3B Aims to Break Barriers with its ‘unERP’
September 22, 2009 Alex Woodie
3B Dataservices, an IBM business partner in Eastern Canada, is stirring up the ERP pot these days by claiming that its software for enterprise application for small and mid size businesses in the light manufacturing, distribution, and construction industries, called iNfinite Answers, is the world’s first “unERP” application. So what makes an unERP? According to the folks at 3B Dataservices, it’s all about radically simplifying the database design.
According to Rob Bunn, a principle at 3B Dataservices, the company started designing the framework for iNfinite Answers more than 15 years ago with the goal of eliminating elements that traditionally have made enterprise applications bloated and a bear to maintain.
“When we first sat down to work on this in 1993, we said we wanted to build a system that works the way a system should work,” Bunn says. “We figured out the things that were wrong with systems of the day, and then said ‘let’s eliminate them.'” What it boiled down to was the fact that everything should be in one file, Bunn says.
“The data should be easy to get at, and it should be instantaneous. To make everything instantaneous we never throw anything away. To make it easy to get at, we removed all the menus,” he says. As a result, users can get by with a very few number of screens (either 5250 or GUI via IBM’s WebFacing), and make extensive use of the function key commands that 3B Dataservices has built into the product.
The software was actually designed for the day when everything is run in memory, Bunn says. “But it’s not just a mater of throwing all your records in a single database,” he says. “You have to know how to manage those records.” That capability to efficiently manage a large number of records without requiring extensive maintenance routines is the “secret sauce” that makes iNfinite Answers unique, Bunn says.
Putting all of an ERP system’s transactions into a single file not only speeds up I/O, but it also helps to avoid all the messy database integration issues plaguing its bigger, modularized competitors. The beauty of this approach is that all of the product’s core functionality–whether it’s categorized as a supply chain management or human resources or inventory control routine–is already loaded in the customer’s database, and is just waiting for the customer to start using it. “So when you want to add what you would normally call a new module, you don’t add a new module at all, you just activate more functionality,” Bunn says.
Bunn estimates that putting everything into one file allows iNfinite Answers to get by with 80 percent fewer programs, which saves money by being easier to learn and maintain on an on-going basis. “It’s very simplified to the point that it doesn’t take a lot of accounting or computing knowledge to run it,” he says.
So far, the software has been implemented by a handful of small businesses, and is targeted mainly at the light manufacturing, distribution, and construction industries. Bunn estimates an installation can be accomplished in as little as two to three days–much quicker than the months-long implementation of bigger and well-known ERP applications.
So if the single-database approach is so much more efficient, why haven’t the big ERP vendors, like SAP and Oracle, tried to implement it? Actually, some of them have, Bunn says. But they gave up because it would have been too expensive for such large companies, with sprawling ERP products, to retrofit their code for the single-database approach after the fact.
“We figured out how to make it better before writing a line of code,” Bunn says. “And because it’s such a small shop, we can do it. It’s a lot easier to do this with a small number of people than a large crowd.”
But there are drawbacks to this approach. For starters, data has to be validated at input, because there isn’t a series of programs performing batch updates and overseeing data. Allowing bad data into the database would cause trouble (as it would for any ERP system), so the software performs data validation when a user inputs it into the system.
“What we have is structured data workflows. No data cleansing is required, and no data de-duplication is required, which means we’re 10 years ahead of everybody else,” Bunn says. “It’s going to take a minimum of 10 years to catch up. Why haven’t they done it? It’s expensive and it’s not easy to do. It takes a lot of thinking.”
3B Dataservices, which is based in Saint John, New Brunswick, is now looking to drum up interest in its software. Calling it an “unERP” may be a good way to do this. “We’re sitting here in Eastern Canada, we have something that we know is unique in terms of how it works and how smooth it runs, and we have to get out to market,” Bunn says.
Implementation fees for iNfinite Answers start at about $15,000, with a $3,500 per user license fee. The company also hosts implementations for customers as an application service provider. For more information, visit the company’s Web site at www.infiniteanswers.ca.
This article was corrected to reflect 3B Dataservices’ correct Web site address.