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Podcast: Future-Proofing Microsoft Dynamics NAV

Recently our CEO, Elliot Fishman, sat down with MS Dynamics World’s editor, Jason Gumpert, to discuss the importance of upgrading and maintaining Dynamics NAV to increase the longevity and capability of your system in the podcast “MSDW: Future-Proofing Microsoft Dynamics NAV.”

In the podcast Fishman and Gumpert discuss the Dynamics NAV upgrade paradigm shift, the role/importance of Cumulative Updates, new features in Dynamics NAV 2017 and more.

Keep reading this blog for the cliff-notes and key takeaways of this featured podcast.

How has the Microsoft Dynamics NAV upgrade paradigm changed and why do we need to take notice?

Jason: Catapult has just released a new book on Future-Proofing Microsoft Dynamics NAV. It’s a topic where there’s really a lot to talk about and a lot of changes as the product has evolved over the last few years. I thought maybe we could start by just having you talk a little bit about how we got to where we are with Cumulative Updates in NAV 2016 and 2017.

Elliot: Sure that sounds like a good place to start. This latest book came about as a successor to a previous work that we did –  The Definitive Guide to Planning Your Upgrade to NAV 2015. That eBook really dealt with what we sometimes think about as the last major upgrade.

Microsoft made a major shift about three years ago from releasing a new major version every 2 to 3 years to committing to an annual release path.  Ever since 2013 there have been new versions every single year. Starting with 2013, then there was 2013 R2, which is also known as NAV 2014, then NAV 2015, 2016 and now NAV 2017.

The significance is that in what we might call the legacy NAV world, upgrades were much more complicated. They were much more onerous undertakings, especially insofar as a customer may have had customizations involved. Each new version of NAV involved a significant extent of changes, so it wasn’t as simple as processing a technical upgrade and having everything magically get updated to the latest version.

Now, if you fast-forward a couple of years we are in a completely different world where there is a new version of NAV every year. It is far more incremental in terms of the degree of difference between versions and Microsoft is more or less committed to keeping things relatively consistent.

So we wrote this new ebook for customers who are on 2013 R2 or later who are more interested in getting onto a road map or an upgrade path that keeps them consistent or keeps them from falling behind Microsoft’s release path.

What are Cumulative Updates and how do customers need to think about them?

Jason: As I understand it, a component of that approach is using Cumulative Updates. For customers this means being committed to applying these Cumulative Updates on a pretty frequent basis in order to avoid some of the problems of the past. Also to avoid falling behind in way that can hurt you when you do a catch up. Is that fair to say?

Elliot: I think that is fair to say. Cumulative Updates replaced hotfixes and service packs, which were the previous mechanisms for keeping NAV up-to-date between versions. Cumulative Updates are a little different because they are bundles of functionality. It used to be that if you had applied some updates or service packs, but not others, that didn’t mean that your NAV system was up-to-date. It meant that that you had simply addressed some issues that had presented themselves.

As a Partner, for example, in the Legacy NAV model when we received a trouble call from a customer saying they were experiencing some difficulties or some errors the first thing that we would do we was go looking for a hotfix or service pack that was targeted specifically at that resolution. If we found one, which was common, we would apply it.

Jason: So you are saying that when you are trying to fix a customer’s issue you could apply a patch or a hotfix but you never really knew if you were fixing all of the potential issues on their system?

Elliot: Yeah that’s right. In the Legacy model, applying an update, a hotfix or service pack, which is more of a bundle, was targeted at specific issues. So we were often applying one, or a customer would be applying one, in response to a specific problem or a specific change that they needed to make in the system.

Fast forward to today where we have Cumulative Updates. Cumulative Updates are all of the hotfixes, all of the updates, all of the enhancements that Microsoft has made available for the NAV platform up until that date. There is an update every month. They are very well-documented.

If a customer keeps up-to-date with Cumulative Updates, or at least doesn’t fall too far behind, it means that when Microsoft releases a new version of NAV the delta is much smaller between what they’re running and what they are upgrading to. In theory, the upgrade itself should be more straightforward and quite a bit less disruptive. We’ve seen it in our own business recently that there is at least the potential to automate upgrade 100% through PowerShell Scripts, which is something that we haven’t been able to do before.

How will Cumulative Updates affect upgrades?

Jason: So in that case you’re asking customers to have a different way of thinking about their upgrades, their maintenance and the way they update their system. Is it still a big leap to go from 2016 to 2017 or is that almost as small as applying a Cumulative Update?

Elliot: The answer is that it depends. Mostly yes, it’s a much smaller leap. The upgrades are much more straightforward than they used to be. There are a whole bunch of new tools available for upgrading and because you’re not moving necessarily from across a couple versions, you’re closing a smaller gap, it should be much more straightforward. That being said, the extent of customization will have a significant impact on the upgrade itself. Many of those customizations will upgrade in a fairly straightforward way, but you can only ever really know by doing a proper merge analysis and looking at the extent to which core NAV objects have been modified. So that part is still the same.

Jason:  Okay that makes sense. Is that a concern of users if they say they have customizations or ISV solutions added on top of Core NAV Objects in 2016 or any earlier version. Do they feel like they are pulling the trigger and finding out if maybe this is the time when their solution or their customization is going to break? Or is it really not that impactful?

Elliot: Well as always NAV’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.Its flexibility and its ability to develop very powerful customizations, either customer specific or ISV capability, is a blessing and a curse. One the one hand, customers have always loved NAV because of the capability. On the other hand, maintaining your customizations is completely up to you as the customer and Microsoft can only do so much to make sure your customizations port between versions.  There are certainly some practices that developers can follow in terms of how to build customizations to make sure that the upgrade as easily as possible

What’s even more exciting is that some of the new tools, Events and Extensions, which are available from Microsoft now as part of NAV 2017 have some ways to build new customizations, that don’t require messing with underlying NAV objects. This means that you can keep the core of NAV preserved and isolated. This means the core of Dynamics NAV is therefore more easily upgradeable and separately apply customizations after the fact.

How will the Cumulative Update process affect customers?

Jason: Getting back to the Cumulative Update process – you talked about some of the benefits. That they can be highly automated. That they can be rolled out with not too much fuss or not too much impact on a company or the system. What does this mean for Catapult clients who have really bought into this approach and are keeping their systems healthy and regularly updated?

Elliot: Applying Cumulative Updates is relatively straightforward. There is a bit of a process to it in that these Cumulative updates should be done/applied on a test or development database before being rolled out to your production environment. Because again, a Cumulative Update is a change to underlying NAV objects and the database and it could affect customizations. It’s always good to follow best practices. For example, have a development environment that mirrors your production environment and roll out the Cumulative Update in that environment.

Certainly applying every single Cumulative Update is probably not required. We suggest to our clients that at least staying on top of every second one or not falling behind by more than two or three is a good best practice. This is simply because you reduce the chances for running into expensive break-fixes.

Again, back the to issue of hot fixes and bug fixes in Dynamics NAV. If we get a trouble call from a client who is experiencing an error the first thing we will do is go to the Microsoft Dynamics NAV team blog and review the notes associated with each Cumulative Update to see if the issue that has been identified by the client is addressed by in an update. If we find a resolution of course the first thing we are going to do is apply that Cumulative Update. So again, doing that is no problem. But we are doing that in a reactive mode, which is always costing money from the client’s perspective. So staying on top of it and just keeping up-to-date reduces the potential for expensive break fixes.

What role do Dynamics Partners have to play in the Cumulative Update process?

Jason: How do you suggest that companies keep themselves committed on an ongoing basis to doing these Cumulative Updates? If you are working with a Microsoft Dynamics NAV Partner – is it best that there is an understanding that the Partner will be watching for these and will help you apply them? Or, as I know you said there is some testing involved, is it more of a case-by-case task?

Elliot: The more programmatic and structured it can be the better. I think a bit like the maintenance schedule on my car. Depending on the mileage, I’m advised to bring it in to the dealer to service where certain scheduled tasks are performed to keep it running optimally. Applying Cumulative Updates is really no different than that.

As a Partner, we have been on top of this and are working with our clients to establish a set scheduled Cumulative Update roll out rather than doing them on a reactive basis when problems come up. And certainly I think that more Partners will continue to do that as time goes on. It just makes sense. And then the other thing to note is that these Cumulative Updates and these incremental annual updates that Microsoft is rolling out are a mirror image of what you see happening in the cloud. As enterprise software moves more and more towards a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) cloud world where essentially the application is rolled out in a multi-tenant environment, updates are happening behind the scenes.

What are some of the biggest changes in Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2017?

Jason: That’s a great point to raise. The most recent release, Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2017, is an important one for changing the way that existing customers approach their system going forward. What are some of the biggest changes? You touched on it earlier, it’s the new customization framework, right?

Elliot: Yes, absolutely. It’s a huge opportunity for customers, but it’s also a danger as well. Customers are not typically involved in making architectural choices about how customizations are made to their system. Usually we will make recommendations and build specifications to meet customers’ needs and certainly work through them on the basis of functionality and an understanding of how much things will cost. But customers typically don’t get to involved in the architectural choices that we make and they trust us to make the best choice and to build customizations in a way that is going to be sustainable.

I think it’s really important for customers going forward to educate themselves to some degree about upgrade technology, about the different tools available. Essentially there are three ways to build customizations in NAV. You can modify NAV objects and write new code in the core of the NAV system in the way we always have. That still exists and to some degree that’s not a big thing to do as long as it’s done properly. But more and more what we expect is to be able to handle customer’s custom functionality requirements through Events and Extensions – which are new.

Events and Extensions were released in NAV 2016, not quite fully baked I would say. In NAV 2017 we are expecting to see a bit more robust functionality available to us as developers. As a customer, I think it’s important to at least ask these questions of your Dynamics NAV Partner:

  • How are you going to approach this customization?
  • Is it going to be sustainable?
  • Can we achieve this using the eventing model?
  • Can we build it at as an extension?
  • What will we face when it comes time to upgrade?

Why is security so important with Microsoft Dynamics NAV?

Jason: In the new eBook, you mention at one point that NAV has never been more dependent on the outside world. Speaking about 2017, what do you mean by that?

Elliot: That is a great question. Earlier I talked about the security aspects and NAV being exposed to the internet. Through web services, as a primary example building integrations to systems like NAV, data can be exchanged through web services for customer application purposes across the Microsoft platform. You may also build Extensions to Office 365 and build Extensions and connections with Dynamics CRM as well, which are cloud services.

So regardless of where you run Dynamics NAV, Dynamics CRM online runs in the cloud on Microsoft’s data centers, same with Office 365. Maybe you have 3rd party applications as well that provide a line of business functionality that are running in the cloud. So you are exchanging data with them. You have mobile users or web client users who are accessing NAV from outside the corporate firewall, potentially on a variety of different devices. The point is really that NAV doesn’t exist in a protected envelope any more. In fact, in order for it to do its job, in order for customers to get the value out of it, they have to take advantage of all of these potential connections with other technology services and platforms.

How to Future-Proof Microsoft Dynamics NAV

There are far more benefits to stay current with your NAV ERP solution today than there ever were in the past: significant cost savings, improved productivity/enablement, cloud compatibility, thorough supply chain integration, etc. Download our latest guide, How to Future-Proof Microsoft Dynamics NAV to learn more – click here to download!

Please share with us your latest Dynamics NAV upgrading experience or how you have modified your upgrading methodologies by getting in touch!

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