The (NA)Vision of Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2009 - Part 3

Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series went through the five previous generations of the Microsoft Dynamics NAV (formerly Navision) product. In late 2008, at the European Microsoft Convergence user conference, attendees saw the sixth major release of the product, dubbed Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2009.

The product’s subsequent launch in the US was in February 2009 (the replay can be seen here). But rather than merely reciting the enhancements from the official PR and sounding like other media and analyst reposts, this final part will try to focus more on the nitty-gritty. Namely, it will analyze how this particular product release might have mitigated many of the traditional flaws of Dynamics NAV (and former Navision) while building upon the product’s traditional (if not proverbial by now) positive traits.

As a preamble, let me try to explain the concepts behind the much publicized RoleTailored user experience (UX) design and Role Centers. In particular, to use Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2009, employees can now log into their relevant Role Center or their own user profile and personal place in the business management system. The Role Center displays only the tasks and activities they need to perform, providing them with an overview of what they’ve done and what’s next in line.

In short, this UX approach enables them to focus on their tasks and organize their time in the way that works best for their company. Of course, users can still elect to use the “classic” NAV user interface (UI), where they will need to be familiar with the navigational routes, shortcuts, etc.

The role-based UI was implemented with shared controls and gadgets, and delivered for basically all of the Microsoft Dynamics enterprise resource planning (ERP) products after introducing it and testing first in Microsoft Dynamics GP. With such an ability to share future innovation, Microsoft will continue to look for opportunities to innovate in one product and then share (roll out) across the entire portfolio.

TEC’s recent article entitled “Application Giants in Duel—and Duet—for Users' Hearts, Minds … and Wallets” explains at great length Microsoft’s rationale for its elaborate approach to UX. Also, Ray Wang’s recent blog post provides a number of Dynamics NAV 2009’s screen shots.

“Top Several” Best Features of Microsoft Dynamics NAV

Traditionally, Dynamics NAV independent software vendor (ISV) partners have shown extraordinary vertical orientation while building upon the NAV’s software development kit (SDK). For example, Columbus IT’s feature sets for the food and chemical markets are all within the NAV product, intimately integrated with the base ERP system, with the same look and feel.

If one digs deeper into the available industry solutions repository for Dynamics NAV, one can find such vertical depth as a solution for fisheries, slaughterhouses, special retailers, special furniture manufacturers or distributors, you name it. Such partner expertise I’ve thus far only seen within Progress Software’s OpenEdge ecosystem. Microsoft believes that the RoleTailored UX and Web Services-based application-to-application (A2A) integration within Dynamics NAV 2009 strongly support this verticalization approach and should enable partners to build even more dedicated and relevant solutions for customers.

Then, Dynamics NAV users have long had the ability to access data through a variety of methods, including: drill down, the Navigation Pane feature, analysis screens, and via both built-in and external report writers. These current feature sets and possibilities are maintained within Dynamics NAV 2009, with added support for Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS).

The Dynamics NAV product generations have always exhibited a familiar, easy-to-navigate UI, especially the Shortcuts menu for “heads-down” users who enter a volume of transactions. Microsoft believes that users can be even more productive with RoleTailored UX, which highlights the personalization feature (to be explained below). The latest product has also maintained shortcuts, which follow familiar Microsoft Windows standards.

Moreover, end-users could always modify screens, set filters, etc., and these personal settings would be stored by the user. This capability has given ordinary users control over their own environment without getting information technology (IT) personnel or power-users involved. Microsoft gladly points out that RoleTailored UX has added even more significant personalization capabilities.

For example, if an end-user wants to personalize his/her Role Center, he/she can do it by simply choosing to show or hide elements on the screen. He/she can also choose the level of complexity to work with, perhaps by adding more features as his/her own role expands, or removing fields he/she doesn’t use.

Additionally, the authorized manager or a super-user can configure the Role Centers of his/her colleagues who share the same role. This controls the level of access the end-user has to the system. On one hand, higher access gives users greater autonomy; on the other hand, more restricted access makes for greater security for the company.

Furthermore, the partners have always been able to provide custom developments for the user’s particular requirements within the product. For instance, a partner could develop a special user profile or role.

This adaptability remains largely unchanged within Dynamics NAV 2009, except for the addition of a new object type (i.e., “page”) for RoleTailored UX. If you are interested in more details, please visit the RoleTailored UX guidelines for Dynamics NAV 2009 here, which describe how to modify, personalize, configure etc. the product.

Last but not least, one topic about which we constantly get strong feedback from customers is the product’s “reliability.” This trait is maintained and unchanged with Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2009. As mentioned in Part 1, the product was originally written by formerly independent Denmark-based Navision Software in its own proprietary language and database called C/SIDE (Client/Server Integrated Development Environment).

While Microsoft SQL Server has lately become the preferred database option, about half of Dynamics NAV customers are still on the native and proprietary C/SIDE database. This tried-and-true database has the built-in feature of database transaction integrity. In one possible scenario, users might be using the system heavily and there could be a sudden power failure; when the power is back on, the Dynamics NAV data will be intact and users can simply proceed.

“Top Several” Shortfalls of Microsoft Dynamics NAV

But on the downside, the product still lacks a pervasively convenient Undo functionality, except for that the text entered in a field can be undone via the Ctrl+Z keys shortcut. Also, for a long time users could not change posted transactions.

As said in Part 2, the Reverse Posting capability was introduced with Navision 4.0, but it is not possible to simply delete or change erroneously posted transactions. Microsoft claims to have insisted on doing it this way (with an audit log of reversed transactions) for security and regulatory purposes.

Then, for a long time, third-party applications using “alien” (non-C/SIDE) database platform have had issues with addressing Navision’s native database, especially in higher volumes. Sure, there have been Navision’s C/ODBC and C/FRONT technologies to enable users to use information from Navision in familiar programs such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Crystal Reports, but these tools do not have universal connectivity.

The Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) driver for Navision (C/ODBC) is an application program interface (API) that provides a way for other applications, such as the entire Microsoft Office suite, to send and retrieve data to and from the Navision C/SIDE database through the ODBC interface. For its part, C/FRONT is a library allowing external access to the NAV application and database. It’s still there within Dynamics NAV 2009, but my educated guess is that most of this A2A integration will be handled using Web Services in the future.

In Microsoft Dynamics NAV 5.0, the vendor made some changes with regards to the ODBC issues, mainly by consolidating a number of hot fixes and minor improvements. However, the big thing that improved usage of ODBC basically came from the SIFT (Sum-Indexed Flow Technology) implementation that changed in the Microsoft Dynamics NAV 5.0 Service Pack 1. At that time, Dynamics NAV started to use Indexed Views in Microsoft SQL Server. That change made it easier to query the SIFT data directly in a “cleaner” way.

SIFT is basically an efficient way of maintaining sums on database tables without hurting performance, while allowing for an extremely fast information look-up. As part of the strong customization in NAV, partners can also manage how to use SIFT and add new sum-fields and related indexes to optimize for the individual vertical industry solutions or specific customer solution. SIFT has sometimes been referred to as built-in online analytical processing (OLAP) capability, which makes sense in principle (but it is not an OLAP tool per se).

Moreover, the balance of native functional footprint vs. “white spaces” for partners’ intellectual property has been both a blessing and a curse for Dynamics NAV. For example, the product lacks its own decent demand management solution.

Microsoft considers deep application functionality an important part of its abovementioned partner-driven vertical industry strategy. To that end, several ISVs deliver demand management-type functionality such as TXT e-solutions or Demand Solutions. Still, if these particular solutions are not available in some geographies, plain “vanilla” Dynamics NAV offering might appear much weaker compared to natively better rounded competitive offerings.

Dynamics NAV has basic customer relationship management (CRM) capabilities, but for more complex needs there are partner solutions integrating Microsoft's Dynamics NAV and Dynamics CRM products. Good examples would be Celenia Software, Scribe Software, and VisionPeople. The Microsoft FRx financial reporting and analysis software is fully integrated with Dynamics NAV in the US market, while the Dynamics Client for Office (DCO) product was released for the product within Dynamics NAV 2009.

Another traditional flaw of NAV has been the lack of native workflow management capability. To be fair, approval functionality in sales and purchase orders was introduced with Dynamics NAV 5.0 (mentioned in Part 2), but there is no underlying Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) orchestration engine like it was done within Dynamic GP 10, Dynamic AX 2009, and Dynamic CRM 4.0.

Along similar lines, there is the lack of the unified communications (UC) technology to identify users’ presence in real-time, as was done within Dynamic AX 2009 and Dynamic CRM 4.0. The e-mail notification feature from Navision 4.0 (mentioned in Part 2) looks quite "pedestrian" in comparison to UC.

Only time will tell whether the Dynamics NAV product will be WF and UC enabled in-house or whether that will become the partner game (a la the e-commerce solutions mentioned in Part 2). Frost & Sullivan believes that the UC technology that facilitates anywhere- anytime real-time messaging will become pervasive, driven by businesses seeking new ways to improve workforce productivity and efficiency.

Last but not least, and again based on strong customer feedback: there has been inadequate software documentation provided by the vendor. The downside of relying too much on partner’s functionality is that providing a repository of documentation might resemble herding cats. With Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2009 the company claims to have significantly improved its documentation. To that end, the Dynamics NAV documentation can be found on Microsoft Development Network (MSDN) here (and you can judge its quality for yourself).

Sidelining C/SIDE and Other Navision Idiosyncrasies?

But one particular conundrum for Microsoft might come from the fact that NAV has been possibly the most idiosyncratic product in the Dynamics family. While it is only natural to expect the giant to make NAV more “Microsofty,” one by one most of the features that the "good old Navision crowd" has long liked about their applications are falling away. Kurt Chen explains well in his recent blog post that Microsoft’s familiarity should not necessarily be taken as “done deal” when it comes to users’ acceptance of new technologies and abandonment of their beloved old solutions.

At least the C/SIDE development environment remains the foundation for all the business management functionality of NAV. The framework is made up of several building blocks, called object types, which are used to create the application. These object types are shared throughout the product to create every application area and give it a unified, consistent interface.

This approach allows for the internal construction of new business logic and sophisticated reporting. Because of the internal nature of modifications (grouping all code in logical units) upgrades and additional modifications have been easier to manage. But the C/SIDE database’s future is not that certain, given that all the benefits of scalability, RoleTailored UX, improved reporting, and Microsoft Analysis Services (e.g., OLAP cube creation and Excel data pivoting) are applicable to only SQL Server users.

Although Microsoft will likely parade a number of delighted partners at related events, I have recently talked to a couple of Dynamics NAV partners who are less than thrilled with an eventual discontinuation of C/SIDE database.  Also, I did think the recent influx of former Navision people to Microsoft Dynamics’ free and open source (FOSS) foe OpenBravo was a pretty interesting (if not indicative) development too. Needless to say, any injudicious move by Microsoft towards the large NAV install base on C/SIDE database would be a “gift that keeps on giving” to the Dynamics NAV’s  “usual suspect” competitors such as Sage, Exact Software, xTuple, Infor, and SAP Business One, to mention only some.

Dear readers, what are your views and comments in this regard? Do you agree with our assertions of the product’s traditional good traits and flaws? If you are existing users of Dynamics NAV or its former Navision incarnations, what have been your experiences with these products and what is your take on the product’s future?
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