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ERP for Free?

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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, "fair is foul, and foul is fair." When separating fact from fiction, Bill Shakespeare could've been a systems analyst.

 

When I began my current role about seven years ago, I joined a true-blue AS/400 shop, and I had many new ideas I wanted to bring in the door with me. At the top of my list was deploying Linux on iSeries, desktops, thin clients, or anything else because it was "free" and "open."

 

A very juvenile viewpoint to say the least, and I was quickly educated about what real-world business computing responsibilities consisted of. Just because something's free doesn't mean there isn't a cost. As well, just because something is open source doesn't mean it's free either.

 

Open-source enthusiasts argue the benefits: a community of developers building modular software components that can be changed to suit your company's needs. Solutions are rapidly available due to thousands of programmers who have a sense of ownership and a vested interest in the software. They live all over the globe and can be available over the Web to lend a helping hand at any time of the day.

 

Detractors view open-source software (OSS) as untested, unsafe, and therefore unreliable for a mission-critical business system. They want a business partner that has a proven track record and will be there at four o'clock on a Sunday morning when something inevitably breaks. They wouldn't put their name on the decision to bring OSS into the business out of fear that they'll feel the pain when something goes wrong.

ERP? For Free? Really?

No, not really. Nothing's free in this world, other than opinions and perhaps some not-so-good advice. However, there's a buzz about free ERP software that should really be put into context before your CIO hears about it. Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, described open source very well by saying, "Think free as in free speech, not free beer." I'll put my realist/pessimist hat on and quote myself with an addendum to Stallman's quote: "Free beer probably means a ridiculous cover charge at the pub door."

 

"Free" can mean a couple of things:

  • Gratis—derived from many languages, meaning "for free." In the English language, it's most often referred to as meaning complimentary, without cost, or free of charge.
  • Libre—derived from Latin, meaning having freedom or liberty

 

With the language lesson aside, here's another quick lesson: you will usually get what you pay for.

 

If you choose to go with a free-of-charge open-source solution and rely on your own IT staff and a community of outside developers to provide you with the ERP customizations your business needs, then more power to you. You're paying your IT staff to be ERP specialists from now on, because ERP needs constant customizing and bug-fixing. This also means that when someone leaves your company, he or she is a much more valuable asset, you've incurred a heavy loss, and that person's experience and skill may be very hard to replace.

 

If you go with an ERP solution (open source or not) and pay for user licensing and support, you will be spending more each year, but at a more fixed cost. You know pretty much what the cost of computing each year will be.

Well, Who's Giving You the Freedom?

A number of companies provide OSS ERP solutions that offer freedom and a no-charge version of their software. Most of these companies have a true OSS product that you can download, modify, and deploy with no charge whatsoever. You have access to a community of developers that can help you build your own add-ons and customize the software to fit your business. However, these products can be somewhat limited in what you get compared to the Professional or Enterprise editions of the same ERP.

 

Of course, you have to pay for the high-end versions of these solutions with the per-user licensing fees, software maintenance, and support. Hey, it's a business. A good example is xTuple's ERP package.

 

You can download the "free" PostBooks solution from xTuple.org without charge and get a fully functioning ERP solution. In comparison, here are the features you get if you purchase one of the other editions:

 

xTuple's ERP Package Comparison

Feature

PostBooks

Standard

Manufacturing

 

Database Reporting

*

*

*

 

International Language Packs

*

*

*

 

Contacts

*

*

*

 

Opportunities

*

*

*

 

Incidents/Trouble Tickets

*

*

*

 

ToDo's/Tasks

*

*

*

 

Quotes

*

*

*

 

Sales Orders

*

*

*

 

Accounts Receivable

*

*

*

 

Purchase Orders

*

*

*

 

Accounts Payable

*

*

*

 

General Ledger

*

*

*

 

Shipping/Receiving

*

*

*

 

Inventory (Single Warehouse)

*

*

*

 

Item Master Information

*

*

*

 

Bills of Materials (BOM)

*

*

*

 

Work Orders

*

*

*

 

Project Management

*

*

*

 

Multi-Currency

*

*

*

 

Financial Reporting

*

*

*

 

Multi-Locations in Warehouse

*

*

*

 

Assemble-to-Order Configurator

*

*

*

 

Kitting

*

*

*

 

Multi-Company Financial Consolidation

 

*

*

 

Batch Manager

 

*

*

 

Emailing Documents/EDI

 

*

*

 

Multi-Warehouse Inventory

 

*

*

 

Warehouse Transfer Orders

 

*

*

 

Lot/Serial Control

 

*

*

 

Item Transformations

 

*

*

 

Returns/Service

 

*

*

 

Revision Control

 

*

*

 

Sales Order Reservations

 

*

*

 

Drop-Ship

 

*

*

 

Consolidated Shipping by Customer

 

*

*

 

Requirements Planning (DRP/MRP)

 

*

*

 

Multi-Level MRP

 

 

*

 

Master Production Schedule (MPS)

 

 

*

 

Bills of Operations (BOO)

 

 

*

 

Breeder BOMs/Process Mfg.

 

 

*

 

Capacity Planning

 

 

*

 

Lean/Constraint Management

 

 

*

 

 

 

If you want to move into the Standard or Enterprise editions, you have to look at their per-user pricing models and see what features you get with each. A little quick math tells you that if you have 150 users, you have to pay $45,000 per year to operate the software.

 

Comparing Edition Costs

Users

 

 

Standard Edition Cost per Year

 

Manufacturing Edition Cost per Year

 

5-19

$800

$1000

20-29

$720

$900

30-49

$640

$800

50-74

$560

$700

75+

$560

$600

 

Aberdeen Group reviewed some of the heavy hitters in the ERP industry. You can see how they compare in terms of cost per user/year in their report.

 

For implementation consulting, xTuple's fees are charged at a rate of $250 per hour, $1,800 per day, or $17,000 and $55,000 for blocks of 12 or 40 days, respectively. General production support costs are not published on xTuple's Web site, but the company states that the cost depends on the number of users and the xTuple edition purchased.

 

All in all, xTuple looks like it gives you good bang for the buck. Now, to be fair and not mislead anyone, I haven't downloaded or evaluated the software as a critic. For the functions provided, and assuming they work well, it looks like you get a good set of tools for the cost. You'll have to get an opinion of someone who's running xTuple to get a product quality endorsement.

 

Some other notable open-source ERP products are WebERP, BlueERP, and Compiere.

Open-Source ERP for IBM i with RPG?

I searched far and wide for a major open-source ERP solution written specifically for IBM i but couldn't find one. There are OSS ERP solutions that do run on IBM i—however, not in the traditional sense. By "traditional," I mean languages like RPG and COBOL.

 

Solutions like xTuple, which looks like a great product, are written in languages like PHP and can run in a Linux partition carved out on your IBM i. Maybe I'm thinking like an old-school, 31-year-old systems analyst who still calls the IBM i an AS/400. If I'm running a full solution on IBM i, I'd want it built in RPG and DB2 because of the rock-solid track record and continuous development of the language and because the wealth of development knowledge already in place avoids a major re-investment in new skills. If I didn't care about stability, reliability, and near 100% uptime, I'd run an ERP on another platform and recommend hiring more staff to deal with added support and maintenance needs.

 

I've used and abused many SMB-based ERP, payroll, and CRM solutions for IBM i, and the source code has always been there. You buy the software and get the source code. When you get into the large products, you find that you pay extra for the source code or don't get the source code at all.

 

Technically, I have "open source" software on my IBM i right now. I can copy a vendor's RPGLE source to a custom library, make changes to fit what the business needs, and compile the program, and the users are off to the races. I can access and bounce ideas off a community of developers that do the same. Furthermore, most vendors I've worked with will give you a lot of help in understanding the inner workings of the software because they want a happy customer. Of course, if a solution requires a few hours of their time, then you're sure to pay for that time.

 

Will there ever be a true and relevant OSS ERP solution built with RPG? It's possible, but the IBM i isn't something that the average programmer can spend $499 on at Best Buy. The lowest-end model you can purchase (a model 520 Express with V6R1, software maintenance, and user licensing for 20 people) runs at around $16,000. Then you need to buy WebSphere in order to get your RPG compilers. It's easy to get a laptop and start writing software on it with PHP; however, if you have access to an IBM i at work, chances are any RPG development you do is to benefit your company, not the masses. Companies probably don't want their programmers spending expensive system processing time for the greater good of the open-source community.

 

However, if a business were to adopt a model similar to some of these previously mentioned OSS ERP companies to build a basic RPG-based solution for free but offer expanded solutions (Standard and Enterprise) and multi-tiered support levels, the product could be marketed as a very viable solution. In fact, I'll bet the IBM i enthusiasts out there would embrace it very strongly. I know that I would contribute.

 

Right now, many IBM i enthusiasts provide free open-source solutions, mostly in the category of utilities. People like Scott Klement and Aaron Bartell have a number of tools available. Also, the Open Source for i and Young i Professionals Web sites are great resources as well.

Free or Not to Free?

In the end, if your business needs an ERP solution, will you get one for free? Absolutely…but it may very well cost you. A business will have to analyze how much time, money, and resources it will take to get a solution it can live and grow with for years to come. Does that mean open source? Does that mean guaranteed contractual support from a vendor or support from your IT staff and a community? The product has to fit your business first and foremost. The other questions are a matter of how much your company is willing to risk and what they're willing to spend.

 

 

Steve Pitcher
Steve Pitcher works with iTech Solutions, an IBM Premier Business Partner. He is a specialist in IBM i and IBM Power Systems solutions since 2001. Feel free to contact him directly atspitcher@itechsol.com.
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    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.