Microsoft BI Stack or Best-of-Breed BI for Microsoft Dynamics AX, NAV, GP and SL?

When it comes to selecting a Business Intelligence (BI) solution to get the most out of your Microsoft Dynamics ERP investment, you have four choices:

1) Use the tools that come natively embedded within different Dynamics ERPs
2) Extend or replace the native ERP BI tools with the Microsoft BI stack of tools
3) Implement a best-of-breed third party solution
4) Some combination of the three options above

These options and much of the discussion below would apply for any ERP system, not just the Dynamics (AX, NAV, GP and SL).  This decision has a critical impact on the success of an ERP/BI deployment, and is often not discussed as thoroughly as it should be during the ERP/BI pre-sales process.

Let’s begin with a definition of BI (as per Microsoft):

“Business intelligence turns information into action through data gathering, analysis, monitoring, and forecasting to identify opportunities, minimize risk, and improve management insight.”

Before we go into detail on BI for the Microsoft Dynamics ERP solutions, let’s look at BI from the standpoint of the partner organization that will be reselling and implementing the ERP and BI solutions and then customer that will be using these tools:

1) Philosophical viewpoint
Is it better for a Dynamics ERP customer to get both the ERP and the BI components from a single vendor, in this case Microsoft?

a) Typical, initial customer opinion: Yes
Why would I not want a single ERP/BI solution from a single vendor? That must mean that I get something that is fully integrated out-of-the-box, where ERP/BI releases are synchronized and always compatible, and if something ever goes wrong, I can just call the helpdesk and whether the issue is ERP-related or BI-related, they will take care of me. If I am dealing with a big, global vendor like Microsoft, I can expect a fully integrated support solution.

b) Typical ERP partner (reseller) opinion: Yes
My prospective customers don’t want to hear that I propose a BI solution from a different vendor than that of the ERP system I am selling them. They would want to hear that it is all one integrated package from Microsoft, so I will lead with this offering and then, if the Microsoft BI stack does not cover their needs, the customer will hopefully come back to me later and ask for something better, at which point I can bring in a third party BI solution.

The situation above plays out every day all over the globe.  There are both pros and cons to this “single vendor” approach:
• Pros:
Unless there are any objections in the sales process, the partner gets to sell the ERP system and do the implementation. The customer will spend less money up front on software as many of the BI tools from Microsoft are included in the underlying platform, and the customer gets to deal with a single vendor if there are issues.

• Cons:
As we will discuss below regarding features and functionality, the customer will often find that all their BI needs are not fully covered. However, as they typically have already sunk a lot of money into the implementation for report writing, OLAP cube and/or Data Warehouse design, and the various tools in the Microsoft stack have already been installed, there is a great barrier to changing strategy “midstream.”  Having to now rewrite the deployment architecture, to pay for a 3rd party BI tool, and to deal with a second vendor is a great departure from the initial plan. Furthermore, the customer might have discovered that calling the ERP helpdesk with a BI problem (such as a broken Cube or PowerMap issue) is often not the right helpdesk for a BI issue. Additionally, if a report or cube has been customized by the partner, the partner consultant is probably the only place to go for help, as Microsoft does not directly support customizations and other consulting organization resources will have steep learning curves and will be expensive to get up to speed on the custom reports.

In summary, what initially during the purchase process looked like a great ERP/BI combo story with reduced risk, integrated platform, single vendor support, single Microsoft BI suite, and simplicity (number of tools, etc.) may turn out to be a solution in need of a 3rd party, best-of-breed BI software investment after the fact, with the possible reworking of some of the initial implementation of reports, budget models, or other collateral.

Now, you would think that Oracle, SAP, or other mega ERP vendors have their act more together than Microsoft, but the truth is that they don’t:
• Oracle tried to solve their BI problems by acquiring companies like Hyperion, Siebel (where Siebel Analytics originated), Brio and other companies.
• SAP went on a shopping spree and bought Business Objects (who again had acquired SRC, Crystal Decisions, Cartesis, etc.), Outlooksoft and more.

The fact is that while Microsoft may have their own issues when it comes to delivering a comprehensive BI suite for their Dynamics customers, so does every other ERP vendor.  The case can be made that Microsoft actually has a better BI story than most ERP vendors. And because Microsoft has a massive, global independent software vendor (ISV) program, there is a rich ecosystem of third party BI vendors supporting the Microsoft platform with integrations to all four of the Dynamics ERP systems.

Note: If you are into the history of BI, here is a good overview of the many BI acquisitions of the last decade.

2) Functional Viewpoint
So, if we go beyond the higher level arguments presented above, and we dig down into features and functionality, is it best to go with the Microsoft BI stack of tools or a third party solution?

Let’s start by looking at what the Microsoft BI stack looks like. The following list is not all-inclusive, but covers at least 90% of the available tools:

Microsoft BI tools:
- Excel
- Power BI
- Power Map
- Power Pivot
- Power Query
- Power View
- SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS)
- SQL Server
- SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) and various Dynamics OLAP cube builders
- Management Reporter (has replaced FRx for GL reports)
- SharePoint (to set up dashboards, host reports, etc.)
- Native Dynamics ERP Report Writers
- Native Dynamics ERP transaction query/list tool
- Forecaster (budgeting and forecasting tool late in its life cycle)
- Native Dynamics ERP budgeting

So, if you are a potential Dynamics ERP customer, the most obvious observation is likely that this list contains approximatly15 different tools. Some of them are Excel add-ins, some are proprietary report writers and budgeting tools, some are web-based and some are platforms to build data warehouses or OLAP cubes. So, even though many of the tools are free, the implementation, training and ongoing maintenance of the tools is not free. More importantly, as an end-user, where do you go for a Payables report, for a P&L report, to create a quick trial balance query on the fly, to enter a payroll or revenue budget, to see a sales dashboard, and so on? Well, the answer is that you would be going a lot of places (tools, interfaces, etc.) in the Microsoft stack for these needs and if you are the power user on the finance team, you will be going to a number of training classes to learn the different tools.  Some of these tools, like SSRS, SQL, SSAS and SharePoint are highly technical developer oriented tools, and most users may need IT’s help to develop and maintain their critical BI applications.  Then there is the concern that if something truly breaks, you will likely have to deal with multiple different helpdesk resources at Microsoft due to the complex interdependencies that exist in the Microsoft BI stack.

Now, again, it is important to state that Microsoft is by no means a laggard amongst ERP vendors when it comes to BI. If anything, they provide more tools, with more features and choices than perhaps any other ERP vendor out there.

But wait, there’s more…..

3) Which solution is it better for the Partner to sell?
If you are not an ERP customer reading this, but rather, you are a partner, you have additional items to consider when it comes to proposing the Microsoft BI stack versus a 3rd party BI solution:

• What will help win more ERP deals?
This is a tough one, if your prospective customer is happy with the Microsoft BI stack and how it solves their business’ needs and you don’t think they will come back after the ERP implementation and ask for major additional functionality such as budgeting, forecasting, financial reporting, dashboard or data warehouse functionality beyond what you just implemented for them, then you probably helped them make the right choice. If not, then you have some explanation and “selling” to do once your customer asks you why you did not advise them to look at some best-of-breed third party solutions before they sunk time and money into the existing BI implementation.

It is commonly seen in our experience that most prospective customers hope and believe that their new ERP system has all the BI they need built right in. If you explain that this really may not be true in fact, and explain why right up front, chances are good that you will be rewarded for your consultative, “trusted advisor” approach, as it is highly appreciated by almost anyone ready to go into a big ERP investment.

• Software margins and maintenance
Most of the Microsoft BI stack is free or included in the software scope of the ERP deployment, and that means no software margin and no recurring maintenance for the partner, while the opposite is true for 3rd party BI vendors. And, because the software is being paid for, there is also a staff of motivated developers always working away on a new version of the BI tool, while the opposite is often true when an ERP vendor acquires or puts free BI software into their solutions. Furthermore, as a partner, when you get margin on software and maintenance, you are also helping pay for your own company’s selling expenses, and which will allow you do a better job with presentations, proof-of-concepts, and other sales materials that will ultimately win you more ERP deals and maintain happier customers.

• Solving most or all of the customer’s functionality needs
Does the pure Microsoft BI stack or the third party best-of-breed BI solution give your customer the simplest, yet most complete solution? Chances are that the answer here is: No single one of them do the best job on their own. Take Dynamics AX 2012 for example.  There are hundreds of pre-built SSRS reports and Analysis Services cubes that come out-of-the-box for the various ERP modules. There is generally no reason to not use these included tools and to try to recreate everything in a third party BI tool. However, the need to look beyond the base material for better functionality or specific customizations often is driven by the pre-existing business requirements.  When an assistant controller or analyst sits down at the end of, or after the ERP implementation and says, “Hmm, I need to design a rolling 12 month Cash Flow statement with a trend chart.  Where is that included report?” or “I need to create a budget model that replicates the layout of our old, manual Excel spreadsheet templates and I need to integrate it to the GL and Payroll. Where do I go? ” SSRS? Management Reporter? Forecaster? The Excel add-in for AX? Each tool has its own interface and user manual. Each tool has its own specific strengths and weaknesses.  The truth is, you would need most of these tools and complete knowledge of how to deploy them appropriately.

So, what do you do? In many cases, you would get the optimal solution for your customer by combining some of the pre-built, native BI tools with the best-of-breed third party BI solution.

• I sell multiple ERPs; which BI tool do I use so I can build a sound BI practice?
Many Dynamics ERP vendors typically sell more than one ERP system. For example, they may sell Dynamics AX and Dynamics NAV, or Dynamics SL and Acumatica or Dynamics GP and Intacct. This adds even more complexity to the BI picture because although some of the Microsoft BI stack is universal and will work across many of these ERPs, there are still the native (built-in) ERP report writers that always differ from system to system, as with native ERP budgeting and sometimes dashboard functionality. So, in summary, there is great advantage to be had in aligning with a single third party BI suite that works for all the ERPs you are selling will that will allow you to build a BI practice within your partner organization that can thrive, even with limited staff.

Should Microsoft follow SAP and Oracle and acquire more BI tools and hope that this results in the “BI singularity” and the coveted “one version of the truth?” Probably not. If history tells us anything, it has not worked for any ERP vendor so far, and it is not likely to do so any time in the near future. What Microsoft does very well is to attract a host of software companies that develop best-of-breed solutions to fill gaps in Microsoft’s story or cater to specific industry verticals. If you went to any of the recent Microsoft Convergence conferences, you would see 15+ BI vendors in the exhibit hall, most of them thriving and growing even though Microsoft alone has 15+ tools in their own BI stack and despite many of them being completely free.

Even though many Dynamics ERP partners try hard to stick with a “pure” Microsoft story. The fact is that this is a living, breathing eco-system of Microsoft teams, partners, customers and best-of-breed ISV vendors, and in the end, customers will want to find the best solutions they can in order to maximize the value of their investment in Microsoft Dynamics. The question is, is it better for them to discover the optimal BI solution during the ERP sales process or after they have made significant investments in time and money trying out the “pure” Microsoft BI stack first?

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