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Convergence 2013 Roundup – the world ahead for AX

Microsoft’s key message at Convergence was clear: Microsoft software, especially Dynamics, has to be the unifying fabric between business users, consumers and IT.

Microsoft Convergence 2013. Kirill Tatarinov.

Intergen’s Dynamics Practice Principal, James Page, has already asked and answered the question Does Dynamics really drive “unity”? in his Reflections on key themes from Microsoft’s Convergence 2013. James paints a picture of a connected world atop the Microsoft stack that connects consumers, users and businesses. But how is Dynamics AX evolving to enable this reality?


Immersive, connected, native device experiences

AX has expense management. I talk about this all the time, and there is always the inevitable discussion that ensues when I’m in the presence of a member of the new mobile elite. I can see the question emerging from that Lumia, iPhone or Galaxy on the table.

“So I use Expensify at the moment. I assume you have an app like it for this solution?”

These are the guys and gals for whom a smartphone has almost become an extension of their conscience. There’s an app for everything, and they have it. For the last couple of years, as mobile has become ever present, enterprise software folk have rarely had great answers for the mobile elite. So it was not surprising to see the excitement with which Kees Hertogh, Director of Product Marketing, showed off a range of new AX apps coming this year to your favourite device.

What do we know so far?

There will be at least four applications delivered in the next year:

  • Expense
  • Timesheets
  • Approvals
  • Point of Sale

iOS and Android users might not be running Microsoft’s platform of choice, but you won’t miss out. The team at Microsoft will be publishing a range of native apps for tablet and mobile devices running on Windows 8, Windows Mobile, iOS and Android.

The Azure platform, along with a new cloud-enabled Retail Server, will be leveraged to provide scalable, easily deployable, connected experiences for applications interacting with the AX platform.

What will the new apps look like? Here is a preview of the approvals app:



We saw a keen and evident focus on user experience throughout the demonstrations at Convergence that will directly correlate to improved engagement and productivity. The approvals example shows off a few of these UX highlights like:

-       Windows 8 toast notifications when an approval request arrives so I no longer need to periodically monitor AX or emails

-       A single location for context sensitive, decision enabling data relevant to the approval scenario to avoid drilling through multiple forms or running reports

-       Rich visual insight into the impact my decisions will have on both cost and time budgets

Delivering immersive device experiences for those “in between time” tasks like timesheets and approvals is a big leap towards engaging the 37% of our global workforce predicted to be mobile by 2015.


Innovating with best of breed features

Any discussion about AX and innovation easily shifts into the realm of retail. Microsoft has made a large and sustained investment in breathing new energy into the retail solution space, and from what I saw in New Orleans, AX is rapidly establishing its presence as the innovator in omni-channel retailing.

Over the next year AX is set to evolve its omni-channel capability with a new, cloud-enabled, Retail Server component designed to facilitate innovative cross-channel experiences. We will see a tablet POS experience out of the box running on Retail Server. But the excitement sits with the ability to leverage Retail Server’s standards based oData communication to integrate custom mobile apps and third party services directly into the omni-channel AX experience. Imagine turning a Facebook like into a wish list in store and what this might mean for cross and up-selling.

Amidst the exciting retail and app discussions, the announcement of new warehouse management and transportation management solutions seemed almost underplayed. There were very few details provided, apart from an expected release date of the end 2013, so I’ve turned to what AX does today to decipher this announcement. AX has warehouse management capability. With a little customisation and the addition of an RF solution like Dynamics Anywhere, there is a lot of warehousing capability in the product today. R2 even introduced labour and storage capacity modelling features. To warrant announcing a new warehouse management system I expect that within a year AX will deliver the kind best of breed warehousing capability that we find in products like Manhattan SCALE today.


Simplifying the application lifecycle

Delivering the features users and business need can only engage and unite a business if they can be deployed rapidly with relative ease. As the Dynamics AX product grew up, so did the complexity and duration of implementation projects. This is something that the partner community and Microsoft have been acutely aware of in recent times so it was unsurprising to see several Convergence sessions cover the topic of simplifying and managing the application lifecycle.

What is new and cool for the application lifecycle? Lifecycle Services for Dynamics AX.

Lifecycle Services is a customer managed workspace sitting on Azure that in its first release, due shortly, will be:

  • A decision based collaborative dashboard for quick insight into project progress and environment status
  • A single place to search Microsoft’s support knowledge base, including in-progress support cases originating from other customer sites
  • A repository and tool to develop APQC aligned process maps throughout analysis and design
  • A tool for generating partially automated fit/gap analysis based on process maps and security role definitions

I can see how this will be a useful tool for some customers in its first incarnation, but it is the Lifecycle Services roadmap that promises to deliver features that will greatly benefit every team deploying and maintaining AX. What really resonated with those of us working with AX 2012 today were Microsoft’s long term plans to use Lifecycle Services to automatically provision new AX environments and manage the process of moving configuration and companies between AX instances.

Convergence isn’t just an opportunity to find out about what is new and cool. The event also provides an opportunity for almost 12,000 customers and partners to share experiences and gain a barometer on how mature tools and features have become. This year was no exception and both RapidStart Services and the freshly renamed Data Import/Export Framework were hot topics.

RapidStart is an Azure-based configuration questionnaire that we have seen as a promising, gradually maturing solution for expediting the time to value in AX projects. It would be pre-emptive to say this tool has come of age, but the genesis of rapid start is complete and with tailoring by partners, RapidStart may shortly become a more widely used tool in AX project delivery.

RapidStart’s questionnaire based configuration won’t replace typical analysis and design activities. Rather I see RapidStart, coupled with partner generated solution models, allowing the efforts of analysis and design to constantly feedback into a continually evolving prototype. Although this will help to reduce configuration effort, the real value will be in allowing projects to validate decisions against prototypes earlier in the project lifecycle. Used well, this could see solutions more closely aligned to requirements earlier in the application lifecycle.

The announcement of the version 1.0 release of Microsoft’s data migration tool was also tightly linked to the maturing RapidStart framework. Formerly named the Data Migration Framework, the Data Import/Export Framework is a promising tool that Intergen has used throughout the beta programme on multiple projects. As both a tool and framework it has grown from its initial beta release to support more than 70 AX entities out of the box. We also now have the ability to import and export data through flat file formats and between AX instances or legal entities, as well as import data from external systems and databases through ODBC connectors. Version 1.0 introduces integration into RapidStart to allow data migration templates to be provided by and populated throughout the RapidStart questionnaire process.

As AX continues to rapidly mature as a product it is important we all focus on simplifying the application lifecycle. Continued refinement of these tools by Microsoft and partners will enable IT departments to provision and augment solutions based on Dynamics AX with the speed and repeatability their business and users expect.


The hub in your composite application landscape

It is truly fantastic to see Microsoft focus on increasing the calibre of its flagship ERP suite to address key business scenarios with best of breed solutions. And the addition of device experiences pushing the envelope of user centric design will excite every AX user. But legacy systems take time to replace, and some solutions will never be provided by ERP suites so AX will often exist alongside other applications within your enterprise. It is this situation where I think AX offers a unique value proposition.

Any multi system environment can face challenges with identifying a source of truth, or a central point of process coordination. As the heart of business process, ERP is often a logical home for process coordination and master data, but ERP suites rarely provide enough flexibility to act in this role without a significant middleware investment. The problem then becomes the complexity of deploying and maintaining the middleware solution itself. With a mature integration framework, and natural integration across the Microsoft Stack, this is a deployment model in which AX shines. AX often enables a business to connect and integrate their non-AX workloads without the complexity and overhead of an additional, large middleware solution. By keeping the solution simple, IT departments can stay nimble and agile.


The next frontier

Consumerisation of IT drove a divide between the strategy played out by an IT department and the needs and desires of the broader business. By delivering immersive device experiences, innovating with best of breed features and simplifying the application lifecycle, AX is ever improving as a product that allows timely delivery of the functionality users and consumers crave. In simple terms, it provides an opportunity for IT to keep up with the pace of change consumer devices now set.

The improvements announced at Convergence will be delivered as part of AX 2012 in the next year and it is not by accident that a lot of new features are making increased use of devices and services such as Azure. I would not have done the world ahead for AX justice if I failed to mention that this is really just the start of the AX story in Microsoft’s devices and services strategy. AX ‘7’ will be fully cloud enabled with a next generation user interface built using technologies like HTML 5. Cloud enabling AX is another step towards rapidly and independently deployable ERP workloads. But that really would be the next frontier…


Posted by: Douglas Daley, Solution Specialist, Dynamics ERP | 10 April 2013

Tags: AX, Cloud, ERP, Azure, Microsoft, UX, AX 2012, Microsoft Dynamics, Microsoft Convergence, Microsoft Convergence 2012, mobility

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