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AX in the Cloud: A Partner Reality Check

So Microsoft’s first (real) Cloud ERP offering has been with us for six months. There has been a lot of noise, a lot of marketing and awful lot of learning, but ultimately we are now settling into a product that redefines not only how customers work with ERP, but also how we as partners approach our projects. I’d like to share with you a few observations about the reality of working with Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Operations.

As a consultant, the shift from AX2009 to AX2012 was big. I had to relearn a lot of architecture, data structure, functions and features. I remember some late nights with early Beta and RTM releases trying to fathom exactly why my financial postings wouldn’t authenticate with my dimension hierarchy; learning that that the infolog message “Main account code does not exist” actually meant “Look old chap, you’ve not put the main account into a valid dimension hierarchy, and if you have, you’ve not allocated the hierarchy to a chart of accounts”. But compared to the learning curve of Dynamics 365, that was basic stuff.  We know the feature and function DNA has not moved a huge amount, but the technology and tools used to deliver it is like night and day.

Our journey with Dynamics 365 began in February 2015. As part of the TAP / early adopter program we received an invite from Microsoft to provide feedback on the very first private release during a 3 day workshop in Seattle. So, after signing the biggest NDA I’ve ever seen, we sent two consultants. We knew a few bits in advance; Cloud, and HTML5, but that was about it. Whilst the solution was rather raw then, the user interface and the vision was clear and what the guys bought back with them was a simple message. Get on board. So we committed to every line of learning that we could, both technical and functional. Life Cycles Services was developing fast in parallel as well. Again, we’d been on the LCS learning curve since early releases with AX2012 back in 2013/14 but it was now clear that LCS would be a central and unavoidable tool for deploying the Cloud solution.

At Convergence in Barcelona, November 2015, we saw the launch of ‘AX7’. Whilst it was officially released, we didn’t in all honesty get a great deal of traction from our existing customer base or from prospects. Our focus continued to be on the learning and we began a project internally to update our AX2012R3 system with one aim: If we take this to our customers, we’d best get our head around it internally first. But the missing link that fell into place during 2016 was the whole partner ecosystem to support deployments. The Cloud Solution Partner (CSP) licensing program, a more mature LCS, training material and other key tools from Microsoft that bought the whole deployment piece together.

Finally in November 2016, AX7’s short life ended and Dynamics 365 was born. It finally felt like we had the full package that we could work with, not just with the product itself, but also the knowledge internally and the support from Microsoft to go and deploy great projects.

Allow me a soap box moment about the name. If you’ve lived through the Damgaard, Navision, Axapta, MBS, AX journey, you will call it “AX”. We now have, Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Operations, Enterprise edition. I’m struggling.  I don’t think the community have united on a short-hand yet, but around the office it gets “Ops”, or “365”. And “AX”.

The latest figures released from Microsoft (and I assume they are Global) indicated that there were now 100 live Dynamics 365 for Operations sites, with around another 400 contracted and mid-project. Seaton Partners have one live site, and two others mid-project so I’m going to be bold and claim about 1% of the global market. Not bad. But what have we learnt from our projects so far?

Well the most striking thing, that I honestly didn’t see coming, is the attractiveness of the proposition from a sales prospective. Although Microsoft have clearly pushed the positioning of the product up market, our sales and pipeline has attracted interest from smaller companies as well. These are opportunities where, in an AX2012 world, we may well have qualified out. What’s the attraction now? In short, that CAPEX big number for infrastructure and platform, and the resources required to deploy and manage it, has just disappeared from the proposal and budget. OK, not disappeared, but IaaS clearly resonates more with our prospects than I gave credence to before. We could debate the whole Microsoft positioning and pricing for hours, but the reality on the ground is that I’m enjoying pitching Dynamics 365. For me it is, whichever way I look at it, an easier and more attractive proposition.  I mean, what’s not to like about demonstrating embedded Power BI, Flow, Power Apps and the new mobile framework.

 

InSight Go-live team

The Romax InSight project team celebrate our first Dynamics 365 for Operations go-live

 

The next reality of actually deploying, which has had a great impact on us as a consultancy business, was the speed of deployment. It is an eye opening fact that two of our projects on Dynamics 365 would not have been started in an AX2012 world. There are two parts to that. Firstly the infrastructure required in-house (or private cloud) to run AX. This lead time is gone. And with time being such a critical success factor in these two projects, it was a key differentiator. Second, the time and cost to build, manage, deploy, maybe train, de-snag multiple environments (at least 3, sometimes 4 or 5) is not insignificant in an on premise world. Most reading this will know what that looks like, so let me fast forward to the steps required to build, say, a new sandbox environment for a project in the cloud world. Log onto LCS, select the Sandbox link, click deploy. Do go and have a cup of tea, walk the dog. Do not have a late night in the office with pizza installing Windows hotfixes, patches and the latest version of .net framework. Done. That all sounds nice and fluffy in words. Seeing it in reality is brilliant.

You’d like a copy back of production to test or release a bit of code. We could, in our AX world, schedule it with IT, get someone to work late, take the necessary backup, drop the systems, install code / copy system, compile, bring up multiple AOS complying with our script and procedure, do all the necessary checks etc. Or I could submit a service call, via LCS to Microsoft at 5pm as I leave the office, and all will be done by the time I arrive for work in the morning. While they are at it, they’ll also de-active all the users in the new test system, clear any batch services as necessary, and de-sensitise any confidential data in HR.

So that’s for the customer. But for us as a consultancy, it has changed our whole deployment approach. Our ability to roll back environments, import data sets, build and load pre-set configurations; it’s all easier. Yes, we’ve been doing that for a generation on AX; the point is it’s quicker and it’s easier. As a consultancy that wants to focus on business solutions, we get more time to concentrate on the business, and the process, and less time wondering why Enterprise Portal in our test environment is throwing stack errors. (While I’m on Enterprise Portal; goodbye, we will not miss you).

Challenges? There were many, and we continue to learn. But that knowledge is banked and we are now reaping the rewards of those 2 years of learning that we invested. It’s still early days and there are unquestionably improvements to be made as the solution and the platform matures. Internal process and procedures have been re-written, new tools adopted (Visual Studio Team Services to mention one), and the profile and learning plans of our entire team have shifted.

It’s easy to pick fault isn’t it. I could write a separate blog on the pains of making Windows phone work with the new mobile platform, but that would be a cheap shot; clearly there remain hurdles and frustrations that Microsoft have to deal with head on to really drive the solution in the market.  However, we have the foundation of a great product that we are enjoying working with and our customers are seeing tangible results and return on investment.  Put the Microsoft marketing and ‘Digital transformation’ slide deck to one side a moment; for our customers and for us as a consultancy business, the reality check is that Dynamics 365 for Operations represents a paradigm shift in how we approach ERP.  It is a game changer. For a business that enjoys and embraces change and technology I will say that, with only a hint of irony, it is a disruptive force.  And that is great.