Oracle Declares a ‘Renaissance’ for J.D. Edwards World
April 17, 2007 Alex Woodie
For years, J.D. Edwards World was the best-selling ERP system for the AS/400, the gold standard of the platform IBM built specifically to run business applications. Then Y2K hit, IT spending tanked, and J.D. Edwards landed in the hands of competitor Oracle, leading people to wonder if the end of World was near. While it won’t likely regain its seat at the head of the class, Oracle took steps this week with the delivery of World A9.1 to infuse new life into the aging application and reward loyal users with much-needed new capabilities.
The roots of J.D. Edwards World go back into the 1970s, before the AS/400 was invented, when writing tight, efficient RPG code was critical for maximizing the use of expensive IBM S/34-36-38 minicomputers. Over the years, thousands of organizations ran their businesses on World’s ERP modules, including payroll, general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and many others. For many of these companies, the combination of World and IBM hardware provided a trustworthy platform that performed exactly what they needed, and nothing more. In fact, many of these companies are still running World on AS/400s and S/38s that are a decade or two old, a testament to the longevity of good design.
But times have changed. While the application continues providing value to the 3,000 or so companies that are using the software, and it is as rock-solid as ever, there’s no denying that the RPG-based program had been getting a bit long in the tooth. With its green-screen interfaces, the World-System i combination did not look like what CIOs expect a new ERP system should look like on the outside. (It’s tough to see inside of an ERP system, where it really counts.) Oracle doesn’t break out its sales figures for applications, but if new licenses for World were a hot item, we’d be hearing about it. For all intents and purposes, World has been in maintenance mode.
But that doesn’t mean Oracle’s World development team in Denver, Colorado, has nothing left to offer. As it has shown with the release of World A9.1, there is a lot Oracle can do–indeed, a lot that it has done–to bring World forward into the 21st century. That’s why Oracle has dubbed A9.1, which brings 1,250 enhancements, the “Renaissance” release.
The list of features with A9.1 is impressive: a new Java interface, to complement the green-screen interface that will never go away; a new service oriented architecture (SOA) framework and the exposure of 50 World processes as Web services; closer integration with e-mail, spreadsheets, and Web-based documents; a new Service and Warranty Management module; new lot management and quality management capabilities; new Kanban functionality; and new tools for simplifying and speeding upgrades.
Whether the Renaissance release can spur a revival in license growth has yet to be seen. What’s more certain is A9.1 will bring needed functionality to existing World users around the globe.
New User Interface
In designing World A9.1, Oracle paid special attention to how its J.D. Edwards users actually worked, says John Schiff, general manager of Oracle’s J.D. Edwards World business unit. “We took time to focus on where customers use the software from a user and broader application perspective,” he says.
What Oracle discovered is that people are using a lot of e-mail, spreadsheets, and the Web to do their jobs these days. “We work in a world in which we have pervasive use of e-mail, in which we have pervasive browser links to documents, in which we have pervasive use of spreadsheets,” he says. “So how can we make that whole user experience more powerful and easy to use and give them more functionality that wasn’t envisaged when World was first designed?”
Oracle used that feedback to redesign World’s interface, including the delivery of a new Java-based interface, using Seagull Software‘s LegaSuite (formerly JWalk) modernization tool, that delivers a “crisp look and feel” and basically replaces the old Web interface, Schiff says.
With the new release, users can click on names in the address book, and an e-mail will be automatically generated in the user’s e-mail client of choice, be it Outlook or Notes. Oracle has also given users more control and support for importing and exporting data between World and spreadsheets.
A9.1 also brings users the capability to attach document links directly to transactions, enabling users to automatically attach documents, spreadsheets, Web pages, pictures, and other browser-accessible files to their transactions. This capability requires i5/OS V5R3 or V5R4, and is available in both the Web interface and the 5250 interface. (“The heads-down users still love the green screen,” Schiff says. “If I was to take that away from them, they wouldn’t be very happy with me.”)
World A9.1 also delivers service oriented architecture enhancements, specifically a Fusion-like SOA framework, and the exposure of about 50 World business processes using Web services standards.
Schiff says World’s new Java-based SOA framework is based on Fusion Middleware, Oracle’s flagship integration server. “We’ve taken part of the Fusion product and concepts and adapted it into the World product,” Schiff says. “We use a Java layer on top of the RPG.” The software will also be certified to work with IBM’s WebSphere Application Server middleware; customers are own their own using other Java-based Web application servers, but they should work, Oracle says in its release notes.
The 50 or so World processes that have been exposed as Web services, which Schiff called “touch points,” should give users a good start to the process of service-enabling World. These touch points, which are exposed using the Web Services Description Language (WSDL) and comply with OAG and WAS industry standards, give developers the capability to perform several functions, including viewing, adding, changing, or deleting information in several key areas of the ERP system, including the address book, the customer master, the supplier master, the item/branch list, the general ledger, fixed assets, and purchase and sales orders, among others. More touch points will be added in the future, Oracle says.
The touch points and SOA framework will improve integration with other Oracle products, as well as with industry-specific applications from third-party vendors, Schiff says. “We’ve put a framework in place that allows customers to, rather than do customize point-to-point integration, use an architecture that flows master data and transactions to and from the system, whether it be applications internally or externally,” he says. “That’s really important where customers are not only looking for applications from one vendor, but from industry specific solutions.”
Security, Accountability, Workflow
One of the areas that World was lagging some of the more modern ERP suites was security. While i5/OS can be one of the most secure operating systems you can buy, the World application sitting above it was not living up to the security requirements put in place following the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act many years ago.
With A9.1, Oracle has begun implementing reports that demonstrate a company is complying with the segregation of duties component of SOX. Oracle says segregation of duties reports will be provided for procure-to-pay and order-to-cash business processes initially, with more coverage expected down the line.
World A9.1 also supports digital signatures, which will help drug makers and other companies that must comply with the Food and Drug Administration’s 21 CFR Part 11 regulation covering electronic record-keeping in the pharmaceutical supply chain.
A new Approvals Management workflow engine will give World shops the capability to implement their own transaction processes. Initially, Approvals Management will only support the World address book, but other modules will be added, Oracle says.
A number of other manufacturing- and distribution-related capabilities, including Kanban manufacturing and cross-docking, have been made available with A9.1 thanks to the unification of the two disparate versions of World: A7.3 and A8.1, the “lost” World. (See PeopleSoft Updates Its Other World for more on the seldom-used A8.1.)
Upgrades Made Easier
Upgrading to A9.1 should be easier for A7.3 and A8.1 users alike as the result of increased automation, as well as a new graphical compare-and-merge tool. Oracle tapped OEM partner Aldon for a graphical compare-and-merge tool, which we just so happened to have covered in this newsletter last week.
The increased automation will pay dividends to LaSalle Bristol, a supplier to the manufactured housing and RV industries. When the Elkhart, Indiana, company upgraded to World A7.3 more than 10 years ago, the upgrade took up the entire weekend and spilled over into Monday, says Michael Caldwell, the company’s vice president of IS. By contrast, when LaSalle Bristol upgraded its test environment to A9.1, it took just eight hours.
“The file conversion was the big thing,” Caldwell says. “The folks in Denver have done a lot of work changing how the file conversion works. There’s a lot more automation. There are six different steps and every one of those steps was made easier.” (LaSalle Bristol will go live on A9.1 when the IT staff gets back from Oracle’s Collaborate ’07 show being held in Las Vegas, Nevada, this week. “We considered [going live sooner], we but didn’t want to leave all the users unattended,” Caldwell says.)
Caldwell likes a lot of what he sees in A9.1, particularly the new Warranty Service Module, and the fields that have been expanded for holding audit data. “LaSalle Bristol is a really good model for an SMB,” Caldwell explains. “We have 200 users in seven locations with a staff of three and myself. We’re not really concerned with high technology. We’re more concerned with solving business problems, and A9.1 does that.”
As a J.D. Edwards customer since 1990, Caldwell has witnessed the company’s highs and lows. “When OneWorld came out, World customers were kind of forgotten about. Then there was the PeopleSoft buyout. Then Oracle came along and bought up the whole shebang, and put a lot of people and resources behind it. We’re where we are now because of Oracle’s commitment,” he says. “We’re pretty tickled.”