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Microsoft’s Vision for Financial Accounting and ERP in the Cloud: What It Means for GP Customers

Are you a business and technology leader or power user in a small to medium–sized business who runs GP as their financial accounting or ERP software? If the answer is yes, then I encourage you to read on. The purpose of this article is to help readers understand Microsoft’s vision for financial accounting and ERP in the cloud along with what it means for GP customers.

Cloud Enterprise Software: Microsoft Dynamics 365

Dynamics 365 is Microsoft’s brand for cloud enterprise software – you’re most probably familiar with the naming convention from Office 365. What used to be known as Microsoft Dynamics, is now Microsoft Dynamics 365.

Built for the cloud, its business management applications and ERP solutions have a responsive web-based interface and don’t have a windows client like Office where you download the windows version. The applications are hosted in Microsoft’s highly available Azure data center infrastructure that’s very secure and can be accessed on any device from any browser. A key feature is that it’s based on software as a service (SaaS) licensing which means it’s paid on a monthly, named user basis.

The Dynamics 365 product family consists of a suite of tools and applications that work together to improve the user experience, surface data, and integrate processes all from a single Microsoft account sign on. For example, displaying customer data from ERP in an Outlook panel when a customer emails you. Or editing tabular data such as product attributes for inventory in Excel and then publishing them back automatically to your ERP system.

Within the Dynamics 365 product family you have the ERP solution Business Central, formerly known as NAV. The NAV brand is retired and does not exist as a product available for purchase anymore. NAV is now called Business Central and has the same features. Essentially, Business Central is NAV in the cloud.

The Future of Microsoft Dynamics GP

With a shift of focus to the cloud, it begs the question – what does this mean for the future of GP? We won’t pretend that we know what’s coming from a features and capabilities perspective. Financial accounting and ERP software is not going anywhere, and Microsoft isn’t sunsetting GP. In fact, documentation shows new versions of GP up until 2024 – so we expect GP to be around for a while!

What we are confident about, is that GP is not moving to the cloud. The profound shift to Dynamics 365 branding coupled with trends in enterprise software clearly demonstrate that Microsoft is reallocating development resources and strategy to cloud solutions across all their offerings. Customers that want a cloud solution would have to look to the Dynamics 365 brand. Interestingly, the GP pages on Microsoft‘s website reference Dynamics 365 if you scroll two thirds of the way down. You can see that Microsoft is encouraging website visitors to consider Dynamics 365 – stating that the solution is as rich as Dynamics GP, has a modern user experience, flexibility, and is simple to migrate from GP.

Capabilities: GP vs Dynamics 365 Business Central

We have seen A LOT on the internet that compares NAV and GP. It can be very confusing as there is a lot of overlap in the main functional categories. Both have rich functionality for financial accounting, project management, project accounting, inventory management, purchasing procurement and manufacturing.

The differences lie in the detail. You have to explore the details of any one of those areas to truly understand what Business Central offers at a functional capability level that GP doesn’t, and vice versa. Dynamics 365 is a modern solution built for the cloud and is accessible on a broad range of devices and form factors, with no additional set up and configuration. It offers a user experience that’s tailored to individual roles in a company. The point that I’d like to emphasize is that we see a lot more flexibility and sophistication in each area within Business Central. The solution can be configured to support a broader range of business process scenarios and it contemplates a significantly broader scope of business operations than what we see in GP.

There is no doubt that GP is a powerful tool with features that people would be reluctant to give up, such as batch processing and smart lists. However, we strongly believe that Business Central contemplates all the same business needs as GP and many more of them. A key point and consideration to take away is that Business Central is a full featured accounting and ERP solution from Microsoft that can handle everything you’re currently doing in GP, but with a degree of flexibility that GP can’t match. It’s got a far greater range of flexibility and configuration, largely because it was designed for a broader range of use cases in each area.

Connected Productivity

The Dynamics 365 web services architecture combined with the ability to write your own extensions or leverage Power Apps makes it a far more accessible solution for organizations that might have data flowing into and out of other cloud-based systems.

The amazing community of ISVs that add on functionality for GP is true for NAV as well. Now in the Dynamics 365 era, Microsoft has created an app store interface called AppSource where you can find apps for Business Central. It‘s easy to install apps on phone or tablet – and it’s guaranteed to be a much nicer experience than installing ISV products into your on-premise solution!

Microsoft has evolved what they call the intelligent business applications platform which are cloud services and software tools that are built to be aware of each other and work seamlessly. We are quite amazed at the integration between Office tools like Outlook, Excel, and Business Central.

Business Central and Customer Engagement (formerly CRM) also share something called a common data model. A Common data service that allows apps to natively speak to each other, offering a broader range of integration scenarios – no more custom plumbing between the apps it’s just there from the outset! Tools like Power Automate enable you to create multi solution workflows with no code, where events in one solution can trigger processes in another. Power Apps, no code custom web apps that support a wide variety of use cases from field service data collections (such as inspections for equipment) to quick mobile access to data or order entry. When investing in Dynamics 365 Business Central, you really have to think about it like you’re investing in an entire business application suite that share a lot of interoperability.

Dynamics GP On–Premise vs Dynamics 365 Business Central SaaS

To start with, the licensing model is an important difference worth focusing on. GP licenses on a perpetual basis and customers buy and own the licenses and pay an annual maintenance fee to access the latest versions. We acknowledge that there are some third parties who have deployed GP in a multi-tenant environment and do make it available on a subscription basis, but the vast majority own licenses. Business Central‘s licensing model is subscription based — similar to Netflix or Spotify— where you pay for the right to use the software for a set amount of time for an all-inclusive fee.

With traditional on-premise software you have to provide the computing infrastructure necessary to run it. This can be complicated and expensive, compared to SaaS Business Central where the software is running the moment your subscription is provisioned. With Business Central you pretty much gain instant access because it’s hosted on a multi-tenant infrastructure by Microsoft on Azure.

As long as you’re paying an annual maintenance fee on GP you can access and install the latest versions. With GP, testing and installing upgrades is the customers responsibility. Many GP customers find this challenging and stop upgrading and just accept how their current version works. This means they don’t get to see the newest features. However, Business Central upgrades happen twice a year and roll out to your tenant almost automatically. The effort on the customer side with Business Central is minimal.

There is always the issue of slow performance and security risk with GP because it’s typically deployed on servers in a physical office space which isn’t scalable. Dynamics 365 is offered at 99.9% availability in Microsoft Azure and data is backed up continuously across geographic data centers, minimizing disaster risk.

Dynamics GP vs Dynamics 365 Interfaces

When it comes to Dynamics GP, there are complex instructions for network admins to deploy the interface as it’s not automatically provisioned when installed. Also, when you upgrade the web client has to be upgraded too.

However, with Dynamics 365 Unified Interface you get a modern and responsive web experience for all of your apps. Microsoft are making a conscious effort to create an improved user experience for their cloud applications. You simply point your browser to the URL, and it recognizes what device and browser you’re using and exposes an appropriate user experience. The interface is instantaneously provisioned, which means we no longer have to take hours of consulting time just to get a core technology up and running.

The Update Lifecycle: GP Vs Dynamics 365 Business Central

Software evolves very quickly. You’ve probably experienced it where software wasn’t upgraded to work with new systems or tools that you needed. And it’s frustrating because you can’t move ahead with other things because of a dependency on that app was held back.

Microsoft GP has moved to what Microsoft calls the modern lifecycle, publishing new versions of software every year. That means access to latest features in GP as long as you’re in maintenance. Microsoft has promised no major architectural changes, yet lots of GP customers are still wary of upgrades as it can cause issues. For example, if the ISVs they depend on haven’t yet made their software compliant with the latest version of GP.

Most issues disappear with Dynamics 365 because of the automated scheduled upgrade process. By and large, customers are running the same version of Business Central all the time (the latest version) which has huge benefits. Access to new features and capabilities, interoperability with the rest of the platform and generally just less hassle. ISVs and customizations are treated as extensions (they’re not embedded deeply inside of the core application code) so upgrading is always streamlined because you’re upgrading a pristine environment and then publishing your apps back into it.

Dynamics 365 has two upgrades a year. Customers can provision a release preview in a test environment to try out new capabilities using demo data. Between the update becoming available and the upgrade window you have the ability to schedule a test deployment where you create a sandbox environment which is a snapshot of your production instance. You then schedule the update to run against that sandbox environment and evaluate how it went. For example, you can evaluate the impact it has on your reporting and if you have customizations or ISVs, then you can validate that everything works. Once you’ve done that validation you then simply pick a date and schedule it to run on production data or Microsoft will do it automatically for you.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Dynamics 365 Business Central then schedule a demo and one of our experts will be in touch.

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Talk to as many internal stakeholders as you possibly can, because the more input you have about what you really need, the better chance you have of a successful implementation.

Blair Hurlbut, VP - ERP Solutions