Archive for August 2014
A new flavor of Sage Intelligence was demonstrated by Himanshu Palsule during his keynote at Sage Summit called Sage Intelligence Go! (SIG). I thought I’d spend a bit of time this week providing a few more details about what it is and where it fits into the scheme of things.
Sage Intelligence is a business intelligence/reporting tool used by many Sage ERP products. For those who have been around the Sage 300 ERP community, they will recognize it as Alchemex which Sage purchased a few years ago. This is a product that runs as a Microsoft Excel add-in which extracts data from the ERP to be manipulated by the power of the Excel spreadsheet engine. This is a very popular way of doing Financial Reporting since you often want to present the data graphically or you want to perform complex calculations or you want to slice and dice the data using pivot tables. Excel provides a great platform for performing these tasks. The original Financial Reporter bundled with Sage 300 ERP works in a similar manner as an Excel Add-in. Sage Intelligence is used for quite a few things beyond Financial Accounting including Sales Analysis and other predictive type BI functions.
Sage Intelligence has been around for a while and is a good mature product. Since it is written with the full Excel add-in SDK, it must run in Excel and specifically the locally installed version of Excel. This means it isn’t particularly well suited for cloud applications such as Office Online.
Microsoft has now released a newer SDK for developing Office apps. This new SDK is designed to allow you to develop applications that can still run in the locally installed full Microsoft Excel, but they can also run inside the cloud/web based Excel Online as well as the new specialty versions of Office like the one for the iPad.
As Sage ERP applications move to the cloud, you would want to have your Financial Reporter be cloud based as well. You would want to be able to edit Financial Reports in the browser as well as display and interact with reports on any device including your tablet or smart phone. This is where Sage Intelligence Go! comes in. It is written in the new Office Apps SDK and will run on the online and device version s of Excel as well as the full locally installed Excel. This you don’t need a Windows PC at all to use your cloud based ERP and cloud based Financial Reporter. However you still have all the power of Excel helping you visualize and manipulate your reports.
Sage One Accounting
Sage One Accounting by Sage Pastel is such a cloud based ERP system. This product has Sage Intelligence Go! as an option for performing various reporting needs. When SIG started out here, it was much simpler. The original Office Apps SDK was very simple and didn’t nearly have the power of the various older SDKs supported by local Excel. However as time as gone by, the Office App SDK has become much stronger and the functionality is now much more in line with what we expect of such a solution.
For those of you who attended Sage Summit and saw James Whittaker’s keynote, they would have seen the importance Microsoft is placing on the new Office Apps. Basically to switch from using the browser and search, or using Apps from a mobile device App store, you will get your data directly in your business applications via this new sort of App. If you go to the Office App Store, and search on Sage you will find a Sage One app for Outlook and Sage Intelligence Go! If you search a bit more broadly, you won’t find that many non-trivial applications. Sage Intelligence Go! is probably the most sophisticated Office App in the store.
Notice that you don’t run SIG reports from the ERP application, they run from Excel. Once you have the XLSX file, you can just run it anytime from any version of Excel and have full access to your data. This is really a new paradigm for doing reporting. For SIG this works really well. Whether other applications fit this model is yet to be seen.
SIG needs to communicate both with the Office API (whether cloud or local) as well as with the ERP to get the data to process. Both of these functions are accomplished via RESTful web services. The communication with the ERP must be via Web Services since these could originate from the SIG Office App running in the Microsoft Office Online Cloud or from the Office App running in the local Excel. It isn’t possible to use the traditional methods of database integration like ODBC when the two may be running in completely different locations.
Basically the Sage Cloud based ERP exposes a standard set of Web Services that are protected by Sage ID. When the user starts SIG, they get a Sage ID login prompt from with-in Excel and then this is transmitted through to the Sage Cloud ERP which uses the Sage ID to look up which tenants this user runs as. This information is related back to SIG in case it needs a second prompt to act which tenant (company) to access.
Sage Intelligence Go consists of a server component that runs in the cloud as well as the Office App that runs in Excel. The Server portion of SIG uses the provided Web Services to load the data to be reported on from the ERP into its in-memory database for processing. This in-memory database is maintained in the cloud where the SIG service runs. Then the Office App part of SIG interacts with the server side to present the correct required data and perform various processing functions.
This solution requires the ERP provide Web Services that are exposed to the Internet in general, so that it can be access via Excel running anywhere whether installed locally, running on an iPad or running as a Web Application in the cloud. This means these Web Services need to be secure and available 24×7 with very good availability. For this reason you will see SIG first integrating to Sage Cloud based ERPs (like the current Sage One Accounting by Sage Pastel) and later via the Sage Data Cloud which will offer these services on behalf of on-premised installed ERP systems.
Sage Intelligence Go! is our solution for cloud reporting. Its primary purpose is to provide Financial Reporting capabilities, but it is also capable of handling other BI type reporting needs. This is our solution to moving a lot of reporting functions into the cloud.
Sage ERP Online Services (SEOS) was a system developed alongside the online/cloud versions of Sage 200 ERP (UK) and Sage Morano ERP (Spain). The purpose of this was to provide a number of common sets of functionalities for all Sage online applications such as creating new tenants and users, managing audit logs, managing cloud credentials and managing cloud resources. The system also handled common functions such as integration to the various Sage billing systems. Although SEOS was originally developed as part of the Sage 200 and Sage Morano online projects, it was always intended to be a general tool used by all Sage cloud products. SEOS has been in successful production with both Sage 200 and Sage Morano for some time now, it is now being adopted by various other Sage cloud products both in Europe and in North America.
A lot of what SEOS does is behind the scenes and customers and partners generally don’t see it as a separate service. But I thought it might be of interest to people to know what is or will be going on behind the scenes in our various cloud products. This article is just talking about SEOS in general and doesn’t make any claims as to which will be the next product to adopt SEOS or any timelines for such adoption. But for people using Sage 200 or Sage Morano, they probably already have some experience using the SEOS portal.
One of the key goals of SEOS is to automate everything so there are no manual processes in creating new tenants or users, but additionally it orchestrates disaster recovery, backup/restore and the auto-scaling of resources.
SEOS has a number of different ways to interact with it. There is a web portal for DevOps/IS type people who run the system, there is a web portal for customers and partners and then there are a number of APIs for the various ERPs to communicate with. Some of the main components are shown below.
The main job an ERP has to do to integrate to SEOS is provide a provisioning engine. This engine runs all the time (actually at least two of them for high availability). This engine checks the SEOS job queue to see if it has anything to do. Tasks it might be asked to perform include creating a new tenant, creating a new user or suspending a tenant.
Bootstrapping the System
To create a new cloud instance of an ERP that is integrated with SEOS just requires the provisioning engine running. This is either setup manually or via some PowerShell scripts. Once the provisioning engine is going, everything else is done in the provisioning engine as it gets messages from SEOS. When it gets its first create tenant message, it will see that no application servers are running and create a couple (for high availability), it will create the database and do anything else that is needed for that tenant to be able to operate. For the first tenant that could mean creating quite a few storage, database, VM or other resources.
Then as tenants are added, the provisioning engine will be monitoring (with the help of SEOS) the usage of the system and will start additional resources (like application servers), if it determines that the system needs to scale to handle the additional load.
Thus nearly all the work of creating a large cloud system, possibly consisting of hundreds of VMs will all be brought about automatically via the SEOS/provisioning engine system.
This then helps with disaster recover, since when SEOS switches to the alternate data center, it handles switching the databases and basically bootstraps the whole process the same way. Note that databases are a bit different since they are already being replicated to the alternate site and you just want to switch the backup to primary and then use that.
When the provisioning engine requires a new resource like an Azure SQL database or a new Web Role (VM), it doesn’t just go to the cloud API to get it (say using the Azure SDK). Instead it asks SEOS for the resource and SEOS creates it for the ERP. This way the ERP isn’t using the native cloud API, instead it just uses the SEOS API. This then opens up the possibility for hosting these cloud ERPs in different clouds.
Currently all the SMB ERPs are hosted in the Microsoft Azure cloud because we get very good pricing on this and it meets our needs extremely well. However we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket and if conditions change dramatically, we can much more easily switch other providers. There are other reasons we may need to do this, for instance Azure doesn’t have a data center in Africa and we have a lot of customers in Africa, so we may need a provider closer than Singapore.
DevOps is the group that runs all the various Sage Cloud offerings (its official name varies from region to region, but the idea is the same). Having DevOps manage dozens of cloud products all working different ways with different maintenance procedures would be a huge challenge. SEOS brings all these aspects together into one set of procedures.
Take logging for example. It’s easy for any application to generate huge log files for diagnostic and auditing purposes. There are lots of good APIs for doing this. But managing these logs is a challenge. The logs need to be archived for future reference. Generally there are several types of logs, like the Windows Event Log, and application diagnostic log and an application security log. All these need to be kept in a central spot including backing them up. There has to be easy ways to search them, say by tenant, event type or date time. Many people use Elastic Search to search their logs. SEOS provides a uniform way for managing these and automates most of the process. This way DevOps only needs to know one way of managing logs and not a separate way for each ERP. Plus SEOS automates the whole process, avoiding manual procedures and mistakes.
Sage is a large company and operates around the world. Most of our products are charged for and the backend systems that do billing vary around the world. Various geographic regions have extra regulatory requirements and different business rules. SEOS handles providing usage data to the billing engine via a standard adapter. Each region has to write an adapter to interface to SEOS. Removing this burden of interfacing to the Sage billing systems is a huge benefit to the ERP teams who really don’t want to have to deal with these details.
If you are a partner or customer using Sage SMB Cloud offerings in Europe, then you have probably already seen SEOS and know something about it. If you are using Sage SMB Cloud offerings in other parts of the world, then you will probably start to see SEOS appearing over the next while. These will probably appear more as features or services, but these are being brought to you by the SEOS global initiative.
I’m just back from Sage Summit 2014 which was held at the Mandalay Bay Resort/Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. There were over 5200 attendees at the show, a new record for Sage. The Mandalay Bay is a huge complex and I racked up a record number of steps for GCC getting from one place to another. Las Vegas is easy to get to for most people since there are a lot of direct flights from around North America and you can find really cheap hotel accommodation near to the conference (like $29 at the Excalibur which is connected to Mandalay Bay by a free tram). The only down side to having he conference in Vegas is that smoking is still allowed in many public places, which is really annoying.
The conference had a great many guest speakers including quite a few celebrities like Magic Johnson and Jessica Alba. The convention trade show wasn’t just booths, there were also open speaking theatres that always had something interesting going on as well as the Sage Innovation Lab Exhibit.
There were a great many product breakout sessions as well as a large number of breakout sessions on general business and technology topics. The intent was to make Sage Summit a place to come to for a lot more than just learning new technical details about your Sage product, or promoting new add-ons for you to purchase. A lot of customers attending the show told me that it was these general sessions on accounting, marketing and technology that they found the most useful.
The show was huge and this blog post just covers a few areas that I was directly involved in or attended.
Great General Sessions
Besides the mandatory Sage keynotes, there were quite a few general sessions which were quite amazing. My favorite was Brad Smith’s interview with Biz Stone the co-founder of Twitter and Jelly. Biz certainly provides a lot of interesting context to Web startups, as well as a lot of interesting stories of why he left Google and chose the path he chose. It was certainly interesting in the way a lot of the successful founders left very secure lucrative careers to really struggle for years to get their dreams off the ground. A common theme was the need for persistence so you could survive long enough to eventually get that big break. Another common theme was to follow people and ideas rather than companies and money. Now I’m going to have to read Biz’s book: “Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind”.
Another very popular session was the panel discussion with Magic Johnson, CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, Jessica Alba, co-founder of the Honest Company and J. Carrey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions. This discussion concentrated on their current businesses and didn’t delve into their celebrity pasts for which at least two panelists are rather well known for. There were a lot of good business tips given and it was interesting to see how Magic Johnson and Jessica Alba have adapted what they did before to becoming quite successful CEOs.
Sage’s Technology Vision
A lot of Sage’s technology and product presentations were about our mobile and cloud technology vision. The theme was to aggressively move into these areas with purposeful innovation that still protect the investment that our customers have in our current technologies. At the heart of this vision is the Sage Data Cloud. This acts as a hub which mobile solutions can connect to as well as a way that data can be accessed in our existing products whether in the cloud or installed on premise. Below is the architectural block diagram showing the main components of this.
This is perhaps a bit theoretical, but we already have products in the market that are filling in key components of this vision. Some of these are included in the next diagram.
We use the term “hybrid cloud” quite a bit, this indicates that you can have some of your data on premise and some of your data in the cloud. There are quite a few use cases that people desire. Not everyone is sold with trusting all their data to a cloud vendor for safe keeping. In some industries and countries there are tight regulatory controls on where your data can legally be located. The Hybrid Cloud box in the diagram includes Sage 50 ERP (US and Canadian), Sage 100 ERP and Sage 300 ERP.
To effectively operate mobile and web solutions, you do need to have your data available 24×7 with a very high degree of uptime and a very high degree of security. Most small or mid-sized business customers cannot afford sufficient IT resources to maintain this for their own data center. One solution to this problem is to synchronize a subset of your on premise ERP/CRM data to the Sage Data Cloud and then have your mobile solutions accessing this. Then it becomes Sage’s responsibility to maintain the uptime, 24×7 support and apply all the necessary security procedures to keep the data safe.
Another attraction for ISVs is integrate their product to the Sage Data Cloud and then let the Sage Data Cloud handle all the details of integrating to the many Sage ERP products. This way they only need to write one integration rather than separate integrations for Sage 50 ERP, Sage 100 ERP, Sage 300 ERP, Sage 300 CRE, etc.
We had a lot of coverage of the Sage 300 Online offering which has been live for a while now. This was introduced last Summit and now offers Sage 300 ERP customers the choice of installing on premise or running in the Azure cloud. Running in the cloud saves you having to back up your data, perform updates or maintain servers or operating systems. This way you can just run Sage 300 and let Sage handle the details. Of course you can get a copy of your data anytime you want and even move between on premise and the cloud.
The Sage Innovation Lab
On the trade show we had a special section for the Sage Innovation Lab. Here you could play with Google Glasses, Pebble Watches, 3D Printers and all sorts of neat toys to see some prototypes and experiments that Sage is working on with these. We don’t know if these will all be productized, but it’s cool to get a feel for how the future might begin to look like.
This really was Sage Summit re-imagined. There were a great many sessions, keynotes and demonstrations on all sorts of topics of interest to businesses. This should be taken even further for next year’s Sage Summit which will be in New Orleans, LA on July 27-30, 2015. Does anyone else remember all those great CA-World’s in New Orleans back in the 90s?