Infor Debuts Standardized GUI Based on MS SharePoint
April 5, 2011 Alex Woodie
Infor last week revealed Workspace, its new standard graphical user interface that’s based on Microsoft‘s SharePoint Web portal. Workspace goes beyond pretty pictures by delivering useful features like role-based and workflow-enabled interfaces, “in context” reporting and business intelligence, and real-time collaboration capabilities. The new offering builds on prior Infor investments in Microsoft technology, and will eventually support most of Infor’s ERP systems, including those running on IBM i.
Workspace is a SharePoint application that is available today for several of Infor’s open systems applications, including ERP LN, ERP SyteLine, EAM, FMS SunSystems, and Expense Management. According to Infor, Workspaces will start becoming available to IBM i applications, such as ERP LX (BPCS), ERP XA (MAPICS), and ERP System 21, within the next nine to 12 months.
By making the applications look and behave the same, Infor hopes Workspace will make it easier for companies to train their users to work with new applications. Learning curves and security are also bolstered by offering role-based interfaces that expose only the functions that users need for their particular roles. Infor customers can continue to use their old browser-based interfaces if they choose.
Single-sign on, through integration with Microsoft Active Directory, should make it easier for Workspace users to traverse applications without forcing them to repeatedly log in. In fact, when it’s done right, users won’t even notice when they are leaving an ERP system and accessing a separate expense management system–or even a cloud-based EAM program, Infor’s senior vice president of global product development, S Soma Somasundaram, tells IT Jungle.
“It’s transparent to the user,” he says. “They don’t need to know or care that the application is running outside the four walls of the enterprise.”
Workspace is free to Infor customers on maintenance, and works with newer releases of Infor ERP systems, or those that support Infor’s service oriented architecture (SOA) strategy. Infor’s “Open SOA” is a program whereby business process events within ERP systems are exposed as Open Application Group (OAG)-compliant XML documents. Infor’s new business process management (BPM) tool, called Infor ION, also uses these XML documents to employ “loosely coupled” application integration through its implementation of the open source ActiveMQ message broker.
These XML documents are also the key to enabling the “in context” BI and reporting capabilities in Workspace that Somasundaram claims will make the new UI portal the envy of SAP, Oracle, and every other ERP application developer.
“A lot of application providers offer a common UI and navigation [within a] central portal,” he says. So what is so special about Workspaces? he asks. The “key differentiator,” Somasundaram says, is that these business documents are gathered in what Infor calls a “business vault” that becomes a de facto data mart.
“All of a sudden you now have a rich data repository that can be used for all kinds of reporting,” he says. “Without getting any ETL tools involved, you now have a data mart that you can use for delivering analytics, operational reporting, and dashboards.”
These BI components and reporting elements, delivered as a SharePoint Web Part, will typically be displayed on the right side of the screen. Common visual elements like graphs, charts, and maps will be continually and automatically updated on the Workspace interface in reaction to the latest business events in the business vault.
For example, upon receiving a customer call, the Workspace screen of a customer service representative (CSR) may be updated to reflect relevant information about that customer.
“That’s where the power of the Workspace comes to life,” Somasundaram says. “Now the user, before he picks up the phone, knows who the customer is, what the weather is like there, how much money the customer has spent, what price we charged, the profit margin, and the quantity of product available by warehouse.”
Perhaps the CSR will see that the warehouse has the quantity of product that the customer is seeking, but that it’s allocated to somebody else. The CSR can click another button to initiate a Skype conversation with the inventory controller, provided he or she is signed in and available. Together, the two employees can determine if it makes sense to re-allocate the products to a more profitable and important customer.
Integration with ION, the Java-based BPM and workflow tool, will also bring new efficiencies to Infor customers, Somasundaram says. Items that require approvals, such as expense reports, can be routed by ION, while Workspace streamlines an accounts payable manager’s navigation across the different back-end systems needed to complete the entire expense report business process.
Delivering operational reports via Workspace and SharePoint brings another major benefit to Infor and its customers: elimination of database schema dependencies during ERP upgrades. “Most customers have hundreds of reports, and when you upgrade [the ERP system], all of these reports that rely on the sole system database schema, which may be changed for all the right reasons by the application providers like Infor, of course breaks. So they have to validate to make sure the reports can work, which is a non value-add expense. The business finds it hard to justify.” But because the business vault and the BI capabilities it serves resides separately from the core ERP system, it can be easily upgraded separate from the ERP system without requiring major changes to the underlying database.
Currently, the business vault that stores ERP events as XML documents runs on SQL Server, the Oracle database, and DB2. Eventually this could even run on DB2 on the System i server, Somasundaram says. The company is also looking at running this component on Oracle’s MySQL database.
Infor has already completed the proof of concept for delivering Workspace screens for two IBM i ERP applications, ERP System 21 and ERP XA. Somasundaram doesn’t anticipate a problem delivering Workspace support for IBM i apps. “All of the System i applications are already enabled to publish events. The plumbing work’s already done. We’re looking at probably over the next nine to 12 months, you’ll see us releasing System i product running in Workspace and using ION to do performance management,” he says.
Infor is currently using the foundation version of Microsoft SharePoint, which basically embeds SharePoint functions into the Windows Server OS. In the future, Infor will support the Enterprise version of SharePoint, which offers customers more advanced SharePoint features like Outlook integration and content management. Infor will also be allowing business partners to develop their own Workspace widgets, delivered as SharePoint Web Parts, to provide specific functionality or to further customize the screens for their customers.