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Information technologists are fond of predictions in which the next big thing quickly and entirely renders the existing thing so completely obsolete that only troglodytes would cling to such outmoded technology. While this vision of IT progress may satisfy the egos of technologists, it rarely reflects reality. Mainframes didn’t disappear, for example. Although they long ago lost their dominant position, many remain key parts of corporate computing infrastructures. The IT landscape is a hybrid because technology users have varying requirements and constraints that can lengthen replacement cycles. Most business users of IT pay little attention to the religious wars of technologists because they take a pragmatic approach: They use technology to achieve business ends. This scenario is repeating itself in clamor about another corporate mainstay, the ERP system, which advocates claim will soon be redeployed en masse to cloud computing. That, too, won’t happen. I believe that ERP will increasingly become cloud-based, but it will be in hybrid cloud environments.
For ERP, vendors draw the rhetorical battle lines as on-premises vs. the cloud, but in the end it’s more likely to be a combination of the two. The term “hybrid cloud” refers to an environment where one or more clouds are connected to or combined with on-premises systems. These clouds may be private (that is, controlled by a single company for its sole use), public (a service offered to all comers) or a community cloud (available to a limited set of organizations or individuals). Clouds can be multitenant (where a single instance of some software serves multiple customers) or single tenant (where it serves just one).
Our benchmark research shows that more than half (55%) of companies are using cloud computing, and one-third (34%) more intend to. Cloud deployment has come to dominate many business applications categories such as HR, Marketing, Sales, and travel and entertainment expense reporting. It is rapidly displacing on-premises in categories such as human resources and sales operations systems. On the other hand, ERP is still firmly based on-premises both in terms of license revenues for software vendors and their installed bases, although revenue for cloud ERP vendors has been growing faster than on-premises over the past few years.
We see three main reasons why companies have failed so far to embrace the cloud for ERP as fully as in other categories. The most important is that, as I’ve noted, multitenant ERP offers users only limited configurability, and this often is incompatible with what companies need to manage their business. The second reason has been data integration, which until recently could be complicated and difficult to manage. The third reason is that finance departments have been more conservative than most in embracing the Web, especially for ERP systems, because the information in them is sensitive and they fear security breaches. These last two factors are starting to diminish in importance. Data integration between cloud and on-premises systems has been facilitated by new tools and methods. Concerns over the risk of having company data in the cloud are also abating as cloud services vendors demonstrate reliability and security.
Many existing ERP systems already are hybrids. Companies often manage payroll, treasury and travel expenses in the cloud. Any aspect of business related to ERP systems that can benefit from mobile deployment (such as those related to inventory and manufacturing execution) is a candidate for cloud deployment. In the future, companies also will be using smaller (usually mobile) apps that interact with their ERP software for automating the execution of simple processes that require limited data input (such as giving approvals or filling out short forms) or for viewing data. As I noted, Microsoft’s Project Siena, in development now, is designed to enable business users with no programming background to construct such simple applications. Other such systems are likely to follow. Having these apps hosted on the Web may be the most attractive option, especially since most people will be using mobile devices to work with them.
There’s also a case to be made for midsize companies and second-tier ERP installations moving off premises into cloud-based, single-tenant deployments. Some midsize companies (those with 100 to 1,000 employees) may find the total cost of ownership of a cloud-based, single-tenant system lower than for an on-premises approach because of lower costs in implementing and maintaining the hardware and software. Even when those costs are higher, midsize companies that cannot accept the compromises that multitenant deployments entail may find it attractive not to employ an IT staff to support its software and outsource the maintenance of their ERP system to a software-as-a-service provider. For decades, large corporations that use enterprise software for their main business systems have used ERP tools designed for midsize companies to support smaller, stand-alone operations. Putting this “tier two” software in the cloud is likely to be less expensive than buying, implementing and maintaining it. Moreover, in most respects this form of software deployment is easier to control and audit because it has no physical presence and therefore facilitates separation-of-duties requirements in locations with limited personnel. Hybrid clouds also enable companies to maintain the applications in the cloud while conforming to local requirements that customer records be kept physically within their jurisdiction.
Until now, many companies have been reluctant to embrace the cloud for ERP. That is likely to change over the coming decade as security issues diminish and companies decide to take advantage of the cloud’s benefits. On-premises ERP software vendors and their partners can diminish their vulnerability to cloud-based software vendors by creating offerings that improve the economics and affordability of single-tenant ownership and facilitate using their software in a hybrid cloud environment.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Convergence is the Microsoft Dynamics business software user group’s meeting. Dynamics’ core applications are mainly in the accounting and ERP category, descendants of products Microsoft acquired: Great Plains (now GP), Solomon (SL), Navision (NAV) and Damgaard’s Axapta (AX), to which Microsoft has added its own CRM application. It has been more than a decade since the acquisitions of Great Plains (which itself had already purchased Solomon Software), and Navision, Damgaard and the software applications family has evolved steadily if slowly since then. More recently, Microsoft has added cloud services that simplify and improve the connection between remote users and the on-premises core systems, as well as integration with Office365.
Despite being one of the top five ERP software vendors with sales of about $1 billion, Microsoft faces several business and competitive challenges. It is selling into a fully saturated market for accounting and ERP software designed for midsize companies and divisions of larger corporations that have their own systems. Functional innovation in the core applications is difficult in this mature category where the essential functions long ago became commodities. Moreover, from small businesses on up, most companies already have financial systems in place and usually are reluctant to change them until it’s absolutely necessary.
The strategic issue confronting Microsoft and other accounting ERP software vendors is how to differentiate beyond core functionality in order to win sales, keep customers on maintenance and – even better – capture additional share of wallet through incremental sales of complementary software and services. Adding to the difficulty is the seismic shift taking place in the accounting ERP software market as companies increasingly choose to deploy this software in the cloud, where companies such as FinancialForce, Intacct, NetSuite, Plex and Workday, among others, are growing rapidly. Our research shows that more than half of companies are using cloud computing, and more intend to. An important segment of the ERP market is companies outgrowing entry-level accounting packages or replacing on-premises software. The costs of an on-premises system for a midsize business can be daunting, so the cloud can offer more functional and useful systems that are easier to manage and less risky to commit to.
To address its strategic challenge, Microsoft insists that it’s not just selling ERP software – its marketing message is that it is providing tools to run businesses better. So while ERP is the core technology for record-keeping and process management, the theme throughout the Convergence user conference was using the full range of available software to enable companies to grow their business, manage more intelligently and perform more efficiently. Microsoft CRM, the Web-based sales, marketing and social application that is a core part of Dynamics, was front and center in the opening day keynote. Since most people are trained and comfortable in Microsoft Excel and Word, Microsoft has been increasing integration of the Dynamics business applications with its Office suite and in particular its Web-based Office 365. The integration of Office 365 into the suite has made it possible for Microsoft to improve productivity by melding Excel spreadsheets into processes to give users the efficiency and convenience of working with a familiar tool while providing sufficient controls to ensure accuracy and auditability. For instance, it’s now possible for an accountant to create a list of journal entries in a spreadsheet and use that spreadsheet to automate the process of posting them into the system.
One consistent theme across the Dynamics family now is a roadmap with more frequent releases. Along with this, Microsoft is promising to make upgrades far easier to implement. Cloud ERP vendors stress the ease of their upgrades because they do all of that work. With almost all of the essential functionality already in place in the four core ERP packages that comprise Dynamics, product enhancements usually come down to nice-to-have features. For instance, the latest release of GP adds capabilities that simplify bank account reconciliations, allow companies to make adjustments to already closed ledgers based on subsequent auditor recommendations, to manage vendor IDs and to maintain multiple types of fixed-asset ID numbers so that those for, say, computer equipment are visibly different from ID numbers for plants and equipment or vehicles. They’re hardly earth-shaking but highly appreciated by those who do the work. However, one new capability that was noteworthy is the ability for a company to do a one-click backup to store its accounting ERP data in the cloud-based Azure storage infrastructure. Online backup addresses a key disaster vulnerability for on-premises systems because in practice the backups are rarely stored in a physically separate location. Moreover, not all companies are backing up their data daily so a one-click routine makes it simple enough for anyone to do.
Microsoft also plans to include a new applications and service framework (currently called Project Siena) in the upcoming release 3 of AX to make it easier for business users to create relatively simple mobile apps without having to do any coding. This is likely the blueprint for all future releases of Dynamics; it facilitates the creation of smartphone and tablet apps that coordinate and monitor a relatively short set of steps to, for instance, push or pull a limited set of data to and from individuals. If, as Microsoft claims, it will require only Excel and PowerPoint skills to quickly create useful mobile applications, that could be an important product differentiator.
Microsoft’s market position will continue to be challenged by the cloud ERP vendors as these companies build their installed bases on the advantages of subscription-based services over on-premises deployment as well as other functional advantages. For example, in addition to full and easy integration with Salesforce, FinancialForce has a set of professional services automation (PSA) components (such as integrating project management, and time and cost tracking with billing), making it an attractive option to the large number of midsize professional services companies, as I recently noted. Workday, which my colleague Stephan Millard reviewed, is especially appealing as an ERP system for industries that must manage large workforces.
It’s clear that cloud software vendors in this market have been growing faster than on-premises ones. In 2013, Dynamics revenues increased 10 percent, according to Microsoft, while NetSuite’s revenues were up 34 percent and Workday’s doubled. Still, Microsoft’s gain was greater than its most comparable rivals, Sage Software, which reported a 4 percent rise on the top line, and Infor, which had flat sales.
Microsoft has no direct sales channel for Dynamics, and its resellers have been slow to adopt the cloud. But market forces are likely to change this, so in the longer term, Microsoft may evolve into a hybrid cloud ERP vendor, offering customers multiple options on how to deploy its software. For companies of all sizes, deploying software in the cloud offers potential advantages, chiefly lower costs and increased efficiency. To begin addressing the need to have more of a cloud presence, the upcoming release of Dynamics AX will make it easier for resellers to deploy the software as a single-tenant instance using a Windows Azure-hosted service. It’s likely that the other Dynamics applications will follow shortly. The single-tenant approaches addresses many but not all of the issues in on-premises vs. multitenant cloud-based systems. For instance, companies do not have to invest in hardware, are able to scale computing capacity as needed and do not have to hire staff to manage and maintain IT assets. Yet the direct cost of ownership may be higher than for multitenant because that deployment method can offer economies of scale relative to a private cloud. Still, customers will have more options as to how the application is configured, and for some a private cloud may be the better one.
Like all user group meetings, this year’s Convergence had many success stories. These demonstrated intelligent use of enterprise software enabling midsize companies to be more competitive with larger rivals that have more resources while improving efficiency by automating more business processes that are now done manually. Companies that are confronting the limits of their aging accounting and ERP systems must think past the limits of their current system and understand what’s possible today. Midsize companies have more choices – and more affordable choices – than ever in choosing an ERP vendor. They should consider Microsoft Dynamics in selecting new software.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research