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Cloud first, mobile first are key themes for new Dynamics AX

Due out early in 2016, the major new release of Microsoft Dynamics AX adds mobile-friendly HTML5 user interface, embedded analytics and Excel macro-like task guides.

Microsoft has announced the next iteration of its ERP suite, Dynamics AX. Now in beta with users and codenamed...

"AX7," the upgrade will be available early in 2016, according to Microsoft.

Dynamics AX, the high end of the seven-product Dynamics line, has been designed with a cloud-first, mobile-first mentality, said Microsoft technical fellow Mike Ehrenberg. It has been built in a cloud-based version initially but will also be available on-premises in 2016.

Analysts characterized it as a major step forward for the Microsoft ERP platform.

Andrew Snodgrass, research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, called the upcoming release "impressive" but said significant changes in the underlying platform will influence the on-premises migration path.

"An on-premises upgrade from previous AX versions will be a new install, and will likely require new hardware that takes advantage of the changes," Snodgrass said. It will also require a hybrid cloud and on-premises environment that draws on cloud-based deployment and business intelligence services. "These are all good things, but customers who have concerns about the cloud need to consider the path forward carefully."

Cloud first, but hybrid environments for on-premises users

Ehrenberg outlined key components of the Dynamics AX upgrade:

HTML-based UI. Dynamics AX has a new user interface (UI) that is built on HTML5, a Web language that is optimized for mobile devices and provides cleaner, simpler code. "For a business application to be successful, it has to be something that people enjoy using and that helps them get more done," Ehrenberg said. "It's all about delivering the right scenarios, with the right experiences, on the devices that users choose." Dynamics AX is designed to work on a PC, tablet or mobile phone, and will be available on IoS and Android.

Task guides. This feature is an integrated training mode in Dynamics AX that allows users to record the steps in a business process, much like a macro in Microsoft Excel. They are then walked through that process with cues in the UI, according to Ehrenberg.

Embedded analytics. Dynamics AX now provides reports and dashboards natively rather than requiring users to pivot to a separate business intelligence (BI) application. "You don't do your work in an application, then switch to a BI tool," Ehrenberg noted. "It's near-real-time analytics that's embedded pervasively in the application."

Dynamics AX also enlists Microsoft Azure, Power BI and SQL Server to enable more real-time data. With SQL Server capabilities, AX analytics can now refresh in "near-real-time, Ehrenberg said. "We're driving that BI using the in-memory column store capabilities of SQL [Server]. So, all the latency that existed in the past with a cube that might not have been refreshed, the performance hit of refreshing that cube -- it's gone." Down the road, AX analytics will be available natively in other business applications, including Dynamics CRM.

Business productivity and Office 365 interoperability. While Microsoft had already offered role-based views and user experiences in various applications, the AX Workspaces feature "takes it a step further and tailors information for, say, a finance worker to specific processes, such as the period-close process," Ehrenberg said. Using Workspaces, a company can better manage the financial close process without having to enlist a third-party tool. Industry-specific Workspaces have been designated for manufacturing, cost administration, human capital management and others.

Cloud-first release. Ehrenberg explained why the release is cloud first, though an on-premises version will be available in 2016. "Next year, with Windows Server 2016, SQL 2016 and the Azure stack … we'll get that cloud architecture right first, then deliver on-premises." Users can also benefit from elasticity to accommodate their peak loads without having to pay a premium.

Snodgrass listed the UI's reliance on the cloud-based Power BI as a reason on-premises versions will require hybrid environments. "The future for on-premises customers is hybrid," he said.

Another important platform change is the separation of the application layer into two components, one that handles the underlying application platform and a second that contains application code, including customizations. "This separation is key for developers, as it allows the security and performance of the product to be updated with minimal impact to custom code," Snodgrass said. "It simplifies a previously difficult and time-consuming task."

Application lifecycle management for ERP deployments and upgrades. Ehrenberg noted that Microsoft is trying to facilitate the implementation and upgrade process through more seamless deployment, with upgrades guided by cloud-based Microsoft Lifecycle Services (LCS).

Other analysts also offered positive impressions of the new release.

Eric Kimberling, managing partner of Panorama Consulting Solutions, said it shows Microsoft is serious about investing heavily in its Dynamics roadmap. "Some of their enhancements around mobility and integration to Microsoft Office suggest that they are investing to make themselves more differentiated from their other tier-one competitors, as well as investing more heavily in cloud technologies," Kimberling said.

Paul Hamerman, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, pointed to a recent analysis in which he highlighted the cloud BI and deployment features, HTML5 UI and Azure infrastructure. The release, "which is a major architectural overhaul of the solution that has been in the works for several years, is an important release for Microsoft," Hamerman wrote.

Dynamics AX will be generally available in the first quarter of 2016. While Microsoft isn't disclosing licensing and pricing details, Ehrenberg noted that the structure will be a per-user, per-month subscription model. Microsoft has also accounted for different levels of users, ranging from basic users to users that need "the full buffet," he said. In some cases, licensing can be based on number of devices rather than user level.

Additional reporting by news editor Jim O'Donnell.

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