In addition to roles-based user interfaces, the GP 9.0 applications take on an Office look and feel, capitalizing on the familiarity—and ubiquity—of Microsofts Outlook e-mail software.
The GP 9.0 release is the first product installment in the companys Dynamics road map, which looks to bring all four of Microsofts ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) suites into a single code base that sits on top of Microsofts .Net platform. Each of the suites, Great Plains—now GP—Axapta, Solomon and Navision, has been renamed under the Dynamics umbrella.
Formally known as Project Green, Dynamics has a several-year-long development cycle that Microsoft has broken down into two "wave" cycles.
Wave One, which forms the foundation for enhancements in GP 9.0, will share common client technology and be integrated with Office. It will include some roles-based user experiences, Sharepoint integration, and SQL-based BI (Business Intelligence) functionality that enables reporting from a contextual user interface. There will also be some Web services-based application components included in Wave One, which will roll out between now and 2007.
The second wave, due around 2008, will converge the business logic of all four suites and Microsoft CRM (Customer Relationship Management) into a single product. It will include models of all the business processes Microsoft intends to focus on, along with customization capabilities based on upgraded Visual Studio and .Net tools. A process model that combines the best processes from each separate release is also planned.
What GP 9.0 brings to the table from the overall Dynamics roadmap are four core components of Wave One: roles-based user experiences; portal and collaboration capabilities; SQL-based BI; and adaptive processes and Web services.
Microsoft is shipping 22 roles-based home pages with GP 9.0 that essentially change the user experience from being generic to explicit, based on roles within an organization, according to Lynne Stockstad, general manager of Microsoft Dynamics GP at Microsoft.
"The user interfaces are very specific for roles in an organization, from the CFO to marketing leader to accounts payable clerk," said Stockstad, in Redmond, Wash. "They [are based on roles] up and down [the organizational chart] from an executive down to the shop floor control person and sales person."
The idea with roles-based user interfaces is to enable individuals within a company to access information that is relevant to their job, and eventually to manipulate specific processes to accommodate changing business needs—a premise that really serves as the core for Dynamics development.
The approach is a sound one, according to some analysts, and is not unlike that being undertaken by Microsofts ERP rival Oracle Corp. with its next generation suite, Fusion, that takes a process and roles-based approach to application development.
"Microsoft is on the right track," said Paul Hamerman, an analyst with Forrester Research. "What theyre doing well is its a gradual strategy, which will ultimately be less disruptive to users, rather than the big-bang approach that Oracle has taken. The role-based approach is another element to this strategy that has some promise. It follows a trend."
GP 9.0 also takes Microsofts Business Portal, which is based on SharePoint, and adds access to applications—order management, for example—that extends the portals capabilities, according to Stockstad. A new Business Portal Executive Center brings access to transactional details and KPIs (key performance indicators).
The SQL Server team has added a new report builder from Visual Studio that users can utilize to run reports on. At the same time, integration with Excel brings transactional data into the 9.0 system so users have the ability to make better decisions.
In terms of enabling more adaptive processes within GP 9.0, Microsoft has added 160 Web services access points that support 20 business processes. At the same time, GP 9.0 is integrated with Microsoft Visual Studios developer tool kit for better process maneuverability.
"We have architected the solution to use Web services technology to make it easier to integrate from external sources into Dynamics GP processes, from Visual Studio and any other environment," said Stockstad. "It also makes these extensions to GP more resilient to upgrades…with extensions more easily upgraded."
Finally, GP 9.0 brings a tighter integration with the upcoming release of Dynamics CRM. A new XML-based processing engine will enable more visibility of CRM information into GP data, officials said.
The release of Dynamics GP 9.0 is a good first start, according to Forresters Hamerman.
"A lot of applications left usability behind," he said. "Microsoft is doing some really good work to incorporate the Outlook usability paradigm and SharePoint portal. It will be challenging to bring four different product lines together and create a superset product. Each product has its own unique features. What they need to do is make sure theyre not leaving things behind when there is a transition to a unified product."