Check under the bonnet

Why you should care about the database behind your ERP system. David Bass writes.

When choosing an ERP system, manufacturers typically look at the range of applications, the features and functionality of the software. They want to know that it will support all the different areas of the business, from the supply chain and logistics to transport.

They look for functionality to support advanced planning and material demand control, forecasting, sales, cost control, quality assurance, traceability and more.

Only occasionally does anyone stop to think about the underlying database. And this is a pity because in an ERP, the database lies at the very heart of the solution.

The job of the database is to support all the applications. It provides the common repository of data that is crucial when trying to share information between applications, people, departments and partners. The speed of the database, its flexibility and scalability has a profound affect on the performance of the ERP.

Unfortunately, discussions about databases can easily veer into technical territory. Talk about spatial, text, binary and other types of data, transaction loads, platforms, terabytes and petabytes can quickly leave non-technical participants out in the cold. The temptation then is to simply ignore the database and focus instead on the far easier topics of features and functionality. But it doesn’t have to be so.

Following are some very simple suggestions that will help you to understand and evaluate the suitability of a database the next time you go looking for an ERP.

The problem of legacy databases

There are many different kinds of databases but two of the most commonly found – among legacy and modern ERP offerings, from small-to-medium up to large solutions – are SQL Server and Oracle. These robust technologies are well-proven, capable of underpinning numerous applications and able to cope with the tens of thousands of daily transactions involved in large-scale manufacturing, distribution and logistics businesses.

Within the sector, there is also a large number of organisations relying on commercial or bespoke ERP systems based on legacy database infrastructure. In other words, the applications have been developed on older databases that may not be able to deliver the reliability, scalability, flexibility and availability expected in business today.

Two examples of legacy databases that periodically turn up in small-to-medium legacy solutions are FoxPro and Access.

Never designed for the kinds of demands of an ERP and limited in their size and capabilities, it doesn’t take long for companies to find they are pushing the limits of these systems.

More importantly in the case of FoxPro, the database is now at the end of its life, no longer supported by Microsoft. This raises the very real likelihood that one day soon, a new security patch for Microsoft Windows may inadvertently “break” the database permanently.

Even when the applications themselves are relatively modern, if the underlying database is from a past generation, there are many complications that can arise. The older the database, the harder it becomes to find the programming skills necessary to maintain and update the system. And, the rarer the skills, the more expensive they are to acquire.

Moreover, when dealing with databases developed a decade or more ago it can be difficult, if not impossible, to establish connections to the standard tools of today such as tablets, warehouse scanners or other third party peripherals.

Is it supported?

The typical lifespan of an ERP system within the logistics sector is around ten years. So when you enter into a partnership with a software vendor, you’ll typically look for assurance that they are going to be there for the long haul. But what about the database – this incredibly important part of the software infrastructure?

Is your database current-generation or, like the FoxPro example above, is it at the end of its lifecycle? Will your choice be supported for the ten or so years you plan to use your ERP system?

What to look for?

The most logical place to start is with standards. Look for an ERP that adheres to industry standards, or even better, one that because of its popularity, has become an industry standard. This will give you the security of a path forwards in future years and will make it easier to integrate and add to your solution with new software or peripherals over time.

For security of mind and certainty of longevity, look for software powered by a proven, market-leading database. The more popular the database, the longer it is likely to be supported by the vendor.

Other essentials include scalability to cope with business growth and reliability of performance. You do want to know the system is likely to keep on operating. Also think about the availability of skills for your chosen database, not just across the overall employment market, but within the logistics sector and your geography.

Make a future-proofed decision

For reasons of cost, performance and longevity, it’s obvious the database plays an important role when choosing an ERP system. For an enduring return on your ERP investment, look for a database that has the proven power and performance to support the complexity of an ERP. It should be affordable and scalable. Even better, choose a database that has already established itself as the leading industry standard, such as Microsoft SQL Server.

That said, it’s also important to keep in mind the database is just one of the factors that will influence your ERP purchase. A system that doesn’t have the functionality your business requires will be a poor investment, regardless of the quality of its database. Just as a great solution sitting on top of an outdated database will never provide the performance a modern business needs.

Perhaps it’s best to consider the database as a critical item in the check-list, right next to the list of functional areas you need to address and the must-have features that will help improve processes and performance. When you find an ERP solution that offers a fit across all three areas, you’ll know you’ve found the right solution for your needs.


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