Planning a safe journey to ERP in the cloud
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NEW ORLEANS -- Infor users were generally impressed with the new cloud platform and business applications the ERP...
maker announced at its Inforum conference this week. But most are unclear on the timing and details of when their ERP brand will move to the cloud, and they sound nowhere near ready to move with it. Security and control of data remain common concerns.
New York-based Infor yesterday rolled out Infor Xi, an enhancement of the 10x platform it released last year with new HTML5 user interfaces, a social collaboration platform called ming.le, and workflows based on Infor's ION middleware.
In the keynote, CEO Charles Phillips called Infor Xi "a set of functional areas and standards that we've defined as a modern application." He said a fundamental decision was made to run Infor Xi on Amazon Web Services (AWS) so Infor won't have to worry about infrastructure like "cloud 1.0" companies did 15 years ago. "We didn't want to be in the data center business. There's so much infrastructure available at such a cheap price, it makes sense to focus on the application."
Other Infor Xi features include multitenancy, open-source development on the Linux operating system and Postgres database, mobile-first design, and big data and predictive analytics in new applications being developed by a team of Infor data scientists.
In a press release, Infor said it is delivering elements of Infor Xi now and will roll it out across its recently announced CloudSuite industry-specific applications, as well as ERP, CRM and other applications.
Infor this week also released four new cloud applications: CloudSuite Financials, CloudSuite Healthcare, Product Lifecycle Management Innovator for discrete manufacturers, and CloudSuite Business, ERP with streamlined back-office applications for mid-size companies.
Searching for a path to the cloud
Around a dozen Infor users reacted to the cloud pitch with praise for the ambitious vision that Phillips and his team of mostly fellow ex-Oracle executives have brought to a once-moribund collection of aged ERP brands. But few could see a clear path forward for themselves.
"One of the keys for us would be to trust the cloud to have our employee and customer data," said John Remillard, executive director of Manitoba Public Insurance, which has used Infor's S3 financials since 1998 and last year installed Lawson talent management, HR and payroll software. "We have social and public requirements for protecting data," he said. Another issue is whether the cloud data centers will be in the U.S., where the Patriot Act allows the FBI to subpoena information.
Remillard also wondered if enough stakeholders in his organization could conform to the "no modifications" ethic of software as a service, a refrain heard among the early adopters that Infor showed off at the conference.
Weaning users off their favorite customizations was a question on the mind of Richard Calder, IT director at UK-based Reynolds Catering Supplies Ltd., which installed Infor M3 in 2010, replacing a legacy system that stymied growth. Calder said 2015 will be the time to start considering the Infor cloud, adding "can we do without the three or four mods that we did have?"
The cloud specifications in Infor Xi sounded too restrictive to Jukka Maki, senior ERP specialist at Tieto Finland Oy, a Finnish hosting provider for the Infor ERP products Baan 4 and its renamed successor, LN, as well as suites from SAP and others.
"If you are running Oracle or something else, you have to change databases," he said, referring to the SQL-based Postgres in Xi. Other users he heard at an Inforum session said it will be years before most people move to the cloud. "I haven’t heard of any customers [using it]," Maki said, adding that the platform seems immature.
Xi's sleek social media-style screens and predictive analytics dashboards might seem especially far off to companies that haven't recently upgraded their ERP systems, many of which they bought a decade or two ago from a vendor later acquired by Infor. Mingledorff’s Inc., a Norcross, Ga.-based HVAC distributor, is just starting down the path of adopting the Web UI version of its Windows-based SX Enterprise next year, said Development Manager Chris Weaver.
But it has kept up with other Infor developments, Weaver said. It has started using mingl.le and is a heavy user of ION integration and workflows between Infor modules. "We might move our products from the physical infrastructure that we have now – we're using Amazon now [for some customer-facing Web sites]-- but I don't think we would ever be able to run as their cloud service offering because of the modifications that we run. Even in ION we run some modifications that I don’t know it would be capable of doing."
Mingledorff's 300-plus modifications would have to be dealt with first. Infor has begun working with the company to make the portion that are shared with other carrier distributors generic enough to "fit them into standard," Weaver said. Then Mingledorff's will evaluate what to do with the remaining modifications. "We'll do the development for that, hopefully be able to do a lot of it through ION, and then pull the trigger and go to Web. I don’t know on the SX side what the [Infor] plans are for the cloud."
New Infor UI not just skin deep
Some analysts were impressed with Infor's push to develop a modern interface that assists people in everyday work.
"They're building an application approach, not just a look-and-feel approach," said Cindy Jutras, principal of Mint Jutras, a consulting firm based in Windham, N.H. She said Infor's new user-friendly, purpose-built applications could be what finally motivates customers who have been slow to upgrade. "People have lagged because it's been adding marginal value. They have to justify making the step forward," Jutras said. "Let's face it, a lot of Infor's customers aren't in a position to take advantage of a lot of this."
The development work isn't just about having Infor's in-house design studio, Hook and Loop, slap a pretty face on ERP, said Ralph Rio, research director at ARC Advisory Group Inc., based in Dedham, Mass. "They go beyond that and gain an intimate understanding of the business process," Rio said. "What do I enter into the screen, and then what do I need to do next? They get very intimate with the work process so they can make it intuitive and instinctive."
Alexander Drobik, managing vice president of research at the UK wing of Gartner Inc., said Infor has done a good job of making the cloud center stage and playing up its advantage in vertical industries. "What they will need to prove is if they have the right solutions and functional areas, as well as [how to] deploy them," he said.
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