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Prognostication’s always fun – post a blog entry of semi-plausable outcomes – zap the ones that never quite materialized and highlight the winners – in a few years, you’re a FUTURIST! – All kidding aside, the tech press is full of predictions and analysis, but if you really want to know the future, look to the past.

Netscape was the dominant browser company at the beginning of the internet age – having achieved a reported 90% market share and market cap of $10b, but within 6 years went from 90-to-nothin’  – now all that really exists is some of the sourcecode powering Firefox.  In what’s referred to as ‘the first browser wars’ Microsoft’s Internet Explorer achieved dominance and remains the de facto standard on many PC’s today, coming bundled with the Microsoft Office productivity software that’s been nearly universal in the business community for 20 years.


While the anti-trust legal circus would follow, and the politicians and lawyers would extract their piece of the pie, the truth is, it’s hard to stop the march of technology.  “Borrowing” ideas, reengineering, reworking  and presenting as the next best killer app has been happening since Apple borrowed the GUI interface from Xerox, and Microsoft borrowed the Windows concept from Apple and so on.  So if history repeats, as it  does,  and we take a look at what’s really going on in the real world of businesses purchasing softwares, who’s the next Netscape?  You might look at Webex and Go-To-Meeting conferencing software, business Intelligence leaders like Cognos, Hyperion and SAS, Document Management systems like Documentum from IBM, HP’s offering, and a few dozen other DM systems. And then there’s VMWare – which dominates today… with not quite a 90% market share….

So what are the next killer apps that will wreak this havoc on the software world?  Same as in the Netscape days, it’s Microsoft’s productivity platform – Office 365.  And upfront, there are two things this article is not – 1) This is not a review of planned features and phantom new releases, this is a case study of actual business cases and what businesses are doing today.  And 2) It’s not a technical white paper, it’s a business case review – if you need to talk tech and specs – I’ll be glad to put you onto the right people that work your level of jargon into every sentence – I’m just not going there here and today.

Turns out you already own that…

Most mid to large companies today license their software from Microsoft through what’s called an Enterprise Agreement – this includes the commonly known Office tools such as Outlook for email, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and a few other common tools.  And many businesses run databases that use MS SQL Server, Exchange to manage accounts, and there are things included such as SharePoint and other back end tools that are ‘bundled’ within the Office package. Granted, some of these tools originally made a splash like SharePoint 2003, which was good at the time, but most companies didn’t have the experience or fortitude to deploy it properly and most users didn’t adopt due to kludgy rollouts, so as IT managers were ignoring and not deploying new SharePoint applications, Microsoft has been quietly developing some incredible new features that are now out in the 2013 releases and bundled with Office 365. 

Document Management

What this means is that, back in 2004, seeing that SharePoint didn’t quite catch on – companies would go out and spend huge dollars on Document Management systems – $300k and $400k were not unheard of for decent sized banks, law firms, medical companies – these systems allowed massive storage of electronic documents, search capabilities so things could be found, version control, sharing and other features.  Great solutions. Saved lots of time. Kept company documents secure and available.  And over the years, that $300k system had annual maintenance fees, meaning companies were paying 20% a year for upgrades, support, etc – which translates into ‘repurchasing’ the $300k solution every 5 years – so by 2012, they’ve sunk nearly $1m into document management, with $60k annual maintenance fees every year.

Now, we’re seeing clients use the Office 365 technology that they already own, SharePoint along with Azure cloud storage to transfer years and terrabytes of documents into a searchable, retrievable environment that works regardless of where it’s accessed, regardless of whether the user is on a laptop, PC, iPad, smartphone or whatever device. And the only additional cost is the amount of cloud storage that’s needed depending on the size of the information. They already own everything they need in Office 365.

Business Intelligence

The classic Business Intelligence model was developed some years ago.  While large amounts of data could be ‘crunched’ to return relevant comparative information, it took quite a bit of computing power.  In the early days of BI, we’d have companies trying to analyze manufacturing, distribution, sales and financial data on a daily basis, only to find it took the server running full speed 26 hours to put everything together – and meanwhile, all the systems ‘feeding’ the BI process took a massive performance hit.  So the idea of a ‘data warehouse’ was born, meaning you transfer all the info from the databases to a separate server, allow that server to run the processes and if your server was powerful enough, you could run daily data in less than a day, and it didn’t tax your production servers so the rest of the business could continue to operate. And generally, the company would employ a handful of analysts to compile and report the relevant data findings to the rest of the company. Again, not uncommon for companies to invest multiple hundreds of thousands into gaining actionable data – and then anywhere from $10k – 45K for each user of the BI system.

Fast forward to today, Microsoft’s SQL Server has vastly improved Reporting Services including some really powerful tools such as PowerView, improvements on PowerPivot, and when combined with SharePoint, businesses are now developing dashboards, data analysis, pivot tables, and delivering them through Excel spreadsheets – meaning we’ve gone from a few analysts bottlenecking the data to anyone with Excel and SharePoint access being able to see information that’s relevant and timely.  And who’s licensed for Excel, not just a few users – we’re talking about the entire company in most cases – but you can also secure who sees what data as needed.

So now, we’re seeing the elimination of proprietary BI systems, ongoing license and maintenance costs eliminated, and more users getting more actionable data.  And it’s not limited to databases running on SQL Server, with the right integration, you can gather info from any database, plus with virtualization and cloud processing, we can apply whatever processing speed is needed to get the job done – and best of all, we already own the tools needed to expand our BI capabilities.

Collaboration and Conferencing

Here’s an interesting story – late 2011 or early 2012 I was working with a software firm who embraced the Office 365 concept – and being a valued Microsoft partner by fact of our software offering required Microsoft technology to operate and we brought millions in SQL Server licensing to the company – our pals in Redmond offered us a hugely discounted rate to convert to Office 365. We, being a technology company, decided that outside consultants were a waste of time and budget. So we did it ourselves. Great. Rollout was misery, days of starts stops and lost emails, bungled launches and re-launches. It was a nightmare. Since it couldn’t be us, we being of the perfect variety, we deemed it must be a buggy Microsoft not-ready-for-prime-time release. But we muddled through. (I may be exaggerating slightly, but not much.)

Once we’re up and running – we’re told about Lync -how we can now hold conference calls, demos and collaboration with Lync meetings.  This was great. It seemed we lived on Go-To-Meeting, Citrix’s conferencing software – everyone in the company had a log-in and we were constantly doing customer demos, conferencing presentations, webinars and more.

But now we had Lync.

Day three of the last launch of Office 365 and we’re stable and running. Everyone’s getting email and seeing their calendars. Some of the folks even have their iPhones synced with Exchange. Life is good.

We schedule our first Lync meeting with several of the top managers in attendance.  Well, it went about as well as everything else we’d tried the first time – which is horrid. We determined immediately that Lync just didn’t work. Fortunately, we could move the meeting instantly to Go-To-Meeting and away we go on our merry way – a memo came out later that afternoon stating we’d be staying with Go-To-Meeting for the immediate future.

Fast forward to 2013 – now I’m with a systems integrator with one of the top Microsoft consulting groups in the country (ok, actually we’re global – not to brag). Lync is amazing. We’re pulling together meeting instantly from all over the world – conferencing in our offshore development sites in Tunisia with clients in the states, collaborating from wherever and whenever. And we already own Lync – as part of Office 365 – we’re not paying for any outside conferencing service.

And here’s the kicker.  My former firm, the guys who were too cheap to bring in qualified systems integrators to get the Office suite up and running – they are paying more every month to license Go-to-Meeting than it would have cost to do it right in the first place. Think about that one for a minute. They own Lync. They don’t use Lync. They spend money every single month paying for another system to do what Lync does, when they could spend that same amount one time and eliminate the monthly cost from here on out.

Virtual Management

Today, whether companies are running internal clouds, using public clouds, hybrid environments or just maintaining several virtual servers – a technical complexity is involved.

Simply, it comes down to, “After a few months of creating these myriad of virtual servers for a myriad of applications, exactly what servers have we created and where did we put them all?”  Throw in a few multiple location companies, and a few multiple divisions that a single IT group is supporting and it can get very complex very quickly.

Virtualization has been an emerging technology for several years, again, a leader, VMWare has the majority of the market share.  It’s really a lost cause trying to convince IT Managers to convert when they have so much invested in VMWare – but if you can convince them to TRY Microsoft’s Hyper V – we’re seeing about 3/4ths of those who’ve actually worked with it develop a preference for Hyper V – and again – they already own it.

Microsoft’s Server Center’s recent release has a couple of our customers deploying it for managing various cloud/hybrid/virtual environments, I promised only to talk about real world results – and we have early favorable reports – I can’t yet call it ‘results’.

The Catch, the Caveat, the Disclaimer

As mentioned earlier, technology doesn’t stand still. As the market turns to virtualization, a company with Microsoft’s R&D capacity may not be first to market, but they’re not going to ignore trends (don’t mention the 2002 internet strategy here – don’t -don’t – oops did it again).  Some analysts interpret this as malevolent intent, as if Microsoft exists only to crush the competing companies.  I may be naive and have no sources within the Microsoft brain trust, but I would expect any technology company would monitor trends and develop toward those ends in an effort to stay relevant.

And with Office 365 there’s been a tremendous amount of progress. It’s great with BYOD and remote workforces – both trends that drive today’s workplace and create logistical nightmares for IT managers.  Once you’re licensed for O365 as a user, you can install on up to 5 devices – so you have Office at work, on your smartphone, on your table, at your home office regardless if it’s Mac or PC (which marks the beginning of the end of that PCvMac discussion that’s been boring us to tears for the last decade – of course it’s been going on for more than a decade, it’s just everything that could be said was already said 10 years ago, we’ve just been repeating ourselves since).

But here is the caveat – Office 365 is an incredibly powerful platform with a lot of moving parts – you can do all these amazing things with it, but you can’t do it yourself.  You need a qualified systems integration partner to make the bells ring and the whistles sing.

It’s nothing magic, it’s just that if you want to replace a Document Management system with SharePoint and Azure, you’re going to need someone who’s coverted terrabytes of data into a searchable, productive dataset with the security and backup you’ll need. And just like anything else, the first time you take on the project, you learn a lot, make a few mistakes and you learn more each time. Those teams that try this on their own are going to find those first-timer mistakes will affect user adoption, project rollout and the ultimate success or failure of the project.

What’s at stake is literally millions of dollars for the large enterprise – but the costs are there for the smaller companies as well. Just make sure you’re found the right partner to make your Office 365 project a success and you too, can eliminate tens of thousands of ongoing maintenance fees from the company slated to be the next Netscape.

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