Infor Commits Itself to Microsoft and Windows Technologies
June 28, 2010 Alex Woodie
Infor made a surprising move last week when it announced an alliance with Microsoft that makes Windows and SQL Server the preferred stack for running Infor applications. While BPCS, MAPICS, and the rest of Infor’s RPG-based applications will stay put on IBM‘s “i” and DB2/400 platform, Infor will be pushing to surround these products with Windows-based interfaces, portals, BI tools, and a new business performance management (BPM) application called ION, which was also unveiled last week. It’s a gamble that could pay off for Infor.
As far as partnerships go, the one between Infor and IBM appears to remain solid. After all, with about 16,000 customers running System i-based applications, a large contingent of Infor’s 70,000-strong customer base is deeply committed to IBM systems and software. While the remainder runs Infor software on a mix of Windows, Unix, Linux, and mainframe systems, there is an indelible connection between Big Blue and the world’s third largest ERP vendor.
IBM remains one of Infor’s three “strategic alliance partners.” But with last week’s announcement, Infor now clearly likes its strategic alliance partner from Redmond, Washington, just a little bit more. (Progess Software, whose programming tools are favored by Infor service oriented architecture (SOA) developers, is the third strategic alliance partner.)
From this point forward, the Microsoft stack–which includes Windows Server, SQL Server and related BI tools, and SharePoint Server–are the “preferred” deployment platforms for Infor applications. By “preferred,” Infor means that it will sell a complete pre-integrated package that combines its open systems ERP products, such as Baan and Syteline, on the Microsoft stack. It doesn’t mean that Infor customers can’t choose operating systems and databases from IBM or Oracle . But it does mean that customers will have to spend a little more time and money to use those infrastructure components instead of the Windows stack.
Infor based its decision on which stack it felt was more economical and easy to use, says Massimo Capoccia, director of product management for technology at Infor. “We see the Microsoft stack and tools being more productive and lightweight,” Capoccia tells IT Jungle. “We do have partnership with IBM on WebSphere. Absolutely that stays. But you will see Infor moving more to deliver more….solutions that work out of the box on the Microsoft stack.”
This is something of a blow to IBM and its products. At the top of the list are WebSphere, including the portal and MQ products, and Cognos, which Infor previously OEMed from IBM and re-sold to its customer base. A little further down the list are architectural elements like DB2, AIX, and Linux. Infor won’t cease to support its products on them. But it’s clear that Infor feels its customers are better served by running Windows Server, SQL Server, and the rest of the Microsoft stack.
Pillars of Windows
Infor is currently working on several Windows-related projects, or four “pillars,” as the company says. This includes Web portals (SharePoint); user interfaces and single sign-on (Silverlight and Active Directory); and application integration and BPM (the new ION product described below).
Infor will outfit its new SharePoint-based portal with new user interfaces developed in Silverlight, Microsoft’s equivalent to Adobe Flash. Infor says creating new interfaces for existing ERP applications in Silverlight will provide a richer user experience than the current interfaces can deliver.
While it wasn’t one of the pillars, Infor also plans on using SQL Server as the underlying platform upon which it will build new BI applications (ostensibly named Infor BI) that are highly tailored to Infor’s products and target industries. On top of the foundation of SQL Server and the Reporting Services and Analysis Services products, Infor will create application- and industry-specific BI content in the form of reports, scorecards, key performance indicators (KPIs), and alerts. Many of these BI interfaces will be delivered and consumed via the SharePoint portal technology.
Of all the new Microsoft technologies Infor has committed to, the new SQL Server-based BI offering will bring the biggest benefit to Infor’s System i customers, Capoccia says.
“Microsoft delivers great tools to be very productive,” he says. “When it comes to reporting and charting and business intelligence, that is where we have made a conscious decision to use the Microsoft tools to be productive and deliver a lot of templates and content out of the box. I think System i customer will be very acceptable to adopt [the Infor BI solution] as an add-on to their operational ERP.”
Last but not least is ION, a new Java-based product that Infor plans to deliver in the fourth quarter.
One ION, Many Uses
Infor describes its new ION product as a BPM product, but it really goes far beyond that and touches on a range of IT disciplines, including messaging, workflow, document routing, enterprise application integration (EAI), enterprise service bus (ESB), extract transform and load (ETL), and elements of BI.
In its simplest configuration, ION will be used to route documents among various Infor ERP, CRM, and WMS products. If an order is created in Infor XA (MAPICS), for example, ION will function as the go-between, and route the transaction into the WMS system to initiate the delivery. Infor is using Silverlight to develop a graphical workflow modeler for ION, and the actual document interfaces will be based on Open Applications Group Integration Specification (OAGIS), an XML-based document standard developed by Open Applications Group. Infor products will be pre-configured to connect to ION through the Open SOA interfaces the company has enabled for some (if not most) of its products.
“With ION, you can connect directly to SOA applications, or connect to WebSphere or even Microsoft BizTalk,” Capoccia says. “You can see ION as the universal Infor adapter that takes your application–it doesn’t matter which platform it runs on–to talk to any middleware or any other application.”
Along the way, ION will do some other neat things. For starters, since ION becomes the new hub for transactional data, companies will be able to get real-time views into business activity. ION will allow users to tap into their transactions to get alerts if, say, an order has been cancelled or a very large order has been placed. These are types of events that businesses are demanding to know about, but which can be difficult to detect when silos of data exist in separate ERP, CRM, and WMS systems.
ION will also function as a sort of real-time ETL product, ferrying data into a separate BI repository, where it can be analyzed. With data latencies measured in the milliseconds, this will help to solve the BI problem of stale data, Capoccia says. “If I run a report, that report is built on old data that I synchronized last night with an ETL product, or last week. It’s not really good data,” he says. “Now that we’re automatically publishing data to other systems, I grab that data, and put a copy into this centralized data set. Therefore, when I run a report, it’s real-time data.”
Interestingly, Infor selected Java to build ION, which will allow it to run on any platform, including the System i. Infor also plans to support the Oracle database in addition to SQL Server for the data repository component of ION–but not DB2 Louise (short for Linux, Unix, and Windows) or DB2/400–according to Capoccia. Infor recommends running the ION workflow application and the data repository on separate servers. Neither product will require a very hefty server (less than $10,000 for an appropriate configuration, Capoccia says), thereby minimizing customers’ costs and complexity.
In the end analysis, Infor is taking a bit of a gamble by moving toward Microsoft and Windows. The world’s largest privately held software company is betting that developing new products on Windows will make it easier and cheaper for customers to configure, deploy, and use them. It’s not a bad bet, considering the huge momentum behind Windows and the familiarity that hundreds of millions of people have with the Microsoft products.
And considering that 80 percent of Infor’s customers are small and mid-sized businesses–and that 90 to 95 percent of Infor’s customers are already heavily invested in Windows Server–it’s not a surprise that there is some pushback against IBM WebSphere and Cognos products, which were primarily designed for larger businesses and can be overkill for an SMB.
The gamble for Infor then becomes one of differentiation. If Infor is one of hundreds of vendors writing applications that run on Windows, how does it stand out from the crowd? Readers of this newsletter know that Infor has made solid commitments over the last couple of years to continue supporting the i/OS platform, which is as reliable as it misunderstood. One can certainly see the business logic of siding with Microsoft, even if one hoped Infor would have found a way to invest more in System i technologies and make them more relevant to today’s SMB.