How Infor’s Coleman Strategy Is Evolving, and How IBM i Fits In
November 20, 2019 Alex Woodie
It’s been more than two years since Infor unveiled Coleman, the company’s AI platform which became generally available earlier this year. It’s not on the roadmap for IBM i just yet, according to Infor. That may not sound ideal for Infor’s IBM i customers, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Coleman was unveiled by ERP software giant Infor in 2017 primarily as a digital assistant, which is a fancy way of saying a chatbot. Just as Siri and Alexa can answer questions about the weather or sports, Coleman could answer basic questions about the business, and even handle some tasks autonomously, such as invoice matching (or that was the plan, anyway).
We inquired about the state of Coleman support for IBM i when it was first announced in 2017, and the company told us that Coleman would never run on IBM i because it runs on Amazon Web Services. While IBM i sports a technology independent machine interface that separates the operating system from the underlying hardware, it is very much dependent on IBM Power processors to run, and AWS doesn’t run those kinds of servers (although its competitors Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud soon will).
We asked Infor about it again last year, when it was still in beta, and were told by Infor’s head of IBM i strategy, Ross Freeman, that the AWS dependency for Coleman was not a deal breaker, that a hybrid setup that integrated on premise ERP applications and data with Coleman running in the AWs cloud was in fact feasible. However, Freeman said that Coleman was just not on the roadmap for the IBM i products, at least at the moment.
“We will adopt Coleman as our roadmap permits,” Freeman said, adding that it would probably be 2020 at least before Infor starts selling IBM i ERP software applications that are pre-integrated with Coleman running in the cloud.
When Infor finally announced the general availability of Coleman at its annual Inforum conference last month, we once again inquired with Infor about the plan for getting Coleman capabilities into the hands of Infor’s 10,000-plus IBM i customers.
According to Sarada Vempati, an Infor product director for Coleman provided us with some answers, there is some work that Infor and Infor’s IBM i customers must do before ERP systems like Infor LX, System 21, and XA are working with Coleman.
“Not yet. The IBM i applications have yet to adopt [Coleman],” Vempati said. “They have to go through this stage of adopting data lakes and then they will be able to use it.”
At a technical level, Infor has already done the work to integrate its flagship IBM i applications (i.e. LX, System21, XA, Lawson M3, etc.) with ION, the strategic middleware that allows dozens of ERP systems under Infor’s ownership to work with a small set of add-ons, including the Ming.le user interface and Coleman. ION is the core lynchpin in Infor’s standards-based approach to delivering new functionality to as wide an audience as possible while minimizing cots.
The sticking point is this: While the earlier versions of ION was based on XML, Infor has shifted to using JSON in ION. That was a smart move, since JSON has become the standard data format used on the Web and in AI and ML today. That doesn’t mean that Infor customers are left high and dry with any XML work, but it does present a potential hurdle for moving forward with Infor products in the long term.
According to Vempati, if IBM i shops want to adopt Coleman and other elements of the Coleman OS (operating service), they need to move forward with filling their Infor OS data lake with JSON based data. That includes payload data in JSON, as well as JSON metadata, in the form of business object documents (BODs) that describe how ERP-specific data types are to be translated into the more open format that Coleman and other products require.
“It’s not a major thing,” Vempati said from her Infor office in India. “But it’s something they have to start embarking on.”
So it appears to be true that Infor is not in a rush to embed AI and ML capabilities directly into their IBM i-based ERP systems. This could lead prospective companies that are looking to buy a modern ERP system with embedded AI capabilities to look elsewhere (maybe even Infor’s own CloudSuite).
But the good news is that it’s also not standing in the way of IBM i customers doing this work themselves. Considering the extent to which the typical customer modifies their ERP systems to fit their specific needs on the one hand, and how customized new AI applications are on the other, it’s probably not a bad thing that Infor is not hardwiring Coleman into every function in its IBM i ERP suites.
Vempati pointed out that Infor includes a SQL connector in ION that can accelerate IBM i shops’ efforts to generate the JSON-based BODs from existing data structures in Db2 for i. That opens the door for intrepid roll-your-own IBM i shops to get Coleman working if they really want to.
“If you’re a customer, and you would like to use it with IBM i with what we provide, from ION you can call the API,” she says. “The products are available. The data is there.”