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Microsoft Firms Up Business Solutions Strategy

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This summer, I have devoted several articles to the next-generation applications that are being developed by Oracle, SAP, Lawson, and other solution providers. However, another vendor is developing next-generation applications that IT customers cannot afford to ignore. That vendor is Microsoft, and its strategy could significantly increase the number of medium-size businesses and iSeries users that consider the vendor's applications.

Among enterprise application vendors, Microsoft is a young but powerful upstart. The company entered the field in 2000 when it acquired Great Plains, a vendor of Windows-based business solutions. In doing so, Microsoft also acquired the financial applications of Solomon Software, a vendor that had merged with Great Plains earlier in the year. In 2002, Microsoft opened its checkbook again to buy Navision, a European-based vendor with its own stable of Windows-based products. These included its flagship Navision products as well as Axapta, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) package that is optimized for manufacturers.

Today, Microsoft's Business Solutions (MBS) group manages these product lines as well as the company's customer relationship management product, Microsoft CRM. Though all of the products rely on Microsoft technologies, they differ from each other in many respects. While some applications make extensive use of the vendor's .NET Framework, others are filled with objects developed to Microsoft's older Component Object Model (COM) standard. Some applications can be accessed through Office applications or Web browsers; others limit access to their own interfaces. Each product line also varies in its support for Microsoft middleware products such as BizTalk Server and SharePoint Portal Server. Moreover, each product line duplicates many of the functions in other lines.

To address these differences and duplications, Microsoft has a long-term plan known as Project Green that will converge all of its business applications into a single solution suite. However, before the convergence takes place, the software giant will first get the individual product lines running on the same release of the .NET Framework. As part of the effort, Microsoft will decompose all of the applications into Web Services. In addition, it will give each product line a common Web interface and workflow engine based on SharePoint Portal Server. Through the portal, Microsoft will customize the experience of each user based on his or her role in the organization. Users can expect portals for around 50 common roles in areas such as financial administration, operations, customer service, sales and marketing, and IT management.

One thing that will distinguish the role-based portals from each other will be the information that they provide to users. In new releases of each product line, Microsoft will increasingly use embedded analytics to provide users with role-sensitive key performance indicators (KPIs). These KPIs will be provided via built-in "analytical cubes" generated by the underlying SQL Server databases.

In addition, each role-based portal will provide integration points between the business applications and current releases of Microsoft Office. This will enable users to work with operational data in Excel spreadsheets, send KPI reports to each other via Outlook, or incorporate components of Office applications into business applications. As a result, new releases of MBS products will integrate with Office in much the same way as SAP applications will integrate with Office through SAP's Project Mendocino. However, integration levels between MBS applications and Office will be tighter and more robust.

Microsoft plans to make the above enhancements to its existing business solutions over the next three years. This means that Microsoft will ship multiple major releases for each product line through 2007. In 2008, the vendor plans to start taking best of breed functions from each product line and integrating them to create a converged application suite. Because the new suite and the current product lines will both consist of Web services, it is likely that customers will be able to intermix elements of the new suite with their existing applications. This should help customers to preserve their investments in these systems. In addition, Microsoft is pledging to support the current product lines until at least 2013 and offer five years of mainstream support for major releases of each line.

Is It Good to Be Green?

While most iSeries customers are not current users of Microsoft's enterprise applications, chances are good that many of them will become so through mergers or acquisitions. Since more than 70,000 companies use MBS solutions on a worldwide basis, there is rarely a day when one of them is not being bought or sold. As such, your company could find itself united with one of these firms sooner or later. If that happens, what should you do?

When iSeries customers ask me this question (normally with the assumption that I will recommend they scrap the MBS products), my first response is to ask them, "Are both your iSeries and MBS applications doing good jobs of supporting your operations?" If they are--and if running applications on two operating environments is not seriously limiting the customer's ability to integrate its business operations--I usually recommend keeping all of the applications in place for now.

When I say "for now," I do so for a good reason. Over the next several years, application vendors and their customers will go through a major transition to solutions based on Service-Oriented Architectures (SOAs). This transition will be as disruptive an event as was the transition from batch-oriented, terminal-based applications to client/server computing. In that transition, many vendors that were leaders in the previous software generation became relics in the new one. I fully expect that the same thing will happen in the transition to SOAs.

As such, now is not the time for companies to be making big bets on one application vendor over another. That includes decisions to consolidate on a single vendor. After all, who can predict whether that vendor will successfully manage the SOA transition during the second half of this decade? Of course, if a vendor's applications are currently doing a poor job of supporting business processes, affected companies should consider alternatives. However, if that is not the case, it often makes sense to keep current software in place. That allows companies to wait and see which vendors will emerge with the most viable next-generation applications that meet their requirements.

This does not mean that iSeries users should sit on their hands and wait to see how the SOA wars play out. Now is a good time to gain experience working with Web Services technologies in projects that can yield an immediate return. It is also a good time to learn SOA concepts and consider how to apply them to business problems. By doing so, you will equip yourself with the intelligence you need to capitalize on SOAs when they become viable vendor offerings. And believe me, there is no question that SOAs will become viable. It is only a matter of time.

Lee Kroon is a Senior Industry Analyst for Andrews Consulting Group, a firm that helps mid-sized companies manage business transformation through technology. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

LEE KROON
Lee Kroon is a Senior Industry Analyst for Andrews Consulting Group, a firm that helps mid-sized companies manage business transformation through technology.
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