Welcome to the inaugural edition of Tech Pro Research’s Microsoft Enterprise Primer series. In this subscribers-only, monthly column, Mary Jo Foley, Editor of ZDNet’s All About Microsoft blog, will give you must-know information on the past, present and future of Microsoft enterprise products and services.

The inspiration for this series comes from the many existing and potential Microsoft customers and partners who ping her regularly because they are stymied when trying to find information about some of Microsoft’s bread-and-butter enterprise products. If there’s a Microsoft product or service family you’d like Mary Jo to examine in a future column, let Mary Jo know, and we’ll do our best to cover it.

Microsoft Dynamics ERP products

According to an IDC study released in April 2013, Microsoft was the leader in enterprise applications with 13.7 percent of the market, followed by SAP, Oracle, IBM and Adobe.

Among Microsoft’s enterprise offerings are several enterprise resource planning (ERP) products. ERP suites include applications for finance, manufacturing, sales, customer service/CRM and more core business applications. Microsoft’s ERP software is part of the Microsoft Dynamics family of products, which also includes the company’s CRM solutions.

Microsoft has four different ERP products:

  1. Microsoft Dynamics AX
  2. Microsoft Dynamics GP
  3. Microsoft Dynamics NAV
  4. Microsoft Dynamics SL

Microsoft got its hands on the technology behind these products through acquisitions that the company made in the early 2000s. Dynamics GP and Dynamics SL (originally called Microsoft Solomon) came from the  acquisition of Great Plains Software in 2000. Great Plains had purchased Solomon in 2000, just before Microsoft announced intentions to acquire the company. Dynamics AX and Dynamics NAV where part of the 2002 purchase of Copenhagen-based Navision a/s.

Each of Microsoft’s ERP products is aimed at a slightly different market segment. Dynamics GP, NAV and SL are aimed primarily at small and mid-sized businesses, while Dynamics AX is aimed at the enterprise.

According to Partner Power International, NAV is currently the biggest slice of the Dynamics pie, with 45 percent of the total installed license base globally (around 94,000 company customers). Dynamics GP is second with 21 percent, followed by Dynamics AX (9 percent) and Dynamics SL (6 percent).

Dynamics ERP: What’s here, what’s next

Microsoft has released new versions of its ERP products just about every year. But in response to requests from IT admins and customers overwhelmed by the constant barrage, the company has eased back a bit on the pace. The Microsoft ERP teams are currently delivering feature packs (referred to, in some cases, as R2 releases) in between each major upgrade to the ERP products.

Microsoft Dynamics GP 2013 and Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2013 were released in in the fourth quarter of last year, as was Dynamics AX 2012 R2. Dynamics SL’s most recent release was in 2010 (Dynamics SL 2011), though the team rolled out a feature pack update to the product in September 2012.

Dynamics GP 2013 R2 is due around Q3 of calendar 2014. And the R2 update of Dynamics NAV is probably due around the same time.

The next major release of Dynamics SL (codenamed SL 9) is due out in calendar 2014, as is the next major Dynamics AX release.

Microsoft officials are emphasizing the coming “companion” Dynamics ERP applications for phones and tablets — including ones for Windows RT, Windows Phone 8, Android Phone and iOS phone devices — as one of its next big things. Companion apps for Dynamics AX 2012 users are coming in the fourth quarter of 2013, Microsoft execs have said. And if Microsoft follows the same path it took with Dynamics CRM, the apps may be built using HTML5 and JavaScript.

These companion apps will include an expense-management app, a timesheet app, and an approval app (for budget requests, timesheets, expense reports, and more). Additionally, Microsoft is developing a native Windows RT tablet Point of Sales (POS) and a Windows Phone 8 Mobile POS app for retailers. Officials said Microsoft is also releasing documentation for its mobile application programming interfaces so customers and partners can build their own mobile apps.

What’s cloud got to do with it?

Microsoft has approached the cloud cautiously on the ERP side of the house, citing reticence by some customers to put their core applications and data (like financial information) anywhere other than on-premises. That said, Microsoft already has enabled some of its ERP partners to run the Dynamics apps on a hosted basis for ERP customers interested in this approach.

Microsoft originally was planning to move its Dynamics NAV application to Windows Azure and allow its partners to sell the Azure-hosted version to their customers by the end of 2012. But at the end of last year, Microsoft announced that move had been pushed back to mid-2013.

In June 2013, Microsoft made both Dynamics NAV 2013 and Dynamics GP 2013 available as Windows Azure-hosted offerings, which will be sold through partners.

An Azure-hosted version of Dynamics AX will be out later, with customer preview versions of both the cloud-hosted and on-premises versions of the next major Dynamics AX release starting in 2014, officials said.

Cross-divisional collaboration is the watchword

Microsoft officials across the company are playing up the story that silos are passe, and cross-divisional cooperation is now de rigeur.

Dynamics ERP execs have said their teams are collaborating more closely with other teams outside of their Microsoft Business Division unit. The Dynamics AX team, for example, has done work with the SQL Server team to enable Power View and PowerPivot to integrate directly with customers’ ERP implementations. The AX team also has worked hand-in-hand with the SharePoint team resulting in the ability of ERP customers to use either SharePoint Server or SharePoint Online as their repositories.

Company officials have said they plan to enable cloud-hosted versions of Microsoft’s ERP products take advantage of some of the core platform capabilities it offers across its Office 365 and CRM Online offerings, starting with the ability to do single-sign on with a single set of credentials across all of these products.

Microsoft ERP Resource Links