Why Infor’s IDF Is Important for Customer Innovation
May 25, 2022 Alex Woodie
Among the remaining large ERP vendors targeting IBM i, Infor appears to be the most committed to ongoing development on the platform. A key element of that strategy is the Infor Development Framework (IDF), which plays a big role in extending the functionality in its IBM i-based ERP systems to meet customers’ specific needs.
The IDF features most prominently in Infor’s long-term strategy for the ERP XA (MAPICS), ERP LX (BPCS), and ERP System 21 product lines, says Robert Russel, the vice president of product development at Infor.
“We’re starting to try to essentially get that technology embedded into all three user bases,” Russell told IT Jungle recently. “So that’s a big part of our push here.”
The IDF is a multi-user interface, single codebase architecture that’s metadata-driven, Russell says. The Java-based framework, which was originally developed by MAPICS before that company was acquired by Infor back in 2005, is what allows Infor customers to configure and customize their user interface, which happens at runtime, not at build time, Russell says.
“That’s a big part of our direction and the users love it,” says Russell, who was a MAPICS product manager and was involved in IDF’s creation. “It provides them a lot of flexibility to adapt the software for their processes.”
IDF contains several sub-components, including PowerLink, a Windows-based client for end users; Link Manager, a Windows client for administrative tasks; Net-Link, a browser-based client that is gradually replacing PowerLink; and System-Link, an XML-based interface for transaction processing.
Enterprise Integrator, which is also part of IDF, provides the capability to extend Infor software on the server side, through extension objects that allow users to add additional fields, override other fields, and change the default handling of data, Russell says.
“Enterprise Integrator allows you to integrate across not just your ERP but other complementary packages or software that you may have at your location,” Russell says. “So there’s a lot of functionality that you can do as a low-code or no-code implementation of that application extension within the architecture.”
IDF has been so well adopted by customers that Infor will soon start promoting a version of IDF that helps customers modernize the interaction between Infor ERPs and customers other IBM i products, Russell says.
“We’re going to launch a little bit of a campaign to try to explain to people why the IDF? What about the IDF that helps you modernize, not just the look and feel, but the interactions of the IBM i software with other applications that may be within your enterprise,” he says.
The company has also been lessening the reliance on Windows machines to run IDF and Enterprise Integrator, which should also appeal to customers’ desires to keep as much of their critical business applications running on IBM i as possible.
“Previously . . . IDF needed to run on Wintel,” Russell says. “You had to do all your customizations and configurations on Wintel in order to use it even in the Web. We’ve converted all those functionality to our Net-Link interface and put that out with the big [XA] 10-plus release at the beginning of the year.”
What Infor will not do, however, is encourage customers to start playing around with the underlying source code. Russell has been down that road before, and it’s filled with potholes, dead ends, and bad drivers. In fact, that is exactly why the IDF was introduced in the first place with MAPICS so many years ago.
Russell started his career with IBM back in 1983 on a project called CMAPS, the goal of which was to develop a package to replace MAPICS, the RPG-based manufacturing resource planning (MRP) system developed by IBM at its Atlanta, Georgia, facility.
“It was going to essentially merge construction, distribution, and manufacturing into one product written in COBOL, running on the ’38,” Russel says. “And they ended abandoning that and decided to go with MAPICS II running on a System/36, because at that time MAPICS was running on the ‘34.”
MAPICS originally stored data in an older style VSAM database, but IBM wanted the ERP system to run on its new relational database. Moving the underlying data storage and access method was one of Russell’s first tastes of the complexities inherent in evolving enterprise software systems.
“We’ve gone through quite a few iterations of changing the technology behind these products,” he says, “yet the business functionality that came from IBM back then was still very mixed mode manufacturing, very advanced.”
MAPICS, of course, remained an RPG-based product running on IBM i, but it has evolved. While the core business logic is in RPG, it’s surrounded by other technologies, notably Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs) and XML, which are used for augmenting the ERP’s functionality using via IDF and Enterprise Integrator.
The success of IDF at MAPICS gave Infor the confidence to expand the software to its other two primary IBM i-based ERP applications. Having that common technology layer lets Infor offer more functionality to its customer base using fewer resources, which benefits both the vendor and its customers.
The fact that upward of 80 percent of XA customers are within two to two-and-a-half releases of the current release is a testament to Infor’s approach with IDF and Enterprise Integrator, Russell says. The number isn’t as high on LX and System21, but they’re coming along, he says.
“Integrator was built back then because we wanted you to be able to take advantage of the client-server stuff that we were doing, and then still be able to integrate from your extensions and expertise that you might have had in your own files,” he says. “That was a push that we started way back then, and customers have been embracing it, and the ones that have seen the benefit of not having to keep making their changes over and over again.”
In an age when having a highly customized ERP system is both a blessing and a curse, MAPICS customers have benefited from the ability to configure their software to a high degree, but without requiring custom handling of custom code. While Infor hasn’t hit a home run with every technological decision (who could have foreseen JSON would largely replace XML?), it has hit gold with its metadata-driven approach to configuration.
But it required a certain amount of discipline too, according to Russell. “I’ve always said that the database is not a public interface, and if there’s not a user exit that can do what you need to do to be able to extend the business process, then contact me and we will add it,” he says. “And we don’t get contacted.”