Mid-market ERP Vendors Leveraging (and Occasionally Outdoing) Microsoft’s “Plumbing” - Part 2






Part 1 of this blog series analyzed Epicor and SYSPRO, the two renowned enterprise resource planning (ERP) mid-market incumbents that heavily harness Microsoft’s platform tools. To that end, the business productivity tools that were illustrated in my recent blog post on what 2010 might have meant to Microsoft’s business solutions (which reflected on the highly publicized mid-2010 launch of Microsoft Office 2010, SharePoint Server 2010, and Visio 2010) were illustrated in context of Epicor and SYSPRO’s technology environments.

Part 2 will analyze how Epicor and SYSPRO are addressing other enterprise applications capabilities and market trends. What role might Microsoft’s tools play (or not play) in these regards? 



Ignore Mobility at Your Peril

I concur with Epicor’s VP of product marketing, Jim Norwood, and his assertion in a recent blog post that mobility will be a huge trend and requirement in 2011 (and later), as possibly best illustrated by SAP buying Sybase in mid-2010. Owing to the built-in Epicor Everywhere Framework (see the related blog post), Epicor ERP already works on Apple’s iPhone and iPad, and on many other popular mobile devices.

For its part, through a wireless connection, the SYSPRO Mobile module provides remote access to secure SYSPRO ERP data via either a barcode reader or a mobile device. Via a recently released iPhone and iPad application (which can be downloaded for free from Apple’s AppStore), users can scan barcodes (or take pictures) of inventory items and capture stock or view the inventory availability. In addition, users can remotely search for contact information (and get directions to their place via Google Maps), and view (read-only) executive type dashboards and charts showing sales activities, inventory levels, etc. They can communicate via e-mail, text message, or directly via phone.

As for presence information and unified communications (UC) capabilities, Epicor ERP already supports users’ presence status, but is still adjusting its framework to support Microsoft Lync Server. The solution also needs to become more cost-effective for Epicor customers.

For now, Epicor has discovered that its users are perfectly happy to see whether their intended contact is online (present), and to then take the conversation off-line via a phone line. On SYSPRO’s side, neither capability is currently available, but should be reasonably easy to build if desired using SYSPRO’s component-based architecture.

Inevitable SharePoint?

Given SharePoint’s omnipresence in IT departments and the tool’s versatility (e.g., for portals, enterprise search, document management, workflow engine, social media, etc.), I was wondering where Epicor and SYSPRO stand when it comes to harnessing this popular tool. Epicor looks to Microsoft as its key technology alliance partner to help it with its infrastructure needs. In fact, SharePoint is embedded into Epicor Portal for intranet and limited extranet-style usage, which is one of the three pillars of Epicor Productivity Pyramid (see the related blog post).

It is certain that SharePoint is a mission-critical application for Epicor and many of its customers. Thus, Epicor will, as a Microsoft partner, drive the giant to improve SharePoint based on its customers business needs.

What SharePoint just doesn’t seem to have right yet is the technology needed to be a true engagement and collaboration platform for outside the enterprise (i.e., for trading partners). Products such as Lithium, Socialtext, Bluekiwi, Saba Live, and Jive Software are much further down that path. Even Salesforce Chatter, although a great product, is somewhat new and relatively basic (being still reliant on salesforce.com building out its own Enterprise 2.0 expertise).

Epicor has reportedly looked hard at FAST Search Server, but still decided to create its own search engine (which is Microsoft SQL Server-based). At that time, FAST was still new and aimed at the large enterprise prospects and priced in the six-figures. The product is still is quite heavy-duty, but when and if Microsoft gets the pricing scaling right, Epicor will likely replace its plumbing with that tool.

For its part, SYSPRO Federated Search is leveraging FAST. Any of SYSPRO's customers could use SharePoint in the manner described above (and some probably do already), but the combination of SYSPRO’s component architecture and Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) allows its customers to have any data deployed to their desktop without having to purchase extra software (such as SharePoint, which is not that cheap).

SYSPRO Tackling Enterprise Architecture, No Less

It was interesting for me to note that neither Epicor nor SYSPRO are using Visio for modeling business processes or business process analysis (BPA). For its part, the SYSPRO 6.1 release features SYSPRO Enterprise Analysis Modeling, Monitoring, and Management (SEAM3), which combines SYSPRO Workflow Services, SYSPRO Process Modeling (SPM), and SYSPRO Enterprise Performance Management (EPM). To that end, SYSPRO partners with a lesser-known Australian vendor called Sparx Systems to embed its Enterprise Architect product, whereas Epicor partners with another Australian vendor called XSOL Software to add Enterprise System Logic (ESL) and visualization to its best practice processes models.

One could consider BPA to be a subset of enterprise architecture (EA), since one part of EA is process modeling, but EA also includes a variety of other enterprise models that could include high-level issues such as business goals and strategy, as well as lower-level data models such as entity relationship models (ERM). If one looks at the Zachman Framework, which is the genesis for many of the more recent EA frameworks, it is a categorization for different levels and disciplines of models that make up an enterprise, not just its IT systems. Namely, the columns are the different disciplines such as data, processes, and networks, whereas the rows are different perspectives, such as executive, business units, and developers.

The reason that only some business process management (BPM) vendors are considered as EA providers is mostly due to their acquisition of an EA vendor in the past. Indeed, IBM acquired System Architect and Telelogic, Metastorm acquired Proforma (with its ProVision EA tool), while Software AG acquired IDS Scheer (with its renowned ARIS tool).

Thus, I doubt that mid-market ERP vendors have any of the full-fledged EA capabilities that SYSPRO now has. Even SAP and Oracle have long had to partner with IDS Scheer for the abovementioned ARIS tool for process modeling, documentation, etc. Look for SYSPRO to provide the know-how frameworks (or accelerators) down the track, e.g., for Six Sigma or Lean Manufacturing compliance as part of SYSPRO’s STARS (Structured Technique to Achieve a Rapid Solution) methodology and library (I know of IDS Scheer been making big bucks by providing these capabilities to large enterprises via SAP and Oracle).

Enter Epicor BPM

Does Epicor offer anything with regards to EA modeling and process documentation for pre-sales, implementation, upgrades, etc.? Well, over the last 24 months Epicor has invested in an extension to its consulting services’ Signature methodology to incorporate process modeling. Within Epicor BPM, the vendor has a powerful tool for modeling (built on Microsoft tools) and brought together with Epicor Service Connect for process orchestration and XSOL for ESL visualization.

Epicor has already built out some 150 to 200 best practice process models around its software, primarily for helping customers implement quicker and get a more rapid return on investment (ROI) from their ERP implementation. The figure below illustrates one example of a business process flow.


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Epicor plans to extend this investment to include industry-specific processes as well, so its staffers can show in pre-sales and assist in post-sales. For example, how a medical device manufacturer can achieve the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certification or compliance. The majority of Epicor’s processes today are more along the lines of how to carry out, say, a quote-to-cash process, but the process library will grow.

Over time, the vendor also hopes to tie these capabilities into the application for real-time business process modeling or at least generate unified modeling language (UML)-based models to help drive the application. As of today, the produced process maps are outside of the application. The idea is for these dynamic models to help customers with business issues such as lean or Defense Contract Auditing Agency (DCAA) compliance, etc.

Dear readers, what are your views, comments, and opinions about Epicor and SYSPRO’s platform strategy? Should these vendors rely more on Microsoft or pursue other technology avenues as required? Your experiences with the above-mentioned vendors and their enterprise solutions are also welcome.
 
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