ERP upgrades were never for the faint of heart. Given the changing landscape of IT, companies modernizing their ERP environments need to weigh an unprecedented number of options when planning an infrastructure that is as primed to run ERP today as it will be tomorrow.
"The biggest difference today is options," said Ryan Overtoom, partner for hosted and managed services at Sikich LLP, a professional services firm specializing in midmarket companies and ERP. "If I'm a [CIO] or CFO, I can choose to go the Capex route and carry an on-premises environment or take the OpEx path and pay [for ERP software] monthly and run it in the cloud. There are more effective tools and more choices to play with that weren't around 10 years ago."
What companies want to avoid today is doing an in-place upgrade of the ERP software without considering the larger hardware and infrastructure issues, according to Ken Klika, director for network solutions at BCG Systems, a systems integrator. While this approach -- essentially installing the latest version of the software on top of the existing operating system and hardware -- is least disruptive, it's also the most shortsighted strategy, he advises clients.
"If you have a five-year-old ERP running on five-year-old hardware and a five-year-old operating system, when you run the new version [on that platform], it will run slow and it's a Band-Aid fix," Klika explained. "From a down time and cost perspective, it's the least impactful because you're leveraging existing IT assets, but it's the worst way you can approach [an upgrade] from a future and strategic standpoint."
New technologies complicate ERP upgrades
Beyond the usual hardware decisions related to ERP upgrades -- choosing the right mix of server horsepower to support existing and future users or specing the optimal configuration of memory and storage -- today's upgrades need to account for technologies that didn't exist to any significant degree several years back. Virtualization, in-memory databases and support for a hybrid ERP environment that blends on-premises and cloud capabilities are three of the more prominent hardware-related trends.
The exponential growth of big data is also having a major impact on ERP infrastructure, upping the requirements around storage and in some cases, changing the look and feel of the hardware altogether, according to Josh Greenbaum, principal at the Enterprise Applications Consulting firm.
"Upgrades have been much more complex because you have some really significant decisions as to what you upgrade to," Greenbaum said, specifically citing companies moving to in-memory architectures for their enterprise systems -- for example, SAP HANA or running Oracle eBusiness suite on Exadata. "The software is different enough that you very likely need completely new hardware as well," he explained. "And because there's more data under the roof of the average data center by many orders of magnitude, you're going to need more storage, as well as an elastic storage strategy. Whatever you think the requirements are today, you will have missed the boat without a doubt in five years. It's a different planning exercise all around."
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George Mackiewicz, president of CAL Business Solutions Inc., a Microsoft Dynamics partner and system integrator, noted that ERP upgrades are particularly challenging for his clients because they require two significant cultural shifts: changing the actual software and changing the processes business users work with every day. One way to reduce some of the anxiety and avoid pushback is not to change everything all at once, he explained.
For example, for some of its smaller clients, CAL Business Solutions will suggest an upgrade of the application servers to support the upgraded ERP release, but will leverage terminal server capabilities to allow older client PCs continued access to the system. "With this approach, you don't take a hit performance-wise even if the client machines are not the latest PCs on the market," Mackiewicz said. "You don't have to make a wholesale switch of both environments if the client truly can't afford it."
Rubber company virtualizes ERP upgrade
Many companies see an ERP upgrade as the optimal time to invest in new hardware and related technologies. That was the case with Portage Precision Polymers, an 80-person certified rubber-mixing facility in Ravenna, Ohio, which embarked on a virtualization strategy as part of its ERP upgrade game plan, according to Scott Bonnette, vice president of finance. The company, which is in fast-growth mode, was moving from the ExactMax ERP platform and QuickBooks financial package to the latest version of ExactMax, along with Microsoft Dynamics to accommodate its more sophisticated business processes.
Virtualization became part of the plan to make the ERP environment more resilient, as well as to help accommodate a growing number of remote users. "With virtualization, if we have to do a restart for ExactMax or Dynamics for any reason, we can take down the virtual server, restart it, and the majority of what everyone else is doing isn't impacted," Bonnette said.
One of the biggest issues related to the upgrade was sizing the server to support the virtual environment and to provide enough room for growth. "We're a company growing at a 20% rate, and we're looking to continue that for some time," Bonnette explained. "Make sure to size not only for what you're doing now, but for what you plan on doing several years down the road, because you will grow into it."
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