Reinventing the ERP Engine

ERP is no stranger to change. To remain relevant, this technological chameleon has evolved continuously through disruptive waves like client/server and the Web. Its formula for lasting success? The very definition of enterprise resource planning has expanded steadily to include a suite of functional capabilities including financials, manufacturing, supply chain management, CRM, and HR. Moreover, it has expanded to include information management capabilities like business intelligence, reporting, and analytics, allowing enterprises to reshape their businesses in response to a rapidly changing landscape.

For a while, ERP innovation focused on making enterprise growth easier through integration platforms, application servers, and orchestration suites. Today’s focus is on promoting ubiquity. Organizations are striving to make ERP accessible on mobile devices, in collaboration suites, or in social streams.

But there’s also a more fundamental ERP trend afoot: The ERP engine is becoming more powerful, making it possible for organizations to respond to changing events with greater speed and agility.

More Horsepower for the ERP Drivetrain

Up until now, the ERP engine’s underlying “drivetrain” has remained constant—on-premise, licensed, single-tenant software stacks built on transactional, relational databases that run on enterprise-class hardware in dedicated data centers. Now that drivetrain is gaining more horsepower through a range of enhancements:

Virtualization. Many vendors’ reinvented ERP engines allow for more advanced virtualization approaches—moving above the infrastructure and operating system layers into the platform and application levels and promoting greater portability of workloads.

In-memory solutions. Whereas conventional ERP solutions rely on a physical disc, in-memory solutions shift the data from physical bits on a spinning disc to logical units living in rapid-access memory (RAM). This allows for dramatic improvements in querying, aggregation, and processing—in terms of both response times for traditional requests and in the ability to process more complicated queries across a much wider data domain.

Integrated infrastructure systems. Vendors are using appliance-like solutions to enable integration across the computing, storage, networking, and management stacks. The advantages of integration include interoperability, consolidated monitoring and maintenance solutions, and a potential decrease in required benchmarking and testing.

Mining unstructured data. By offering a more adaptable architecture and customizable solutions, the reinvented ERP can help organizations manage and mine their increasingly important semistructured and unstructured data—in addition to schema-based relational databases for transactional records.

Even the crown jewels are not exempt. Some enterprise applications themselves are being rewritten with columnar data and multitenant, subscription-based services. These architectural shifts reflect ERP’s evolution from supporting standardized processes to helping the organization respond to changing events.

Finding the Right Mix of “Locomotives” and “Sports Cars”

The traditional industrial-grade ERP engine is designed to support rigid, automated, highly standardized business processes. Because these processes entail planned, predictable, repeatable, and often inflexible sequences of activities, they need a big, powerful engine to drive scale and efficiencies on well-defined tracks. Today, organizations are designing processes that are flexible, agile, and configurable, so that they can respond to events in real time. This requires an ERP engine that supports the real-time processing of disparate data at competitive price points.

Just because ERP has been reinvented doesn’t mean the parts of the business it supports should also be reimagined. Nor does it suggest that the upgraded foundational layer doesn’t have benefits for the old way of doing things. Many organizations may find themselves with a mix of new and old engines. This may allow them to take advantage of point technical upgrades for “locomotives” to help drive efficiencies, while simultaneously making strategic bets on agile “sports cars” to reshape business as usual.

Unprecedented speed and flexibility, coupled with ERP’s ongoing functional expansion into information domains and ubiquitous mobile access, are pushing companies ever closer to achieving the end-goal of hyperproductivity.  ERP—the technological chameleon making this progress possible—is evolving once again to become more ubiquitous and relevant than ever

Theo ICtroi