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Is mobile ERP in the cloud a reality?

Interest is high in cloud-based mobile ERP, and it can make your life easier. But you should look before you leap.

Mobile ERP in the cloud? Look before you leap.

Caution is wise when venturing into cloud-based ERP, for one simple reason. Many ERP vendors offer a software-as-a-service (SaaS) version of their applications. But often, the SaaS ERP application cannot be accessed by mobile devices (or, at least, not out of the box).

Especially in the midmarket, there is much interest in on-demand models for delivery of ERP applications. It just makes sense for a company that lacks enterprise-class IT resources to rent rather than buy its own ERP software licenses and associated infrastructure.

But although SaaS ERP applications run off-site, they do not necessarily reside in the cloud, warned Joel Schneider, president of Liberty Technology Advisors Inc. If not, it will take extra work to make the data accessible via mobile devices.

ERP software may not be cloud-based

"When a software vendor says it is in the cloud, we have to define what they mean," said Schneider. Familiar applications like Facebook and Salesforce.com are true cloud-based apps. But when it comes to ERP software, often the SaaS option just means that the vendor hosts the application. "That's just a host-based deployment, not a true cloud-based solution," he said.

So, what's the difference? If the SaaS ERP application is not truly cloud-based, you're likely to have issues with accessing your data on a portable device, added Schneider. You will likely have to do some custom development to put core ERP data into the hands of plant managers and field technicians.

Note that a handful of ERP vendors are 100% cloud based. If your vendor is a so-called "born in the cloud" company, implementing mobile ERP is likely to be much smoother and more straightforward, said Schneider. "Pure cloud solutions are device-independent, and that makes mobility much easier to achieve. For most ERP vendors, that is not the case. Most do not yet offer true cloud-based solutions."

This is an important distinction, Schneider added, because many clients from small-to-medium-sized manufacturing companies walk in the door expecting mobile ERP in the cloud to be a slam-dunk. "We help our clients get educated on that," he said. SaaS-based ERP can help a smaller company make the best possible use of its resources, but often, it does not translate immediately to mobile access.

Mobility will define future of ERP

Louis Columbo often counsels midmarket manufacturers in his role as the head of marketing at iBASET. To Columbo, the current dearth of true cloud-based ERP offerings is just a short blip on the road to more widespread adoption of mobile ERP. "As of today the options aren't that plentiful, yet the interest and needs are there," he said.

"The future of ERP is going to be defined by mobility," said Columbo. Today, mobility in ERP is often relegated to the shop floor, where handheld devices are used for such things as measuring, monitoring and managing production scheduling, quality and resource planning requirements.

"Cloud-based platforms, combined with the accelerating pace of innovation in analytics, will eventually lead to ERP systems capable of reporting the financial outcomes of manufacturing and shop-floor decisions," said Columbo. Mobility will move away from proprietary platforms designed just for the shop floor to being integral to running a manufacturing business.

The ability to manage manufacturing using alerts and real-time status delivered over mobile devices is here. Sooner, rather than later, true cloud-based ERP applications will make it much easier for the rest of the enterprise to get into the act, empowering faster, better business decisions.

Next Steps

Read tips on choosing mobile ERP devices

See results of a survey of mobile ERP use

Avoid mobile ERP pitfalls

This was last published in November 2014

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