ERP, componentization, and e-commerce: Page 3

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Database Access
Similarly, the promise of open database access has proved elusive. The major ERP systems are built upon a relational database as the central data store. "It was a big selling point at the beginning that there would be easy user access to data; since it was relational, you could just go get it using SQL," explains Shepherd. In truth, it is not easy and not just anybody can access the data, he continues.

First, the ERP databases are huge, consisting of 8000, even 10,000 or more tables. These tables have cryptic, highly abbreviated names. In addition, the way one designs a database for ERP transaction processing makes the data almost completely useless for business-oriented reporting and analysis, Shepherd points out. The normalization required to expedite transaction processing "makes even DBAs hard pressed to do ad hoc reporting. It is completely forbidding," he notes.

Even independent vendors, who once expected a lucrative niche in ERP data access and reporting, find it difficult. Nature's Way, for example, uses Crystal Reports for SAP reporting, but difficulties accessing the SAP tables led the company to build its own intermediate data warehouse. The company extracts SAP data to the data warehouse, from which it can access the data using Crystal Reports, Waters explains.


[T]he promise of open database access has proved elusive. ... [I]t is not easy and not just anybody can access the data.

Increasingly, the ERP vendors themselves have had to provide the data warehouse. "In essence, the companies have to provide a parallel schema in which the data is organized in a friendly, useful way," says Shepherd. Oracle, for example, offers integrated data access, but the data is organized as a separate set of tables inside the main Oracle ERP database. SAP provides its business information warehouse (BIW) as a separate module. Independent parties offer data marts that perform the same function.

Open database access, however, is not something in which customers are likely to lose interest. "It is very important that we access the information," insists the ERP implementation manager at a large media company. The company opted for Oracle Financials in large part because it promised the easiest data access. "We can use SQL, and it doesn't take an Oracle DBA just to run a query," he reports. Still, it is not something just any manager can do. "The bottom line: You have to learn SQL and have some basic knowledge of table structure," he says. Even then, the company gives selected power users two weeks of intense training before they can access data from the ERP system.

Customization
While pressure to make data accessible will continue, the clamor to customize ERP applications is dying down. For a while, smaller ERP vendors built their products with 4GL tools and touted the ease with which those products could be customized using the underlying 4GL. Today, however, "there is a very broad awareness on the part of both IT and business managers that modifying ERP software is the wrong thing to do," says Shepherd.

Still customers occasionally must modify the ERP system. "Customers need flexibility," insists Muschiano. SAP provides ABAP, a proprietary programming language. Oracle has development tools for Oracle Financials. Of the major players, JD Edwards has the most flexible customization initiative, he continues.

The pitfalls, such as complications when upgrading, force organizations to customize with care. "Customization is pretty dangerous, but there are some processes that you just have to do differently," says Brigance. When Reliant Energy has to customize SAP, it uses ABAP. "We are very careful. We tightly restrict what we do and we document everything very well," he adds.

Others, like Colgate-Palmolive, steer clear of customization. "We use ABAP but only for data access, not customization," Gittleman reports.

While the Web and e-commerce will continue as a major ERP direction, even more ERP trends are pushing onto the radar screens of industry observers and IT managers. Greenbaum identifies outsourcing (ASPs), analytical applications, and knowledge management as the best prospects among the next wave of ERP hot buttons. The lesson to draw, however, from the past few years as ERP fad after fad jumped into the spotlight and then receded almost as quickly, is to be selective. Some, but certainly not all, of these trends will prove worthwhile.


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