Infor ION-izes its Open SOA Strategy - Part 1

2010 has certainly been an interesting (if not a crossroads) year for Infor. Namely, after a number of new high-profile hires at the beginning of the year, which signalled Infor’s intention to be taken seriously, the vendor then entered an eerily quieter period of several months. Except for the ongoing vocal marketing campaign entitled “Down with Big ERP” with witty cartoonish billboards and banners adorning major airports, magazines, web sites, and so on (and which has been acknowledged as successful to me even by Infor’s competitors, albeit privately and begrudgingly).

During this period, many market observers were aware of a quiet exodus of executives who were once considered crucial within Infor (at least we all remember their keynotes from past Inforum conferences). As Frank Scavo pointed out in his recent blog post, Infor has lost several key executives recently. These individuals were the key architects of Infor's all-encompassing Open SOA strategy that was once touted as the only way to satisfy all diverse Infor customers.

So, what was all this change of guard about? Is Infor now backing out of its previous (too ambitious and perhaps non-feasible) product roadmap to start a brand new one? Perhaps these were just some modifications to the strategy, or something else under pressure from impatient investors awaiting their payday?

Some rumors have lately been swirling about Infor’s diverse customers requiring more “enriching” enhancements to their IT investments and “extending” integrations of their current product releases to other Infor’s products. In contrast, customers have not been too keenly considering migrations to the latest product releases (under the enticing Infor Flex plan) and brand new Infor products (so called “evolve” applications within Infor’s “Three E’s: Enrich, Extend, and Evolve” product strategy that was professed a few years ago).

The recent acquisition of long-standing barcode data collection partner BridgeLogix may provide some answers about Infor’s shift towards integrations. This is particularly true in the case of linking Infor’s various enterprise resource planning (ERP) products to warehouse management systems (WMS), but Infor Open SOA entails much more than this interoperability aspect.

Major breaking news announcements took place in late June 2010 and were entitled “Infor Simplifies Connectivity and Data Sharing with Infor ION(tm)” and “Infor Selects Microsoft as Preferred Technology and Tools Provider for Infor Software.” While giving me some idea about the company’s product direction, these two techno-babbly press releases (PR’s) initially left me with more questions than answers.

Sure, the blog posts from Frank Scavo and Ray Wang have meanwhile shed some light, but I still had a number of both high-level and in-depth quandaries. The major high-level question was whether Infor ION is some "lighter" Open SOA, something new from scratch on Microsoft’s stack, or something in-between, who knows?

“Tastes Great but Less Filling?”

If Infor ION is a brand new technology strategy, that could suggest that Infor has not actually been delivering integrated service oriented architecture (SOA) solutions. Some Infor ERP solutions like Adage or LN (former Baan) had some historical hard-coded integrations, but those were very limited in terms of service-oriented integrations.

On the other hand, if this strategy is similar to past SOA strategies, customers will have to upgrade to newer releases at some stage, but the aforementioned indications are that few have been upgrading. Moreover, will they have to upgrade their ERP instance and all affected extended-ERP solutions by Infor, such as performance management (PM), WMS, customer relationship management (CRM), workforce management (WFM), supply chain planning (SCP), product lifecycle management (PLM)enterprise asset management (EAM), and so on and so forth?

If Infor’s product development work now focuses on integrating and putting Microsoft front-ends (i.e., “lipstick on the pig”), what about substantial functional enhancements to the products? If customers are not getting a significant flow of enhancements in addition to mere integrations, why would they upgrade anyway? How long will it take for, say, 10 percent of customers to upgrade to the latest release of one particular Infor ERP solution, let alone on all of the ERP solutions that Infor currently owns (e.g., Visual, SX, LX, System21, Fourth Shift, etc.)?

If this new technology blueprint does not necessarily require actual upgrades to the latest product release, how many integration scenarios must then be developed and maintained? One could go crazy trying to calculate the possible combinations of “X versions of ERP systems” multiplied by “Y versions of WMS systems” multiplied by “Z versions of SCP systems” and so on and so forth. The crucial question here is how many generally available (GA) integrations are there now and when will others come?

All in all, with Infor changing its product strategy every 18 months or so, some companies could begin to question their longer-term commitments with the vendor. Last but not least, what about any cloud strategy within the ION scope? While I know that Infor EAM and Asset Sustainability Edition (ASE), Infor Expense Management, and SyteLine ERP are already delivered as software as a service (SaaS), but does Infor have a more wide-ranging on-demand strategy in place?

Since Infor’s cloud computing solution set is indisputably limited, how many companies would hook a cloud ERP to their on-premises PLM, CRM, or SCM software? Some departmental (fringe) on-demand software services linked to an on-premises ERP system make much more sense, but there are very few available Infor cloud solutions in that regard.

Infor Veterans Field Questions

I have to give credit to Infor for never dodging tough and prodding questions, both in the past and this time. Recently I had a constructive and interactive briefing with Soma Somasundaram, SVP of global product development (a recent internal promotion)and Massimo Capoccia, director of product management technology, both of whom have been with Infor for a long time (and with companies that Infor has acquired).

Soma and I go way back to the late 1990s when he was with former SCT Process, which became Infor’s very first acquisition in early 2002 (then called Agilisys for a short period of time). With his enviable experience and knowledge as well as with an unassuming demeanor, Soma exudes credibility and decency.

To set the stage, Soma pointed out that we are in 2010, and yet CIOs are still confronted with the following nagging challenges that date back to over a decade ago:

  • Complex integration technologies

  • Slowed adoption of new solutions

  • IT cycles (upgrades, patches, etc.) take longer than business cycles (solving particular problems and gaining competitive advantage)

  • No quick business re-configuration (flows)

  • Lack of insight needed to prioritize

  • Inefficient data collection for reporting and business intelligence (BI)

  • The reality of adopting multiple and hybrid technologies for on-premises and cloud software

Simplify by Leveraging Proven Plumbing

Apparently, the abovementioned departed executives’ cardinal mistake (this is my own assumption, not the official statement by Infor) was their obsession with building the brand new so-called "evolve" and “fortress” applications based on Infor's own tools for portals/collaboration platform and BI (i.e., role-based access to key performance indicators [KPIs], tasks, alerts, reports).

Former product development executives also wanted Infor to develop its own tools for user experience (UX) design that would provide common look-and-feel, intuitive system navigation and usability, and single sign-on (SSO) across applications. Soma said that Infor will still innovate, but not on its own proprietary (and time- and resource-consuming) gadgets and no longer to create some "Uber" or “Fusion” ERP product to replace its various legacy ERP systems.

Therefore, the once touted Infor MyDay portal (with Infor Canvas in the background) will be discontinued, since Microsoft SharePoint will be the portal standard and Silverlight the user interface (UI) standard. The same will happen to Infor Business Information Services (BIS), since SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) will be the standard for reporting and SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) for underlying online analytic processing (OLAP) cubes, whereas Infor PM and its know-how analytic frameworks will remain intact (coming from former Comshare, Extensity, SunSystems, etc.).?

As for Microsoft SQL Server and Windows Server being the preferred respective database and operating system (OS) platforms, that is for go-to-market efforts, i.e., for attracting new customers. Existing customers on other technologies and platforms will be maintained and supported, but there will be no new sales on, say, the Oracle/UNIX and IBM System i/DB2 combinations. As said earlier, all of the Infor products (existing and new ones) will have the same look-and-feel technologies based on SharePoint and Silverlight.

Demystifying Infor ION

Thus far, 25 of the most widely deployed Infor business applications (e.g., SyteLine, LN, EAM, etc.) have reportedly been Open SOA enabled and more will come. The next phase is to make these applications easier for IT departments to install and manage as well as to be configurable by non-technical business users.

To that end, in plain English, Infor ION is a rationalized Infor Open SOA framework, i.e., the Open SOA layer catering to interoperability and business process management (BPM). ION is a tightly integrated suite of services, built by Infor (i.e., “on-ramps” are still in play for routing rules), which simplifies connectivity and data sharing across all applications via loosely-coupled peer-to-peer (P2P) Open Application Group Integration Specifications (OAGIS) business documents exchange and routing.

Infor ION consists of four major components starting with ION Connect Services, which takes care of communication and secure sharing of data across on-premises and cloud applications. By leveraging OAGi standards and library for invoices, purchase orders, sales orders, and other documents, ION Connect lets all applications “speak the same language” (with no translations necessary) and provides real-time request responses for a chain of business events. For its part, ION Desk is a browser-based Silverlight interface used to register, configure, and monitor all Infor ION services (i.e., who publishes which services and subscribes to what services).

The Connect and Desk components ensure greater flexibility by eliminating the need for rigid point-to-point links between applications as well as much easier upgrades (due to the use of the “fabric” or on-ramp hubs versus direct hard-coded links). While their role is in connecting applications and services, the other two ION components are in charge of organizing processes.

To that end, ION Workflow enables automated document routing and approvals via workflows across multiple Infor and non-Infor applications. For its part, ION Event Management (EM) provides automated task monitoring in relation to promised completion and proactive alerting of exceptions.

Combined, ION Workflow and Infor EM cater to real-time event monitoring and proactive alerting via pre-built and configurable industry-specific business monitors. A user-friendly workflow engine automatically generates tasks and provides pop-up notifications with simplified task-list management.

As pointed out earlier, ION consists of Infor's own tools. Infor has scrutinized SharePoint's workflow and EM functionalities, but these were not sufficiently functional (maybe the next version of ION will use Windows Workflow Foundation [WF], but that is still a big “maybe”).

ION is certainly leveraging Microsoft tools in the realm of analyzing information, i.e. for near real-time reporting capability, master data set for standardized, uniform data classification, and data extract, transform, and load (ETL) needs. As mentioned earlier, Infor will now heavily leverage SQL Server 2008 R2 for business information repository and Microsoft SSRS and SharePoint for visualization.

Part 2 of this blog series will conclude the analysis of ION, present some opposing views, and conclude with a question and answer (Q&A) session with Infor’s executives. In the meantime, what are your views, comments, opinions, etc. about Infor ION and the company’s revised product strategy? Also, what do you think about how Infor will fare against its formidable “Big ERP” competitors in light of its strategy and recent moves?
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