Microsoft’s Underlying Platform Parts for Enterprise Applications: Somewhat Explained - Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series concluded that Microsoft would not converge all of its diverse Microsoft Dynamics  product lines into a single enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution. Rather, the vendor has been attempting to leverage the best practices and technologies across all of the products, where possible.

The idea is to deliver applications that have the following characteristics: are familiar to users within their organizations, fit with existing corporate systems, fuel business productivity, and enable confident and informed decision making processes.

Reporting, Analytics & Collaboration Enablers

To expand further on the use of the Microsoft SQL Server database that was discussed at the end of Part 1, all Microsoft Dynamics reporting capabilities will in the future come natively (which also means without new license fees) through SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) and associated tools. This was first developed within Microsoft Dynamics GP 9 and  Microsoft Dynamics AX [evaluate this product], and will be adopted more broadly across other Dynamics products. In the Microsoft Dynamics AX 4 release, there was the capability of creating ad hoc reports, whereas most recently released Microsoft Dynamics AX 2009 also uses SSRS for all production reports.

Innovation is now surfacing as a result of integration between the Microsoft Visual Studio.NET (VS.NET) development platform and SQL Server. Namely, there is now the ability to launch Precision Report Designer and maintain the Dynamics AX semantic models in VS.NET and to pass the data in a closed-loop manner to and from Dynamic AX logic models. These models can in turn look into the Dynamics AX database (SQL Server) via database secure views. The future development will make these currently static models dynamic for report-customization purposes.

Along similar lines will be the use of Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS), whereby all Dynamics role centers within the user experience (UX) project (mentioned in Part 1) will feature embedded contextual business intelligence (BI). Currently, Dynamics AX 2009 has the cube generation capability, whereby analytics perspectives have been added to the business logic model, and which can generate Data Source Views (DSV’s) and Online Analytic Processing (OLAP) cubes. The future research and development (R&D) forays will likely enable the round-trip (between VS.NET and SQL Server) advanced features that will require similar features to the abovementioned reporting tools.

As a little caveat, these native reporting and analytics features will not be automatically available to the users of the proprietary Microsoft Dynamics NAV C/Side database (about half of the install base) and Dynamics AX Oracle instances. For Dynamics NAV customers using the older C/Side database, most of them upgrade to SQL Server when they move to a new NAV version anyway, while Dynamics AX users on Oracle can access the new reporting and analytics features by adding SSRS and SSAS to their deployment. Still, Microsoft will, for the foreseeable future, honor the ongoing support for these databases alongside its SQL Server.

Sharing SharePoint and Unified Communications

Microsoft SharePoint is the platform for portal-based collaboration and document management/enterprise content management (ECM). The product also works tightly with Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) and Unified Communications (UC), both Microsoft technologies that will be described in detail later on. This integration provides great visibility for workflows related to documents and document libraries, and improving collaboration through the “presence” and “click to communicate” features.

Today, SharePoint is the universal portal technology for the Dynamics portfolio; for example, in Dynamics AX 2009, the AX Enterprise Portal (formerly Axapta Enterprise Portal) is now based on SharePoint. The portal was devised from the standard SharePoint design experience, whereby a gallery of Dynamics AX Web parts is now available, making it very simple to bring to the surface Dynamics AX data (with the inherent AX security model enforced) on SharePoint portal pages.

In addition to Web parts, other strategies for SharePoint integration are its Business Data Catalog (BDC) Web Services feature (currently used within Microsoft Dynamics GP [evaluate this product]  and Dynamics CRM [evaluate this product]), and data binding (within Dynamics AX). It is likely that BDC services will grow further  in importance, and we should expect a broad Microsoft Dynamics consistency around this feature.

The abovementioned UC technology provides the ability for applications to identify users' "presence" and enable "click to communicate" capabilities. Via Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Dynamics AX 2009 and Dynamics CRM 4.0 currently work with UC (which is envisioned for the upcoming Dynamics ERP releases too). For example, whenever a user sees a person in the application screen, he/she can also see a presence indicator showing if they are "out of the office", "in a meeting", "on a call", or "available". By clicking on the indicator, a user gets to pick the preferred method to communicate with them with a single click, whether it might be via email, instant messenger (IM), or phone, if the company has the computer telephony integration (CTI) capabilities.

The Microsoft Dynamics team is working together with the UC team to develop even more advanced scenarios that bring people closer to the processes represented in their applications. One such possible scenario, “Call Center of the Future”, was showed at Convergence 2008 during Steve Ballmer's keynote speech. Expected scenarios for the next version of UC platform will revolve around how to factor in application embedding, advanced in-context collaboration scenarios, and blending UC and business process management (BPM).

What About the Microsoft .NET Framework Parts?

The situation is much less “crystal clear” when it comes to leveraging components of the Microsoft .NET Framework. Namely, on the programming and development platform side, only Microsoft Dynamics SL [evaluate this product] is leveraging Visual Basic.NET (VB.NET), one of the languages embraced by .NET. Having already abandoned the gut-wrenching route of a single code base, as noted in Part 1, Microsoft now has to live with the proprietary platforms within Dynamics GP (i.e., Dexterity) , Dynamics NAV (i.e., C/Side AL),  and Dynamics AX (i.e., X++/MorphX).

But, on the upside, the abovementioned Windows WF technology, which is an application-hosted workflow orchestration engine, and with a VS.NET design experience, is much more pervasively used throughout Dynamics. WF tools are VS.NET-based tools for developers that add simplified analyst (information worker) experiences.

The technology originated in the Microsoft BizTalk Server team (to be described later on), and in a future major release of BizTalk, WF will become the orchestration engine for BizTalk. WF is used in SharePoint and within Dynamics applications (i.e., Dynamics GP 10, Dynamics AX 2009, and Dynamics CRM 4.0) as the workflow engine. A distinct feature is its Tracking Provider architectural design (Dynamics AX 2009 implements this) that allows users to capture process execution information in the same database as the transaction data.

There is the ability here to track and record data about WF instances as they execute, such as the current status of long running processes, time spent across parts of/the whole process, exception paths taken, etc. This enables an analysis like, for example, how much time or how many escalations is it taking the user to approve Purchase Orders (PO) for his/her preferred suppliers with PO's value under US$25,000.

Furthermore, Windows Communication Foundation (WCF), formerly called  Indigo and WinFX, is an application web services inter-communication framework, and can be used to access Dynamics AX 4 and 2009 business logic through web service interfaces. This provides a higher level document interface to the application for integration, complementing the .NET Business Connector which offers more granular, lower level component interfaces to the Dynamics AX business logic. Microsoft's .NET Business Connector replaces the older Microsoft Component Object Model (COM)-based COM Business Connector.

What Else Might Come Down the Track?

As a glance into the future, Microsoft BizTalk Server, which delivers orchestration and integration capabilities between disparate applications while handling broad ranges of scale and volume, is envisioned to expand the Dynamics ERP and/or customer relationship management (CRM) products' integration and BPM capabilities. Dynamics products occasionally work with BizTalk for tricky orchestration and integration between third-party systems, for example handling orders in business-to-business (B2B) commerce integrations, whereas WF is used for orchestration inside an individual Dynamics application.

Other potential ambitious undertakings in the future should revolve around Master Data Management (MDM), whereby the Stratature acquisition in 2007 should be a good start towards embedding MDM capabilities into SharePoint. The Dynamics products are seen as key drivers for scenarios in a future Microsoft MDM offering. Along similar lines should be the FAST acquisition in 2007, when it comes to the enterprise search capabilities (that entail both structured data and unstructured/rich media files). 

Part 3 of this blog series will analyze the ever-evolving user interface (UI) and visualization technologies, and related approaches of Microsoft and other independent software vendors (ISVs). Your views, comments, and opinions about and/or experiences  with any abovementioned solution are welcome in the meantime.
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