Such interdependencies aren't exclusive to Oracle's suite. "We've already encountered issues where you really have to upgrade the whole PeopleSoft suite at the same time," Hunter complains. "If you upgrade general ledger and not accounts payable, you find issues with that, so you end up just saying you're going to upgrade the suite at the same time, which then compounds the whole testing issue. You can't keep it isolated. They say you can, but, realistically, you can't."
Toward Service-Oriented ERP
The only real way to solve the upgrade problem is to crack ERP applications -- and their custom modifications -- into discrete components that use standards-based interfaces. Upgrade one component or even a group of them and, with luck, you won't break anything else.
"The idea that you really need to componentize the functionality, separate the logic from the process from the application, is something that isn't just good computer science, it's good business, too," says Joshua Greenbaum, an analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting. "Without a doubt, that is where the market is going," he says and adds that this massive overhaul of architecture, although underway, will take years.
In the interim, all of the top three ERP vendors have released application servers that may someday provide the underpinnings for a fully component-based ERP. But today they manifest themselves mainly as souped-up integration servers and development platforms. SAP's NetWeaver, which Greenbaum calls "representative of the future of enterprise software," provides the most prominent example. The NetWeaver platform has two run-time engines: one J2EE compatible and one as a container for apps written in SAP's ABAP (Advanced Business Application Programming) development language.
Oracle and PeopleSoft now also come with application servers, all of which embrace Web services standards and best practices. Despite how new the Web services push still is, most of the survey respondents say that this technology has played some role in their ERP application implementations. Thirty-two percent say the purpose is integrating ERP apps with other enterprise systems. And 41 percent say they're using Web services to expand the functionality of ERP apps to a greater number of users, which makes sense given our readers' prediction that more employees will use ERP apps in the next 12 months.
Return of the Monolith
Discrete business logic components and Web services everywhere may be the bright future of ERP. But today, AMR's Shepherd sees another, more immediate trend toward consolidation, not just among ERP vendors but within large companies that want to merge many ERP systems into one.
"They can't have 22 copies of SAP out around the world, each one implemented differently with different options turned on," Shepherd explains. "They want to have common processes; they want to have global visibility."
Companies now crave a single global accounting function, Shepherd says, with global visibility and common processes. Other business drivers include global cash management, global credit management, a more unified view of customers, and global purchasing leverage in procurement.
Consolidation is driving ERP to far-flung places where it never took root before. Remote offices that used low-end accounting systems may suddenly be faced with the prospect of an ERP deployment, even if that runs roughshod over products that were working just fine. Inevitably, the old lessons will apply.
"It's an implementation that affects every level of the company, every level of the organization," says Sonnax's Loewer. "An ERP implementation seems like it's 75 percent culture and 25 percent technology."