries, ad hoc reports, workbenches, graphical analyses, trackers, alerts, and business activity monitoring (BAM), all in a single view. Dashboards are role-based and pre-packaged (there are around 100 provided), yet personalizable and extensible. They provide interactive drill-around secure access to all parts of the application, thus keeping users better informed and more productive.

All of Epicor’s integral and extensible role-based dashboards can run as smart clients, disconnected clients, or Web clients, and are refreshed in real-time using the abovementioned Epicor Everywhere Framework. The Epicor Dashboards feature comes as part of the application without any additional cost, which is different from most competitors’ offerings.

Another closely related nice-to-have feature is Epicor Trackers, which are system-wide interactive inquiries. Trackers provide a snapshot view of everything users may need to know about customers, orders, etc., and provide access to details and application-specific data as required.

Mashing Up Transactions and Analytics

One neat thing about the in-application BI capability is that a user can have an Order Entry form that includes transactional and analytical data side by side, for better information and decision-making. In other words, such a form would be a kind of mashup or composite application (see figure below).

[Click to enlarge thumbnail]

To that end, Epicor Composite Applications (Mashups) enable a publish/subscribe capability between functions and applications. This capability reduces the need for proprietary line of business (LOB) development by allowing assembly of new applications by linking together multiple smaller functions. Because of the Epicor Everywhere Framework, Web forms can subscribe to other forms or pass information to them to create a single solution.
In addition to ODS, data warehouse, and Epicor Cube Connect, the above-mentioned Epicor EPM Server, which is the foundation of Epicor EPM, includes Epicor EPM Administration Console. The console manages Epicor EPM updates via a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in.

Optionally, users can leverage Epicor Replication Server that replicates production databases to one or more other servers (including ODS) or cloud service environments in near real time. The server provides significant scalability options for load balancing of tasks and user communities, which increases operational performance. Replication can be an inexpensive way to optimize a production environment for transaction entry, by offloading trackers, reports, etc., to other servers.

In summary, Epicor EPM is an easy-to-administer Microsoft SQL Server-based solution that delivers plug-and-play business insights without the customary IT overhead. Epicor hopes to finally make BI gadgets affordable, easy to implement, and useful for all business users, and not just for IT staff and analysts.

As for actual EPM applications for financial and operational reporting, budgeting, planning, consolidation, etc., Epicor offers both Microsoft FRx and Microsoft PPS Management Reporter (as well as its own embedded financial report writer) for financial and operational reporting capabilities, and both are integrated with Epicor 9. The Reporter was developed with significant investment by the Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server (PPS) team and maintains Microsoft FRx’s intuitiveness and themes for financial professionals.

As a caveat, though, I reported on a recent notable change in Microsoft’s BI product strategy, whereby the company is breaking apart the EPM family of products. To that end, Microsoft has included the monitoring and analytic functionality within Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007, while seriously backpedaling on (if not completely unplugging) the development of its nascent financial planning and consolidation application in PPS.

This event could be good news for Epicor, as Epicor Portal and Epicor Enterprise Content Management (ECN) make full use of MOSS. Thus, the vendor could now provide the monitoring and analytic elements of PPS to its customers more seamlessly. 

Microsoft's BI move then also reversed the previous decision for PPS Management Reporter to replace Microsoft FRx. Epicor will continue to offer both FRx and Management Reporter alongside its own offerings and developing product roadmap. Epicor users will likely have to watch these moves and make appropriate future moves accordingly. More useful details can also be found in Jorge Garcia's recent blog entry on giving BI to the masses.

The final part of this blog series will analyze further unconventional and nifty tools and technologies within Epicor 9, and provide some insights into the future enhancements. Your views, comments, and opinions about Epicor’s lofty strategy, or experiences with any above-mentioned Epicor solution are welcome in the meantime.
comments powered by Disqus