Microsoft Dynamics vendors provide comparisons and opinions to professionals in the ERP/Accounting software selection process

 
 

Malcolm Roach, Open Door Technology Inc.

Reflections of a seasoned Microsoft Dynamics NAV developer after three years of Dynamics 365 Business Central


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Superior design and investment by Microsoft pays off for customers and developers

 

Previously, investing in a mid-market accounting or ERP system meant customers were stuck with a legacy code base, out-dated technology, and a dubious commitment to change on the part of the software developer. In these system setups, once a system had achieved maturity, the ongoing maintenance revenues were usually all the company had to support daily operations. This often made updating the system an almost unaffordable luxury, especially when many existing customers abandoned the platform to avoid eventually upgrading to a new platform or, worse yet, stopped paying the annual maintenance and enhancement costs.

But today, with new and evolving technology from Microsoft, this is no longer the case. Now software developers can better accommodate their customers with more customized software systems, easy automatic upgrades, and personalized add-ons to meet each specified business need.

Please note that as a result of this market shift, many software consolidators have risen up in the marketplace. Software consolidators accumulate accounting systems and then exploit the majority of their new acquisitions for the annual maintenance fees and customer base.

System consolidation is a perfectly legitimate business model, however customers should be careful of buying into it. If you’re interested in this kind of software, we advise you to pick a platform the software developer has obviously fully committed to. They should be investing substantive amounts continually in research and development to improve their system.

We recommend a safer, more sustainable option that can grow with your business, like Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central. Read more below for a detailed explanation behind this recommendation.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central interface

A positive pivot to cloud-based systems by Microsoft Dynamics

The introduction of Microsoft into the mid-market ERP space brought significant change. Microsoft’s deep pockets can both run the four accounting systems it acquired back in the early 2000s and additionally develop new systems.

It took some years for Microsoft to wrap their heads around managing business solutions and upgrading them to the latest technology, but customers now have an amazing opportunity with either of the mid-market Dynamics 365 Business Central and tier one Finance cloud solutions. A great deal of this positive change has resulted from the pivot to cloud-based systems from on-premise solutions with their high cost in operating systems, hardware, and maintenance costs.

In 2002, the acquisition of Navision, a Denmark-based software developer, was a pivotal event for Microsoft in obtaining market leadership in the mid and upper mid-market space based on the Navision and Axapta products.

Over the last five years, these two systems have been upgraded substantially. Microsoft’s research and development spending level on these two products alone has presented some challenges to competitors, as sometimes just Microsoft’s investments are in excess of their competitor sales levels. Combine that with Microsoft’s extended investment in the cloud and the extended Dynamics family, and you have a formula for substantive change.

 

Reflecting on the strengths of Microsoft Dynamics’ technology platforms

After Microsoft’s acquisition of Navision 18 years ago, the product line has evolved into Dynamics 365 Business Central, a system that can flourish in the cloud with industry-leading technology. Below are some comparisons between the new and old technology platforms from a senior Dynamics product developer’s viewpoint.

Completely changing the development platform might lead people to think Dynamics NAV (formerly Navision) and Dynamics 365 Business Central are very different solutions. This might be true for the software developers. However, the Business Central Base Application still contains most of the robust business code logic and processing routines acquired in 2002 that were developed, tested, and enhanced over a number of years. The end user sees incremental improvements in the system’s capabilities, despite the transformative nature of the new toolkit, which aids in the adoption of the new system.

Even though the new development environment of Business Central is quite different from NAV, it is valuable for software developers to have a good understanding and working knowledge of the Microsoft Dynamics NAV framework and code structures to be able to build and extend code in Business Central.

When developers have considerable experience developing custom solutions and enhancing the core application within Dynamics NAV, they build up a very good understanding of the inner workings of the base application code logic. This gives them an advantage over newcomers when it comes to designing and building non-published or published apps for extending and enhancing the Dynamics 365 Business Central application.

 

NAV offered a really efficient design for system upgrades

Much of the past success of Navision and Dynamics NAV was based on the highly effective technical design of the product. An underlying technology layer was developed with Visual C, then Visual C++, and finally .Net. A proprietary business logic development layer was then placed on top of this layer, which allowed for a highly efficient design for future system upgrades.

When Navision came to North America in the late 1990s, it only had 264,000 lines of business logic. Comparatively, a competitor in the same market space used a proprietary development language for both the business and technology logic layers, resulting in a code base of 22,000,000 lines. The efficient design made it relatively simple to upgrade Navision to Dynamics NAV, and then to Dynamics 365 Business Central as technology progressed.

For example, one Microsoft employee said it took two days to move to Windows 2000: one day to change the code and one day to test the changes. That could have been an exaggeration, but Microsoft has been able to easily move the Navision product along to match its technology platform changes. The previously mentioned competitor is still in business, but they are locked into a code base that can’t be changed without a total re-write and the cost of doing so is impossible and/or impractical.

 

Business Central is designed to evolve with your unique business needs

With Dynamics 365 Business Central, Microsoft has been able to make a quantum leap in the underlying technology and still maintain its market leadership in the mid-market ERP space. The new Business Central Development Environment is aimed towards building apps and hosting ERP systems in the cloud.Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central logoBusiness Central utilizes a modern multi-language development environment based on Visual Studio which is an Open Source and cross-platform development environment. The .AL (Application Language) Extension for Visual Studio enables developers extend Business Central by building specialized apps for a specific customer. Additionally, developers can publish these apps for sale on Microsoft’s app marketplace, AppSource.

Business Central’s development code is developed in a file and folder-based environment, as opposed to code objects stored directly in the database. Source code control and version control is easily managed through the integration of version control extensions such as Git.

 

Advantages of Visual Studio AL environment

The first big advantage of the Visual Studio AL environment is the ability to install different extensions for supporting the development experience by providing developers with:

    • Code snippets that are re-usable code templates for quickly coding new or extending application objects
    • The ability to easily get context-sensitive IntelliSense
    • The option to have compiler validation while coding, instead of having to run debugs afterwards

The second main advantage are the updates to the development environment and upgrades to the ERP systems handled automatically with Microsoft’s regularly scheduled Business Central updates and upgrades. These upgrades happen semi-annually at a minimum, but improvements also often happen between major releases.

 

Comparing Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central & Dynamics NAV

The following table lays out the differences and details of each of Business Central’s and NAV’s technical aspects.

 

Dynamics NAV

Business Central

Platform

 

 

  • On premise and hosted solutions
  • Designed for Cloud-based deployments
  • Can also be hosted on-premise
  • Integration with Cloud Services and Cloud Intelligence

Ideology

  • Pre-dominantly on-premise implementations with some hosted sites
  • Often invasive customizations to suit customer needs, which have proven to be difficult and expensive to maintain, upgrade, extend, and support
  • Predominantly Cloud-based implementations
  • Less invasive customizations and multiple extension apps to extend and enhance business processes for companies, which can be upgraded automatically on semi-annual updates usually with minimal effort
  • Easier to extend, upgrade, and support

Development Environment & Language

  • C/SIDE (Client Server Integrated Development Environment): older technology with a fixed editor and very limited coding assistance
    - C/AL (Client/Server Application Language), which was a Database specific language
  • Object based with all Objects stored within the Database
  • Difficult to release and maintain version control on source code
  • Modern multi-language development environment using Visual Studio code, which is Open Source and Cross-platform. The development environment using VS Code Extensions. These improve development tools, including text editor enhancements for a better programming experience
  • .AL (Application Language) is based on C/AL, but it has been extended for future new language features and updates. It has been designed for developing Cloud-based apps for extending Business Central
  • It is a code centric, folder-based environment (not object based) that can be compiled and packaged as .app packages for specific customer use or published on Microsoft AppSource
  • Source code/version control (Git)
  • Ability to use Docker containers for developing and testing extensions, and maintaining different versions using Bit Time Saver
  • PowerShell scripting for quicker, easier handling of tasks and automation of tasks

Development Methodology

  • Developing new code logic
  • Directly customizing base system code logic including base or custom objects
  • Code object number ranges can be reserved for ISV development partners for their products
  • Developing new Code Logic
  • Extending Base Logic with event driven development coding, without changing base logic code, making upgrades easier and faster
  • Developing apps designed for the Cloud or on-premise databases
  • Code snippets that provide templates for coding application objects
  • Get context-sensitive IntelliSense
  • Compiler validation while coding

Updates

  • Updates when required
  • Regular updates on development environment

System Upgrades

  • Upgrades when required
  • Semi-annual updates on base application software and additional incremental automatic updates
  • PowerShell Integration

Apps

  • Install code extensions developed by ISV (Independent Software Vendor) partners directly from Microsoft AppSource to extend the functionality of the system

User Involvement

  • A power user instead of a developer can now amend pages, add new fields, and save the result as an extension

 

The changes Microsoft has invested in have proven to be positive for developers and customers

Of course, the toolkit change hasn’t been without its challenges - one of the greatest being the need to re-train many of the C/Side developers. Coding is taking more time than we are used to in the Dynamics NAV world. However, the selection of an industry-standard toolkit opens up an entire world of development graduates that would have otherwise been excluded or needed to be re-trained.

Microsoft continues to improve the development environment to the point where many classic developers are genuinely excited about the changes.  As you may expect however, some are still getting used to the changes.

 

Find more information on Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central here.

 

 

*Malcolm Roach is President and CEO of Open Door Technology, a Microsoft partner based in Calgary, Alberta with offices in multiple other countries. He is a professional accountant with a passion for business analysis and integration. He specializes in applying mid-market ERP software to grow organizations and improve business processes. You can contact Malcolm here.

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