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ASSEMBLING SUPPLY CHAIN SOLUTIONS

Executive White Paper

Companies around the world have embraced the automation of their businesses in record numbers since the turn of the 21st century. Despite the economic challenges that we’ve faced, there is no question that we are more dependent upon the computer today than we were 3-4 years ago. Everywhere you look new software companies pop up with the “next killer app” that is going to revolutionize the world and make the founders of the company wealthy at the same time.

Yet, if you ask the average owner if they are more productive today than they were before they invested in technology all too often the answer is “I might not be.” Why is that? Certainly the software is intended to make the user more productive. It is even likely that the company implementing has put tremendous effort forth to insure an increase in productivity. But, the facts remain that the business owner can’t see tangible improvement.

When we went out and researched this question, the answer seemed almost counter-intuitive. The answer was that their systems had gotten so complex no one knew how to use them. Complex? The software was designed to be simple. How could it be complex?

The answer lies in the number of different systems that the average company depends upon these days. Ten years ago most companies had software from a single vendor to handle the basic business operations of their company. Today, it is not out of the range of possibility to expect that the same company has between 6-10 different software suppliers.

The Aberdeen Group explains it this way, “In an ideal world, companies would run their businesses as if their application portfolio were a single application. This application would take orders, generate shipping notices, and manage accounts receivable. It would also run manufacturing processes, automatically replenish materials as necessary, and exist as a Web-based front-end for customer interaction. Instead, the real world is populated with silos of data that do not interact, and gaggles of independent applications that defy efforts to unify processes across the enterprise.”

The complexity that we heard (and saw) was driven by the lack of interaction between the disparate applications. Think about it – most companies run financial applications, sales applications, business intelligence applications, warehouse management, e-business, customer relationship management, inventory and procurement, scheduling, project management, and/or human resource solutions. If you have a question that span the “islands of information”, how difficult is it to get the right answer?

Accellos was built as the solution to this ever growing problem. By assembling products through acquisition, internal development and strategic partnership, the thesis was that a unified solution could be delivered to the mid-market customer that simplified their lives and harkened back to the “single system” of yesteryear thus driving a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) and greater return on the initial investment.

 

Technology as Enabler

The truth is that software has been developed and deployed to focus on functional silos for most of its life. It might be focused on providing a means to capture accounts receivable and maintain the balance a customer owes you. There has traditionally been little regard to who else might need that information or what other information the person chartered with managing the accounts receivable may need.

But, technology can change all that. There is a new breed of application arising called “composite applications”. Aberdeen defines a composite application as “an enterprise-spanning layer above the applications that behaves as a single application and provides a bird’s-eye view of a business”.

Efficient business processes-and how tightly they connect functional groups and partner organizations-determine whether companies succeed or fail in the marketplace. These “composite applications” allow you to build the processes you need from the resources you already have. They transcend the limitations of current enterprise software, giving decision-makers the tools they need to enable, expand and extend a dynamic network of inter-related applications (or web services). By creating re-usable components of functionality from new and existing applications, they allow you to configure, reconfigure, and adapt as quickly and as often as business needs demand, both within and beyond the enterprise.

If we agree that agility is the key to future corporate success, then composite applications can form the basis. Some of the benefits that can be derived from the use of composite applications include:

  • Allow application functions and features to be inserted, extracted, updated, and rearranged within a flexible and centrally managed environment
  • Extend the functionality of existing applications within the enterprise infrastructure
  • Leverage widely adopted open industry standards to create a truly technology- and vendor-agnostic system
  • Tie together higher level business processes across any size network of partners or internal systems
  • Easily adapt to changing customer needs and business climates rather than relying on brittle point-to-point connections or manual integrations
  • Easily configure and assemble Web services to achieve tangible business value

When applications, systems and users are defined as services, developers can quickly create new “composite” functionality from an existing library of components. Instead of deploying completely new applications for each new business process, composite applications can make use of existing resources to extract, reconfigure, and integrate elements from existing business processes. New applications or process development is required only where existing services are incomplete.

The concept of composite applications represents a significant step toward delivering “software as a service” in a service-oriented-architecture — which is well documented to reduce the cost, complexity, and time to deploy flexible business applications.

 

Workspace as the Catalyst

To achieve the goal of a single solution experience for our customers while retaining the deep functionality of the individual products that Accellos acquired necessitated a dramatic departure from the Accellos products of the past. Each of them was largely self-contained, or monolithic, in their design. They “interfaced” with other products but didn’t generally “integrate” with them. The go forward paradigm is a series of distributed, loosely-coupled applications much like the apps on a smart phone. While we had decided upon the Microsoft stack as the core infrastructure (server OS, database, etc.), we needed a “platform” upon which to build these new applications.

Research started late in 2008 and work began early in 2009 on a project that would later become known as Workspace. The goal was to build a platform that was internet-centric, yet provided a rich user experience akin to that of a desktop application. The platform had to leverage both internally developed services and commercially available services. And, it had to allow for the “docking” of external content within the user experience. It was envisioned as an “immersive” experience that offered the user the single “pane of glass” where they could transact all of their daily business.

Further, it had to be flexible in its deployment methodology – supporting on-premises, cloud and software as a service (multi-tenant) scenarios.

Through several iterations an initial version was developed and made available to a select set of Accellos development resources. Development of the fi rst set of applications, Pulse and Schedule, began in August of 2009 and were delivered to the initial customers in early 2010. The Workspace framework has evolved to include asked for features like Active Directory integration, a Supply Chain Event framework, integration to Microsoft’s Workflow Foundation, and many more. From its rich internet user experience, leveraging Microsoft’s Silverlight technology, to its native services orientation, Workspace is providing the flexible, performant, adaptable foundation that is needed to achieve the objectives that we set from the beginning.

 

Assembling Solutions

There is a picture of Tinker Toys on the cover of this white paper. Tinker Toys are emblematic of the philosophy of the Accellos strategy. Just like different children will build different toys using the component pieces, so will different customers assemble solutions to fit the needs that their business has.

First, deconstruct the monolithic applications that Accellos acquired into their underlying components. Second, remodel or rebuild those components into a series of independent applications that share a common platform and integration methodology. Then, use the appropriate set of the apps to assemble a loosely-coupled solution that solves a specific business problem.

Those three steps essentially define the AccellosOne product strategy. The challenge that the mid-market customer faces, as discussed in the executive overview, is that the chore of “knitting” their 6-10 applications together to meet their business need falls to them. Like the Tinker Toys, AccellosOne uses common components and adapters to allow the customer, or their consultant/partner, to easily assemble a rich solution that both meets their business needs today and can adapt to their needs in the future as well.

 

Addressing Vertical Market Needs

In the past, building a vertically specific software solution was challenging. It required domain expertise in the vertical market chosen and generally meant that the solution built was isolated from extending to other adjacent markets without significant investment.

That’s where assembly plays a huge role. When you can assemble a vertically specific solution from a set of loosely coupled components, it is possible to reconfigure those components into a virtually limitless array of addressable markets. And, allows the customer themselves to fi ne tune the assembly into a solution that addresses their business needs, not just the needs of the market in which they compete. Finally, assembling a solution also allows for the inclusion of third party components that are specially fabricated for even the most granular piece of vertical functionality you can imagine.

 

It’s Not All or Nothing

With many vendors, the customer is required to license applications that they may not need in order to get the use of functionality that is important to their business. Since AccellosOne is assembled from independent applications that share a common platform, that same customer can be very selective in choosing only the “apps” that make sense for their business – much like they would in downloading apps to their smartphone to tailor its use to their needs.

Equally important, each of the AccellosOne Apps has a services oriented integration layer that can be leveraged to assemble solutions that work with nearly any enterprise application – ERP, Supply Chain or otherwise.

That effectively extends the “assembly” model to the broader group of customers that may not presently utilize any Accellos technology.

 

Extending the Enterprise

Face it, we live in a world where information is the primary currency and availability of information is every business’s chief concern. It is paramount to deliver key performance indicators to corporate managers and leaders to empower their decision making and equally important to increase the visibility of individual performance results to the business’s important customers, suppliers and partners. Transparency of information is an expected part of the “contract” between the stakeholders in today’s corporations.

Since the AccellosOne Apps are built on the internet-centric Workspace platform, they can be made available to anyone running a browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome or Safari). Unlike many solutions on the market that offer a watered down internet alternative to their extended stakeholders, AccellosOne leverages a single set of Apps to deliver robust information to all members of their ecosystem. The Apps all leverage a core feature of the Workspace platform that allows for each user to be assigned specific identity attributes that provides the Apps the ability to tailor the level of information available. But, the benefit is that all of the employees are using the exact same solution as their customers, suppliers and partners.

 

Don’t Forget the Cloud

Everyone has heard about cloud computing. You can’t pick up an IT magazine without seeing another article singing its praises. The problem is that most business owners don’t have a clear picture of what cloud computing really is.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (U.S. Department of Commerce) defines cloud computing in this way: “Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

Most, if not all, cloud computing is built around the concept of virtualization. It is virtualization that allows for the configurability, rapid provisioning and minimal management or service provider involvement.

Accellos is a believer in virtualization and thus in cloud computing. As a result, it was a core requirement when we designed and developed the Workspace platform. The entire platform, including the AccellosOne Apps, can be deployed as a virtual appliance which simply means as a preconfigured virtualized pool of servers and resources optimized for scalability, performance and manageability. Further, the virtual appliance can be deployed in a “private cloud” (for the exclusive use by a single organization) either on premise or off, in a “community cloud” (for the exclusive use by a specific community of consumers from organizations that have shared concerns) or in a “public cloud” (provisioned for open use by the general public). The platform doesn’t discriminate about which deployment methodology is best for a given customer – it simply supports all of the models.

 

Summary

Our thesis is clear – provide solutions that are simple, productive and drive results to the bottom line. Use technology that is enabling instead of exclusionary. Make the user experience rich, but familiar. And collaborate with customers, partners and industry experts to “assemble” solutions that offer clearly differentiated solutions to business needs.