First look at Dynamics 365

First look at Dynamics 365

Microsoft have released the first official look at the new Dynamics 365 suite, and it looks brilliant.

Dynamics 365 is a combination of Dynamics CRM, Dynamics Marketing, and Dynamics AX, and is available for the first time as an integrated, out-of-the-box cloud solution.

While you could integrate CRM and AX previously (Thanks, Azure Service Bus!), they were still two separate products and platforms that simply synced certain data back and forth. Dynamics 365 is new in this regard – it comprises a variety of modules/apps, all integrated across the suite and leveraging a common data model. This allows a business to pick and choose which modules it wants to use (Sales, and Financials, maybe) based on functional business area, and expand later on (adding in Marketing and Operations, for instance).

Thanks to the simple per-app/per-user licensing model (which I’m a BIG fan of), all employees get access to all the data they need to do their job. This is a huge improvement from the old Dynamics AX / Dynamics CRM licensing position – it was almost impossible to calculate what licenses you needed (the license levels were difficult to understand across a large company), and they were all very expensive. Plus, there was the dependency licenses – Windows Server licenses to scale out the AOS cluster or the SQL or SSRS functions, SQL Server licenses (expensive Enterprise Edition ones if you wanted to deploy a highly-available AlwaysOn cluster), hot-spare provisions within Software Assurance which allowed for site failover, etc. Following the simple Office365 licensing model, Dynamics 365 should be very straightforward to license and budget for. And let’s face it, one of the most important decisions when looking at a new tool is “how much is this going to cost me?”. Now, you’ll be able to answer that question quickly and accurately.

The other huge improvement here (no surprises that I like this), is that the product is available as a complete cloud solution. No running up servers, no needing your own datacentre, no need to worry about backups and data security and all of that. This is a huge time saver firstly, but obviously also delivers a massive cost saving.

I’ve had a bit of experience in designing, building and deploying both Dynamics CRM (2011 and 2013) and Dynamics AX 2012, both as on-prem installs in our own datacentre, as well as building as on-prem installs in Azure’s Infrastructure-As-A-Service facilities. Microsoft have done some good work with LifeCycle Services and the ability to automatically deploy a scaled environment into Azure from template – it saves a lot of time and gets the basics right. But there’s still a lot of post-deployment configuration and tweaking to do. You still need an AX Technical Accountant to help out. And if you want your AX environment to use existing or consolidated resources (IE, if you want to use your existing SQL Server database cluster vs building and licensing a dedicated SQL just for AX) then you’ve got to be prepared to get your hands dirty. Getting the design alone right is a complex job, and it simply takes a lot of time to build, configure and customise the platform.

The biggest issue people will have with a cloud-hosted ERP is “how am I meant to integrate my other on-premise apps and data with it?”. Whilst I don’t know the specifics of Dynamics 365 yet, I expect my answer will be “the same way you used to when you deployed Dynamics on-prem”. And by that, I mean the Azure Service Bus. AX2012 had built in functionality to talk to a Service Bus. Dynamics CRM used the Service Bus to coordinate syncing between CRM (either on-prem or online flavours) and the online-only Dynamics Marketing app. The best bit was that you could build-in any integration you wanted using the Service Bus. So given that foundation, I expect integration between Dynamics365 and on-premise data silos should be reasonably straightforward.

On the topic of integration, Microsoft shows off the integration between Dynamics 365 and PowerBI, including the new embedded PowerBI charting. The natural language data manipulation of PowerBI will be a very welcome change for ERP reporting. Instead of needing a BI Designer on staff to create static SSRS or ManagementReporter reports, PowerBI will do all the heavy lifting for you, making every team member a data analytics expert. No delay, just simple, graphical and natural-language access to the data that you need to make better decisions.

This empowerment of every team member extends to the Cortana-based artificial intelligence built into the platform, which can proactively suggest actions for your team to take. This leverages Microsoft investments in both Azure Machine Learning and, more widely, their Cortana personal assistant. Personally, I’d be VERY surprised if we didn’t quickly gain Cortana-powered access into LinkedIn via Dynamics365, following Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn earlier in the year. Imagine being a sales person on the road, heading to your next client meeting. Because you’re busy, you’ve just jumped into a taxi straight out of your last meeting, and have 10 minutes to get up to speed on your next one. Integrated with your Outlook / Office365 calendar, Dynamics365 can fill you in with the customer’s current order status, any outstanding customer support issues that haven’t yet been resolved, as well as an overall indicator on the health of your relationship with them. Meanwhile, Cortana can reach into LinkedIn to quickly bring you up to speed on the meeting attendees – what their titles are, what projects they’ve been working on recently, who has a birthday next month, etc.

The mobile apps shown off in the videos look very well polished, and I’d be surprised if they aren’t the final release code. The presenter makes mention of baked-in offline caching of data, so that when you wander out of wifi coverage you can keep working. This is a huge step up in capability, and draws on the experience Microsoft gained in building the Dynamics AX Modern apps for Windows 8. This seamless ease of use, without the user needing to worry about “Am I online? Am I offline? What happens if I walk out of range whilst completing this form? Can I save it, or do I need to start again?“, builds trust in the solution and is just Plain Good Design.

There’s a LOT more in this, of course. And I expect there will be more to see over the coming weeks are we move closer to GA.

For now, this is a very exciting peek at a very compelling product. I can see a lot of smaller companies will be able to leverage this platform to gain the benefits of a consolidated ERP, something which has traditionally been well beyond their ability or budget.

To watch all the videos (and I recommend the keynote, it’s worth the 90min investment), click here:

Matt Russell

I started as a way to help business owners cut through the confusion and get real value from their IT systems. If you're a business owner who wants to improve your tools, or if you're an IT consultant helping business owners unlock their potential, you'll find something interesting here.

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