Cloud ERP Strategy: Goodbye IaaS, Hello IaaS

One of the first deployment models for cloud computing was Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).  Currently, there is a price war between the major IaaS providers like AWS and Rackspace to provide the cheapest infrastructure. However, enterprise customers looking to move their ERP solutions to the cloud should focus more on Integration as a Service (IaaS).  Integration, not infrastructure, will have a greater impact to TCO and ERP success.    In the next sections we will briefly compare the influences that infrastructure and integration have on an enterprise solution like ERP.

Cloud Infrastructure versus Integration

In a previous blog I reviewed the key competencies to consider as part of selecting an ERP cloud provider (ERP Cloud: Finding the Right Provider).  Both infrastructure and integration are key considerations yet I view enterprise integration the greater challenge.  Consider the following:

Cloud Infrastructure & Integration

Key Cloud Consideration Factors

Cost

The cloud storage war appears to be getting the most press in cloud computing but consider two factors driving this type of pricing strategy

  1. Vendors cannot provide a material differentiation or competitive advantage.
  2. Technology improvements continue to drive down disk storage costs rapidly.  Combine this trend with the economy of scale that cloud providers generate to continue driving costs down by another 40% in the next 3 to 5 years.

Moore’s Law highlights the computing hardware trend resulting in greater technology capabilities and driving down MIPS costs.  However, the same cannot be said for integration.  As discussed in one of my earlier blogs (Best of Breed vs. Integrated ERP), integration costs can be up to 8 times the cost of the ERP software. 

ERP Integration Considerations

ERP Integration Considerations

We have all heard the proverb “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Applying this concept to business software, we would conclude that a business solution is only as strong as its weakest integration.

Business Value Realization

Allow me to make the general statement that outsourcing IT infrastructure to a cloud provider should result in a cost savings to customers.  However, I believe that IT organizations will quickly learn that providing this cost savings is a short-term value proposition to their business owners.  Ultimately, IT-driven innovation will drive business value realization.  Gartner identifies Integrated Ecosystems and Hybrid IT & Cloud Computing as two of the top 10 strategic technologies for 2013.     Every ERP solution has a portfolio of edge products/3rd-party integrations to external solutions to provide holistic support of business processes.  The only true method of creating business value is through business processes.

Socialization & Collaboration

The ERP software industry is realizing that people have the greatest impact on business results.  It is refreshing to see the increase in socialization and collaboration capabilities.  Infrastructure is necessary but integration is the critical path to success.

Market Trends

In my opinion, I expect to see the market changing for IaaS providers.  Given how important integration is to a viable cloud solution either existing IaaS will grow into a Platform as a Service (PaaS) or will be acquired by PaaS vendors looking to provide global support.   Just take a look at AWS and Rackspace’s transition from an IaaS to a PaaS:

Summary

History always has a way of repeating itself.  Recalling the Y2K problem, storage (infrastructure) was seen as a strategic/limited resource.  This view resulted in the programming practice of representing the year with two digits and we all know how that came back to haunt IT organizations.   Infrastructure is a cheap commodity when compared to a collaborative, enterprise integration framework.  Infrastructure is a key enabler for cloud computing but integration will ultimately determine your success of ERP in the cloud.   

The Next Evolution of ERP: Adaptive ERP

With the initial release of ERP, one of the key “game changers” was the ability of business users to access data and generates reports without direct IT involvement. This empowerment of the business user had a significant impact on business agility. Today, we continue to see ERP vendors focus on providing business-friendly tools for reporting and analysis.  Yet, I can see a new evolution brewing in the ERP industry what I like to call “Adaptive ERP” where business users can perform on-demand actions to meet business changes real-time.  In the next sections we discuss the key capabilities of Adaptive ERP and a practical assessment of where the ERP industry is today.

What is Adaptive ERP?

Adaptive ERP would enable business users to configure, simulate, test, and implement business technology changes with limited traditional IT services (ex. software development).  Predictive analysis will become a reality.  Logical thinking and search methods will be more valuable than technical syntax. Information will become context and even transactional specific.   Following is an illustration of the major domains that Adaptive ERP should address:

Adaptive ERP

Conceptual Model of Adaptive ERP

Domain:  Logical Development

Too often a change in the business model requires an IT development effort.  Any competent IT development will require the following activities:

  • Business requirements gathering
  • Technical design
  • Technical construction
  • Unit, System testing

In general, the greater the number of individuals involved in a project the greater the coordination/communication effort resulting in a greater time commitment.  Enabling business to become agile will require an evolutionary change in how ERP supports business activities.  However, simply removing people out of the equation is not the answer.  What is required is providing business owners the tools and experience required to become more self-sufficient.

Logical Development

Logical Development for ERP

Following is a brief list of the capabilities required to enable business users to perform logical development

  • Business models must be defined as metadata within the ERP software.
  • Business rules are separate from technical components and are exposed directly to business users.
  • Business scenarios are defined separate from the respective business models. Business exceptions are variations to a specific business scenario.
  • Business users should have the ability to run simulations in production (i.e. parallel testing)
  • ERP must provide automated testing support
    • Automated unit and system testing (self-learning via business model metadata).
    • Automated business process test scripting.
    • Test scripts are a results-oriented view of business requirements.
    • Automated impact analysis with logical development change.
  • Business users should be trained in logical and structured thinking.  There has to be a prescribed process to effectively conduct knowledge transfer with the ERP software.  Business users should be able to directly educate (i.e. configure) the ERP software on how they run their business.

Remember that a key value proposition for ERP is to reduce software development.  This is not an argument to eliminate IT but rather to refocus IT from tactical support to strategic activities.  IT will play a very important role in enabling business users in logical and structured thinking.

Domain: Predictive Analysis

Today, there is interest in Big Data and Enterprise 2.0 technologies but they are not the final destination.

Predictive Analysis

Predictive Analysis

At the end of the day, business decisions have an impact on business results. Enterprise 2.0 and Big Data are supportive technologies.  Enterprise 2.0 focuses on the utilization of Web 2.0 standards in developing collaborative technologies like blogs, RSS, social bookmarking, social networking and wikis.  Enterprise 2.0 emphasizes employee, partner and consumer collaboration for creating knowledge.  Big Data is the next evolution in Knowledge Management where it is now viable to manage and utilize both structured and unstructured data.   However, the key challenge remains – how to effectively leverage all the information we are collecting.  We need to flip the following time paradigm:

Data Analysis Cycle

Business Information Cycle

Changing this paradigm will require inference engines that streamline analysis generation and enable predictive analysis.  Following is a brief list of capabilities that will support predictive analysis:

  • Case-Based Inference will provide recommendations based upon data and transactional patterns.
  • Rules-Based Inference will provide tactical, operational decision support based upon standard business principles.
  • Big Data will facilitate the assimilation of structured and unstructured data to identify patterns and provide operational context.
  • Collaborative ERP 2.0 will support collaborative discussions and provide transactional context for decision support.

Advancements like this in analytics will enable business users to focus on the value-add activities of reviewing analysis and drawing conclusions for effective business decisions. 

Domain: Open

Whether or not you are sold on open source ERP,  you have to admire the new paradigm and simplicity that open source ERP promotes.  As we continue to see the consumerization of legacy ERP technologies, the market will continue to drive individual user enablement and vendor independence.  Following is a brief list of capabilities that will promote a more open ERP industry

  • BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)will enableemployees are able to bring their own computing devices – such as smartphones, laptops and PDAs – to the workplace for use and connectivity on the corporate network.
  • BPMN compliance will ensure that ERP business process definitions will agree with business process definition standards outlined in the Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) model.  This model is governed by the Object Management Group (OMG).  In my humble opinion, the OMG is in the best position to define a global standard for business process models.  This advancement will be a key enabler to the holy grail of true enterprise system interoperability.  This is no small task and will require significant market demand to promote this standardization initiative.
  • Collaborative Shared Development is a key benefit of an open community.  Sometimes it takes a village of developers to support an ERP solution.  Today, I can go to the Apple App Store to purchase an app for my iPhone.  In the future, we should see an ERP App Store when a customer or an individual business user can download an object (software, report, role-based feature) to customize their ERP experience.
  • Open Partner Network.  The more integrated your ERP is within your business value chain (suppliers, vendors, customers, providers) the more powerful your ERP system can be.  I expect we will see the ERP market put more value in delivered integrations with partner, supplier, and provider networks over software product features.  SOA will be a key enabler for making open partner networks a reality.

Openness is about creating flexibility and the freedom for a customer to respond to the changing business environment in the most effective manner.

Domain: Viable Solutions

A profound lesson I learned the hard way is that regardless of how many features and products an ERP vendor can provide (even for free); it will all be all in vain if the software is unmanageable.  It is unacceptable that a customer has to pay triple and even quadruple the original software cost to maintain their ERP investment.  Some may argue that ERP vendors have not acted in the best interest of their customers by building features upon features without providing tools to significantly reduce the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

Simplifying Technical Support

Simplifying Technical Support

Following is a brief list of capabilities that will significantly reduce TCO:

  • Automated testing (self-learning tools).
  • Automated master data management (information awareness tools).
  • Eliminate the need for multiple instances.
  • Assimilated, holistic solutions– loosely coupled point systems will not work and result in greater costs and possible failures.
    • Minimize the technical stack.
  • Higher Quality Assurance
    • Upgrades/Software Maintenance releases included the test cases and results performed by the ERP vendor.
  • Implementation Wizards
  • Support for Hybrid Deployments
    • Software architecture can support either single or multiple tenants.
    • On-Premise, Hosted, Public Cloud, Private Cloud for either applications and/or data.
      • Example:  Customer decides to store mission-critical data on-premise and internal data on the public cloud.

It should no longer be acceptable that an ERP customer has to totally shoulder additional implementation and upgrade costs.  This is not indicative of a true partnership.

Challenge to ERP Industry for Adaptive ERP

Today, we continue to see a consolidation of the ERP industry.  With these acquisitions some ERP vendors provide some limited capabilities of Adaptive ERP but these capabilities are spread across multiple software products and platforms.  An ERP solution is only as strong as its weakest link (integration).  More technologies loosely coupled together usually mean (a) more IT resources, (b) additional points of failure, and (c) a more complicated experience for business users. We have witnessed where ERP software has become bloated with features upon features without any logical progression.  ERP customers are forced to deal and pay for unused features resulting in more frustration than simplicity.

Many top-tier ERP software solution packages use a systems configuration concept to set up the business environment for some time but please allow me to challenge the industry a little more. I agree that several ERP software packages provides configuration concept yet there is no clear decrease in implementation schedule (ex. SAP) or cost savings associated with this approach because the currently exposed configurations do not change that frequently (ex. Earning Codes, GL Accounts). Objects like business rules, scenarios, and exceptions change more frequently. This is a challenge for some ERP software (ex. PeopleSoft) where many business rules are encapsulated within the technical object. Pre-configurations are only a beginning – it adds value in the short-term but ERP is a long-term proposition. In my humble opinion, the key is to expose the underlying business model to business users for greater real-time interaction.

Also, there are Master Data Management (MDM) solutions available to support a tactical level of data governance by removing duplicates, standardizing data and, incorporating rules to eliminate incorrect data from entering the ERP system.  For Adaptive ERP, MDM must advance in what I call “information awareness”.   Information awareness means two things (1) MDM is able to automatically detect and define new information sources within the enterprise ecosystem via data polling, and (2) MDM is able to determine how data is used.  These capabilities will be key enablers for automated impact analysis.

What we need to have is a mature, open, holistic solution where all the individual software platforms are assimilated into a robust, uniformed solution.  This is not simply building a dashboard that brings together two separate user sessions together or an orchestration level that adds another level of technology abstraction and performance overhead.  A viable solution is a manageable solution.

Summary

I’m a firm believer in performing non-competitive business activities as competent and cheap as possible.  In that end I am a firm believer in ERP.  However, the ERP industry has come up short in the areas of total cost of ownership and business adaptability.  Many on both sides of the aisle have wrongly concluded that more software features and increasing the technical stack are the answers for making ERP adaptable.  Putting more power in the hand of business users is the strategic answer for business agility.  People are the most important and adaptive component of a business solution.

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