20 Years of Change in ERP
Previously I blogged on where I think ERP is going in the next ten years, recently I was thinking about where we have come from over the last twenty years. I started working on the Accpac product at Computer Associates back in 1992 to work on Accpac Plus for Windows*. At that time our customers installed our software from 5¼” floppy disks onto PCs running MS-DOS connected to Novell Networks. Usually the Accounting department had a separate LAN from everyone else due to security concerns. In QA we validated the hardware and BIOS we would run on, supporting only certain IBM and Compaq models. Going online usually meant having a CompuServe or AOL account connected via a modem on your phone line.
Evolution of ERP
The core of an ERP system is the double-entry accounting method which has been around since it was codified by Luca Pacioli in the 15th century. The basics of how this works has largely remained the same since then. Efforts to “modernize” double-entry accounting have repeatedly resulted in financial fiascos like Enron. Much of the work over the past twenty years has been expanding the ERP system beyond basic financial accounting. Expanding to the front office through CRM, expanding to the HR department with HR and Payroll functionality, expanding into planning with advanced operation modules and project and job costing.
Jump ahead 20 or so years to the present day. The product name is now Sage 300 ERP. We’ve progressed from Windows 3.1 through 95, 98, NT, 2000, XP, Vista to the present day Windows 7. We’ve progressed through 5¼” to 3½” floppies to CDs to DVDs to now downloading and installing the product from the Internet. Not only is the Accounting department typically on the main corporate network (usually a Windows Server network), but horror of horrors they are even connected to the Internet. We now support any PC, Workstation or Laptop that runs Windows regardless of manufacturer.
A lot of these changes are due to the industry maturing, buying a new computer isn’t such an adventure as you hope its BIOS is compatible with what you need to run. You can now safely buy computers from thousands of manufacturers running various CPUs from multiple companies like AMD or Intel. You can trust that you can use any USB device with that computer. Very rarely do you ever install a new hardware piece in a drive bay or motherboard slot. Most people have a dedicated high speed link to the Internet.
Another advance that we’ve seen is the rise of virtualization. Who would have thought twenty years ago that you could run another copy of your operating system in another window? Twenty years ago, multi-tasking barely worked. Now we can run all sorts of virtualized operating systems on our laptop at once. We have servers hosting dozens for virtualized servers that can be accessed from anywhere. Virtual images even integrate with the host environment so when you run a program you don’t know if it’s native or virtualized.
Twenty years ago, Windows was strictly single user. Now with Terminal Services and Citrix, Windows is truly multi-user. Users can access a central Windows server using a thin client to see their desktop. This allows easier centralized installations and management, since only one central server needs to be maintained. Additionally there is client software from all sorts of computers and devices to access your Windows session. With this you can access Sage 300 from a table like the iPad or from a non-Windows PC like a Macbook. Certainly UNIX/Linux fans aren’t impressed with this, but it did bring multi-user back into the mainstream.
Utilizing the multi-user and virtualization technologies allowed us to offer a cloud version of Sage 300 ERP with AccpacOnline.com. With this, Sage manages the datacenter and handles all the tasks like backing up the data, keeping the hardware and software up to date. Then the customer just has to use our ERP package, accessing it from a Citrix client. This then gives our customers a choice between buying or subscribing to our product. We have been doing this for ten years or so now. The diagram below shows the choices this gives you.
Today we enhance your ERP system with “connected services”. These services all run in the cloud and your ERP package connects to them for additional functionality and services. A prime example is the Sage Payment Solutions connected service which allows you to take credit card transactions right in your application and then have it call the online service to process the transaction in real time. The diagram below shows our connected service web strategy, how our on premise or hosted business applications access all these cloud services.
We’ve come a long way in twenty years from MS-DOS character based applications to 16-Bit Windows applications to 32-Bit Windows applications to Web applications. We’ve had many improvements in hardware, operating systems and connectivity. All this generally keeps things from getting boring or stale. As we move forwards we are seeing ERP spreading to devices beyond PC to tablets and phones and much great utilization of connectivity, sharing and social interaction that this enables.
* You can still see remnants of the old names in the product files. For instance there is the runtime\plus.ini which is still left over from the original name. In the original 16-bit version all the DLLs started with capw (CA Plus for Windows) and later were changed to start with a4w for the 32-Bit version. Generally if you look through the file names, or the SDK API documentation you can tell when something was introduced by the naming convention used.