In our fast-evolving world one constant remains: change. There is an unprecedented pace of change to business models in order to adapt to the ever-increasing competition and ever-changing customer demands that face them. Social media has disrupted the standard business models in ways we could not have imagined ten years ago. Companies like Uber or Netflix have come to the fore thanks to cloud technology and have presented challenges to traditional models in their respective domains.

So where does that leave business applications? One of the biggest threats a CIO faces to their systems today is obsolescence. This particularly applies to company-wide finance and supply chain management applications that are too complex to update on a regular basis. The traditional model for these monolithic enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems is a one-off installation with a view to an upgrade every five to ten years.

Forget what might be said about upgrade packages and migration tools: once you have tailored the system to your precise business requirements, moving those custom changes to a new major version usually requires a high degree of rework to fit whatever new functional model has been released in that version of the application.

Microsoft started to think about this traditional model many years ago with a view to changing the way they went about delivering business management applications. Microsoft Dynamics CRM is now a cloud-enabled application that is updated twice yearly. Although a CIO can still install the on-premise versions, by using Dynamics CRM Online they retain the ability to upgrade on a regular basis, and so benefit from important new functionality, for example the additions to social engagement and marketing in the 2016 spring wave.

 

How to de-risk business applications

Supply chain applications can be a risky business. When shipping products to your customers you have to be sure to get the right things out the door in a timely fashion, with the correct documentation and electronic confirmation to boot. The trucks won’t wait.

Because of the complex and critical nature of your systems, upgrading becomes an exercise in risk management. Extended testing and upgrade processes may demand anything from 1 to3 months to a year to complete depending upon the degree of customisation that has been put into place.

When Microsoft decided four years ago to deliver the newest version of the Dynamics AX business management application as service in the Microsoft cloud, they also planned and delivered the tools to handle continuous upgrade. The bottom line: don’t get stuck in the past.

What is apparent to me from almost 20 years of working with ERPs, is that custom changes to the standard solution to tailor them to business processes are the single biggest hindrance to upgrading the application.

Two major issues were addressed by Microsoft to counter this threat:

  • Upgrading a customer’s live environment on a regular basis requires that a company’s business-critical processes be rigorously tested before deploying upgrades to the live environment.
  • Any customisations should be identifiable and reversible.

 

The new approach to business applications

Four years down the line and the new Microsoft Dynamics AX has been released to a fanfare of critical acclaim.

The AX technical framework has been entirely rewritten, and delivers a new modern user interface that can be visualised using a simple internet browser on any device, and simplifying the initial deployment and removing that part of the upgrade story. That new framework is based on the Microsoft Cloud’s Azure stack technology, which will also be made available for on-premise installation in the forthcoming Windows 2016 release. Dynamics AX will then be deployable either on customer sites or in private hosting datacentres exactly as it is in Microsoft’s own data centres in the SaaS version.

Microsoft Dynamics AX is delivered with a management portal called Dynamics Lifecycle Services (LCS). It provides the tools that are needed to run the solution, leveraging existing Azure deployment and monitoring tools. These allow an administrator to regulate the application and identify and streamline the application’s processes.

But Lifecycle Services goes beyond the daily maintenance of the solution, and delivers a suite of management tools that allow predictable deployment and testing of environments, that can be scripted and replayed at the press of a button.

Testing is built into Dynamics AX through the Task Recorder, which allows an application user to record their daily processes as they perform them, and have them played back as test scripts. These reusable tests eliminate the months of user testing normally associated with a new version and open the door to frequent upgrade.

Microsoft Dynamics AX also introduces plug-in extension points to allow solution customisation without overwriting the standard solution. Everything can be extended, right down to a new field in the database. When Microsoft delivers upgrades, you no longer need to rewrite custom code.

Upgrade is simplified; Lifecycle Services breathes continuous life into your application.

 

To find out more about enabling change in your organisation, contact us at Professional Advantage for a discussion about how Microsoft Dynamics AX can move with your business.

 

You can read more about Professional Advantage and Microsoft Dynamics AX here.

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