Dabbling Done, Microsoft Is All In on Cloud with Latest Dynamics AX

A full-blown cloud edition of Microsoft's ERP suite, Dynamics AX, will hit the public preview stage next month and is expected to be generally available (GA) in the first quarter of 2016.

Microsoft on Thursday announced the preview date, the GA timing and the new branding -- simply "Microsoft Dynamics AX" without a year or version number attached. The streamlined brand emphasizes Dynamics AX's new existence as a cloud product with regular and streamlined updates, similar to Microsoft's other cloud-first products, such as Office 365 and Dynamics CRM.

Microsoft Dynamics AX has existed in interim forms in Microsoft's cloud previously. First, Redmond made Dynamics AX available under the Service Provider License Agreement (SPLA) so partners could host the ERP suite for customers. More recently, one of the cumulative updates of Dynamics AX 2012 R3 allowed for one-button deployment in the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) side of Microsoft's Azure cloud. But the forthcoming version is the first one completely rebuilt for Microsoft's flagship Platform as a Service (PaaS) side of the cloud, as opposed to the IaaS side.

[Click on image for larger view.] The new UI for Microsoft Dynamics AX. (Source: Microsoft)

In a telephone interview, Microsoft Technical Fellow Mike Ehrenberg, who is responsible for development of Microsoft's Dynamics ERP products, said it's the first version of Dynamics AX to be developed under Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's cloud-first, mobile-first mantra.

"We're launching initially with Azure cloud delivery, and we're focused on customer deployments in the cloud. We optimized every architectural choice around the idea of saying we want to have the best possible experience in the cloud. We could have awhile ago said we're just going to forklift our on-prem architecture up on Azure infrastructure. It took a little longer to get where we are, but I think the results have been great, both where we are in terms of our performance, our scalability and our manageability, but also we've been able to drive a lot of innovation into the Azure platform, into the Azure SQL platform," Ehrenberg said.

"We really feel like we've taken the best of Microsoft technology from Azure to Power BI and Office 365. We've driven innovation together to help those things get better, really playing the role of a reference application on the Microsoft architecture, and we think we're delivering a business application that delivers on the goals and needs that our customers are looking for. We're looking at this as really the beginning of a new chapter for Dynamics AX and for business productivity," he said.

Community technical previews (CTPs) have been in the hands of ISVs for more than a year, with other partners and then partners with customers being phased in over the last few months. All have been using the product in Azure on PaaS.

While Microsoft plans to release the same code for on-premises deployment, an on-premise option won't ship until sometime in mid-2016, several months after the cloud version is generally available. The on-premise version is dependent on the three platform components to be released next year that create the capability for customers to run their own Azure clouds in their own datacenters: Windows Server 2016, SQL Server 2016 and the Azure Stack.

"We'll be tied to whichever one is bringing up the rear," Ehrenberg said of the three on-premise infrastructure products. "We'll be very, very close on the heels of those releases. We're not going to need another six-month window to get there after that."

For now, none of the 300 partners or their customers is even testing Dynamics AX in an on-prem environment. "We're keeping all hands and all eyes focused on the successful launch of the cloud service right now. As we hit Q1, I think we will start our previews around on-premise," he said.

Along with re-architecting the product for the cloud, Microsoft made major changes to the UI with a browser-based HTML5 client and added a capability called Task Guides to allow organizations to record their own internal process training for new employees, among other features.

"In all my years in this business, you don't usually get to use the words 'beautiful UI' and 'ERP' in the same sentence, but I think we're feeling like we can claim that here, and it's a lot of fun," Ehrenberg said.

Microsoft is promising a new transparent and capacity-based pricing model for Dynamics AX. That pricing is expected to be announced at Microsoft Convergence EMEA, which runs from Nov. 30-Dec. 2 in Barcelona, Spain.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.