Functionality Trumps Glitz in ERP Decision
November 1, 2017 Alex Woodie
What do you look for in a new ERP system? For the folks at Veterinary Purchasing Company, which is transitioning away from its homegrown S/36-era ERP system, the decision came down to a preference for proven substance over hollow glamor.
Veterinary Purchasing Company is a member-owned company that was founded in 1972 by a group of veterinarians who wanted to increase their purchasing power by buying in bulk on the wholesale market. The company, which employs about 210 people at its headquarters in St Mary, Ontario, also sells to non-shareholder vets and animal hospitals across Canada.
In the mid-1970s, VP built its own RPG-based inventory and warehouse management system and ran it on an IBM System/34. At some point along the way, the company migrated its applications to a System/36, where it stayed for the better part of four decades.
Because it passed all of its profits on to its shareholder clients, the company had somewhat different needs than the average midmarket wholesale distributor. To that end, the company developed its own unique processes, including a customer service module that tracked how well the company was
However, the S/36-era software as a whole was beginning to show its age, and the lack of functionality, like EDI and advanced Web service capabilities, were seen as liabilities that were holding the company back. When it set out to implement a financial reporting package based on IBM’s Cognos software, the cracks in the foundation were finally exposed.
“This is where you find out how good your system really is,” says Sherri Patterson, who heads the ERP transition team for VP. “They realized they had some data issues. And when they got to the bottom of it, they realized the whole premise of the system that was built before was for input, not output. It hadn’t been looked at in that detail before, and they realized their data wasn’t clean enough to report on the way they wanted.”
At that point, the decision was made to scrap the entire ERP system and start from scratch. The company brought in Patterson, who has decades of experience implementing data management and BI systems on mainframes, Linux, and Windows, to define the requirements and drive the search.
What was not up for debate was that the company had to move forward. “Our inventory control system was essentially broken. It had been changed too much. And that’s sort of the heart of the business, so we needed a new one,” she says. “We could have retrofitted something in there. . . . But because it was still in S/36 code, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to do that. We needed to get past S/36, I guess.”
Because of her background, Patterson pushed for a packaged ERP applications running on a more “modern” platform like Linux, Windows, or even the cloud. “My goal was to get them off the IBM platform. Their goal was to stay on IBM. And we approached it from that standpoint,” she tells IT Jungle. “I was playing devil’s advocate.”
The core requirements of the new ERP were pretty standard for a midsize distributor that needed a strong general ledger and inventory and warehouse management functionality. The one exception was the need for additional reporting capabilities that come with handling of controlled substances, such as narcotics, which it distributes to veterinary clients.
With that requirement in mind, Patterson cast her net out far and wide. She briefly considered the enterprise offerings from the ERP big dogs, SAP and Oracle, but quickly dismissed them. “I don’t know about you, but every SAP implementation I’ve heard of did not go well,” she says. “Everybody says the same thing: It was too much functionality. They didn’t know what to do with it.”
She also looked at Oracle’s cloud offering, and was initially impressed with the functionality. “It was pretty cool,” she says. However, when she peaked beneath the glitzy user interface, she didn’t see much substance. “It didn’t seem like it was done. They were pushing it, but it wasn’t finished yet.”
Patterson investigated several other Windows-based offerings, but was scared off by stories of low reliability and constant fiddling. “We were talking to other companies across Canada who are doing logistics in a similar model to us, one of them decided to use Windows,” she says. “I said, ‘Well how many servers do you have to keep up 99 percent uptime?’ They said six. I said, holy crap! We have one. Power is hands-off. We have 99.9 percent uptime with very little effort. We took that and said, maybe this is where we want to be.”
Back in the IBM i Saddle
It wasn’t until a headhunting firm recommended that she look at the IBM i-based ERP system from VAI that she found something that was a good fit. While she was initially reluctant to keep her company on the IBM i platform, she acknowledges that it’s probably the best decision.
The decision was made to implement version 6 of the company’s flagship ERP system, called Enterprise S2K Enterprise. The process of implementing the system is ongoing, with a go-live data of June 30, 2018, circled on the calendar.
Patterson admits she has mixed feelings about going back to the ‘400. “The green screen still shows through, if you know what I mean. You can still see the influence there with everything VAI has,” she says. “But I know what it is. It’s a little clunky, but it works.”
VAI more than makes up for the lack of glitz by getting the basics right, Patterson says. “When we talk about new technology, we want it to be fluid and wonderful and seamless and streamlined. But at what expense? I know the bones of VAI’s product are good. I know they’re solid and I know I can work with that. Over time we can make it look cooler. But you can’t fix functionality if it’s not right.