The Microsoft technology stack incorporates an impressive array of different technologies. Power BI is becoming an important component of that stack, but partners should think carefully before making major IP investments that create long term technical debt the partner has to service. Dynamics partners may be tempted to build their own reporting solutions around Power BI, but they should fully explore the long-term implications of such a decision.
For Microsoft partners selling and implementing Microsoft Dynamics NAV, the company’s overall direction around its two core ERP products is a welcome development. After years of working with multiple ERP codebases, Microsoft partners can finally align around a clear roadmap for the future of Microsoft’s ERP and CRM products.
Each of the company’s four legacy ERP solutions had its own unique strengths and weaknesses. The Navision products, which eventually became Dynamics NAV and Dynamics AX, clearly had some strong advantages, especially in regard to global coverage and (especially in the case of AX) suitability to larger, more complex enterprises.
But those products also came with some downsides. Dynamics NAV, in particular, required heavy investments in time and resources to extend or modify business logic to tailor fit the application to specific customer needs. Partners who wanted to build upon Dynamics NAV with industry-specific functionality or cross-industry functional extensions had to invest considerable time in writing code, and then in maintaining that code over the long term version to version.
Maintaining extensions written using C/SIDE (the Dynamics NAV development environment) and C/AL (its associated programming language) became a resource-consuming exercise for NAV partners and many of the customers whom they served. This is not to say that partners did not also benefit from the additional billable hours associated with code maintenance work or upgrades
With each upgrade, C/SIDE and C/AL called for potentially disruptive rework. For ISV partners, that meant pouring piles of money into existing IP investments to keep them current with each new Microsoft release. For customers, it turned upgrades into highly disruptive, expensive, and often long-term projects. For many, it was enough to deter them from upgrading at all and it created versionlocked customers that were stranded versions behind where Microsoft wanted them to be.
As Dynamics NAV was morphing into Business Central, C/SIDE’s continued existence threatened to perpetuate those issues as long-term problems in Microsoft’s future ERP strategy. Microsoft decided to make a change.
The End of C/SIDE
Two or three years ago, it became clear that Microsoft intended to phase out C/SIDE and C/AL in Business Central. While partners were generating income from custom development, it was expensive to perform that work because it required highly specialized knowledge. For customers, it added significantly to the total cost of ownership, and it tended to discourage them from upgrading to newer versions.
For Microsoft, the concerns about C/SIDE came from a slightly different angle: when partners are spending all of their time and energy maintaining the installed base, they have little capacity for net-new implementations.
That phenomenon ought to be of concern to partners as well. After all, a business built on serving an existing customer base with low-value-added, high-cost services will eventually meet with resistance and customer defections. Healthy businesses grow by building their customer base and improving efficiency over the course of time.
Power BI as the New C/SIDE
With Microsoft’s big push to make Power BI the new standard for business intelligence, it’s not surprising that a lot of Dynamics partners have taken the plunge into Power BI custom development. Interestingly, though, many of the risks and problems associated with custom development in the C/SIDE environment are finding a parallel in the new world of Power BI.
Power BI is a robust solution for data visualization. But in the world of software technology, “robust” often translates to “complicated and expensive to work with”.
For customers accustomed to simple, straightforward reporting tools, Power BI represents a major change. Power BI consists of multiple components, including Gateways, Power BI Report Server, Power BI Services, and more. System architecture requires a great deal of forethought and planning, and architecting a Power BI landscape is an exercise in custom design every time.
Power BI has a steep learning curve. That includes the DAX programming language, and unfortunately, there are not a lot of DAX programmers available on the market at this point. If you thought finding a qualified NAV/ BC developer was a challenge, this will be much harder, making them even more expensive. Microsoft currently supports several other languages including M, R-script, and Python. It’s fair to ask whether DAX may be deprecated at some point and replaced with a better, more flexible language. If that happens, existing IP built on Power BI could need to be rewritten.
There are plenty of precedents for such major changes in direction at Microsoft. The deprecation of C/SIDE and C/AL is an obvious example. What will the future hold for partners investing in IP built on top of Power BI? Will they be required to throw good money after bad to preserve their investments?
To sum up:
- C/SIDE was painful for ISV partners because each new Microsoft version release required major revisions to the partner code. In other words, it made ISV products very expensive to maintain.
- C/SIDE was painful for customers with custom code because it made upgrades extraordinarily expensive and risky.
- C/SIDE was painful for VAR partners because it version-locked customers and prevented them from upgrading. For VARs, this meant supporting multiple software versions and limited upgrade revenue.
- C/SIDE was painful for Microsoft because it drained partner capacity and acted as a drag on net-new customer sales.
If you go through that list of four pain points and replace “C/SIDE” with “Power BI”, you can well imagine that two or three years from now, all four of those statements might ring true.
Focusing on Core Strengths
The vast majority of customers just want a straightforward reporting solution that is easy to use, with self-service capabilities. They want real-time access to data, with the ability to easily analyze data in Microsoft Excel, and perhaps to publish reports and dashboards to others in the organization. They want a security model around reporting that is easy to implement and manage. Today, they can have all of those things with products from insightsoftware.
Now let’s imagine what happens when a customer upgrades to the next version of Dynamics Business Central. Microsoft makes some changes to the data model, and many of the custom reports you’ve built in Power BI need to be reviewed, tested, and potentially even rewritten. If that sounds a lot like the C/SIDE problem, that’s because it is.
Expensive to maintain. High risk. Version lock. Time, effort, and money spent on low value-added activities instead of growing the business.
Consider the alternative. Your customer is using Jet Analytics, an off-the-shelf analytics platform from insightsoftware that is purpose-built for Dynamics. They have written an Excel-based sales report that uses live links to Business Central. When Microsoft changes the underlying business model in Dynamics (or any other system to which you’re connecting), you don’t need to change anything in those reports. They continue to work just as they are.
In this example, Jet Analytics (or any other product from insightsoftware) insulates you and your customers from potentially disruptive changes to the Dynamics data model. We deal with those changes upfront, within our product, so that you and your customers don’t have to worry.
That is what customers generally want: a reporting solution that just works, without requiring major revisions every time Microsoft makes a change.
With an insightsoftware product delivering lasting value for your customers, you can focus on your core strengths: that is, reaching out to new customers, growing your business, and serving as a trusted advisor to companies that need your technology expertise.
Service dollars are an important source of revenue for ERP VAR, but in many cases, that simply doesn’t translate to customer value. On the contrary, it adds significantly to your customers’ total cost of ownership. Long-term success for your business will be built on growing your customer base and maximizing customer value.
While many of your contacts at Microsoft may advocate for Power BI adoption, the insiders you depend on the most will care a great deal more about your core business: selling and implementing ERP for net-new customers. When it comes time to hand out qualified ERP leads to channel partners, Microsoft’s ERP channel team will look for partners with a history of successful customer adds. A track record of growth will put you at the front of the line. A history of investing your money and other resources in Power BI reports will not.
Let’s Talk About Your Sales & Profitability
If you’re a Dynamics partner looking for a simple and repeatable approach to reporting tools, we would love to talk with you. For over two decades, insightsoftware has been working with ERP and CRM VARs to deliver the most flexible, powerful, and user-friendly reporting tools on the market. Contact us to learn how we can help you be more profitable, increase customer satisfaction, and grow your business.