HarrisData Continues to Modernize IBM i ERP Suite
October 26, 2010 Alex Woodie
With about 2,500 customers running its IBM i-based ERP suite, HarrisData may be the biggest mid-size software company you have never heard of. In a super-competitive industry that often gets carried away with hype-driven marketing, HarrisData is an anomaly–it doesn’t even post press releases to its website. Despite its low-key approach, the Brookfield, Wisconsin, company is busy these days with the upcoming roll-out of version 5.0 of its ERP suite, which features a new CRM system, real-time analytics, and numerous PHP-driven Web interface enhancements.
HarrisData’s business model represents a pleasant change of pace in a chaotic and cutthroat B2B business IT industry that sees vendors alternatively trying to re-invent one half of themselves while cannibalizing the other half. That isn’t to say that HarrisData is above self-promotion or self-improvement. That’s basic survival. But the customer-focused philosophy at HarrisData–which is evident in its Customer Bill of Rights and its “Omni” license, which gives customers unlimited users, five years of free support and maintenance, and a 10 percent annual maintenance rate after that–does help to keep things simple.
“We have a clear vision: We have to sell software. If we don’t sell software, we don’t make any money,” HarrisData executive vice president Michael Mallen told IT Jungle last week. “We’ve engineered everything around the customer. If something doesn’t work to make the customer do things better, faster, quicker, simpler, we don’t do it.”
Mallen points to two statistics that he says prove the success of this customer-focused development approach. First is the customer renewal rate, at 96 percent. Second is the percentage of customers who are running the latest release of its ERP suite, which is 85 percent. He is not worried that the second number is about to go down significantly with the upcoming launch of HarrisData’s ERP Software version 5 (the company’s product names are just as Midwestern and modest as the company).
The biggest changes in version 5.0 may be the wide adoption of PHP in the software. HarrisData has traditionally developed its software in RPG, but has been moving strongly toward PHP and platform openness in recent years. While customers will not see a big difference in the business logic (which is mostly moved from RPG to PHP at this time), the application’s user interface sees major enhancements with the PHP, especially with version 5.
The addition of new HarrisData “widgets” in version 5 will make customizations much easier, Mallen says. “It basically allows users to customize any pages without programming.” The widgets will also streamline the creation of customized dashboards and other portal screens that display information in customer-defined ways. “That’s the kind of things we’re trying to do–give customers what they need without complex programming.”
The use of AJAX on the Web client interfaces also paves the way for new drill-down and “what if” modeling capabilities in the updated ERP suite. Customers will be able to use the new drill-down feature to troubleshoot problems in their manufacturing or distribution lines by clicking from a high-level view down to see an individual invoice. The what-if function, meanwhile, will allow users to see what happens when they change a shift or increase costs in one area.
Just don’t call it “business intelligence.”
“We don’t use that term,” Mallen says. “We call it ‘real-time information,’ because it’s not historical, but what’s going on right now. You’ll be able to look at that and make decisions. It’s extremely powerful. Normally [this type of capability] is ancillary to the product. But we built it in.”
This release also gets new CRM capabilities. Several years ago HarrisData acquired RTI Software, a Windows-based CRM software developer that is operated as a subsidiary. HarrisData recently adapted the product so it runs off IBM i’s DB2/400 database, thereby giving its ERP customers access to new CRM capabilities without complicating their lives with more Windows servers.
“We got it to run on iSeries,” Mallen says. “We’re using that for manufacturing, warranty service, and for sales force and marketing automation.”
Another new feature of version 5.0 is an integrated product configurator. Companies in industries that deal with complex orders, such as furniture makers, often struggle to deal with the sheer numbers of options available to their customers. HarrisData’s new product configurator helps to simplify these orders and speed up manufacturing by linking directly into the ERP system. It also helps to present the options in an orderly way by linking the configurator to a product catalog.
Mallen says the new product configurator can give American manufacturers an edge over importers who work with overseas manufacturers. Normally a furniture dealer would have to communicate with the factory to see when a custom order could be finished and shipped. But because that information is more readily available to the dealer or manufacturer with the new product configurator, they can outbid overseas competitors. “In some specialty areas, they’re able to beat China because there’s no shipping,” Mallen says. “It’s not sitting in Long Beach in a container somewhere.”
HarrisData’s long-term development plans do not appear overly ambitious, but neither are they unsubstantial. Cloud computing? It launched a software as a service (SaaS) offering last year through a partnership with SunGard. Mobile computing? The client interface already runs on Apple‘s iPhone.
Version 5.0 is undergoing beta tests and will most likely debut in early 2011, before the company’s May user conference in Wisconsin. In anticipation of the country (hopefully) emerging from the Great Recession, HarrisData is beginning to beat the drum and raise some awareness for its software and unique business model.
With most of the business logic having moved to PHP, HarrisData has accomplished what much larger competitors have failed to do: undergone a complete modernization and overhaul. While HarrisData is becoming well positioned to move off the IBM i platform, it has no plans to. After all, the platform has served its customers well for nearly three decades, and today’s Power Systems server is still well tailored for HarrisData’s mid-size customer base.
“We want to appeal to iSeries people. We get annoyed when they say, ‘Let’s look at another platform.’ The iSeries runs circles around anything out there,” Mallen says. “People love the server, for good reason. But the thing they need is an open source application that’s extremely modern, and would be able to integrate with anything that comes up in the future, flawlessly, effortlessly, simply. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what we’re writing.”