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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Interview with Microsoft Distinguished Engineer - Mike Ehrenberg

Recently Mike Ehrenberg, Microsoft Dynamics Distinguished Engineer, did a blog post on the Dynamics Executive insight blog. That post can be found here.:
Advancing the Vision of Software for the Dynamic Business

This was a great blog entry, and really got my wheels spinning. So much in fact that I invited Mike for a (virtual) sit down and interview. Below is the result of that interview.:

1.) In your recent blog post, on the Executive Insight blog, you mentioned as one of the focus areas for the continued push into the dynamic business vision is User Experience. With Dynamics AX 2009, and the Dynamics line in general, we saw UX, or user experiences focused with Role Tailored experiences. Now you have mentioned three new UX focuses: Context Aware UX, Task Specific UX and UX for the new generation. Can you give more insight into how these three focuses are helping shape the future of Dynamics AX, and beyond, and also how these will work together with the Role Tailored UX that exists now with current releases of Dynamics line?

We think about Context Aware UX as a refinement of RoleTailored – not something different. Role is a dimension of context. By understanding a user’s role, Dynamics AX has context that allows it to shape a better, more productive experience – bringing that user to navigation, tasks, content and rich embedded BI centered on their role to enable better productivity and to inform better decisions. Evolving to context aware means adding dimensions beyond role, for example, understanding what device a user is on or where we are on the calendar. Consider the impact of a system that could alter what BI and navigation a user saw during the closing days of a fiscal quarter, or that could adapt what a Production Planner saw when they were in a room with a display wall instead of at their desktop PC monitor. Understanding context, together with an increasing adaptability drawn from being increasing model driven, will enable the next jump forward on the path started by our RoleTailored experience.

Task Pages are already a concept in the RoleTailored experience. Today, they are highly consistent to drive the benefits of user familiarity. The concept in the white paper focuses on the development of highly visual task pages defined for specific tasks – the particular example shows the power of a heat map display of warehouse activity laid out to show activity based on physical location in a warehouse. The visualization designed specifically for this task immediately highlights for the warehouse manager where the placement of specific items can be changed to drive efficiency. This is a prototype that we’ve already built. The right visualization takes data that ERP systems have had for years and turns it into actionable information. Combined with natural UI techniques – “touch” in the case of the prototype – the user is able to immediately move from what they see to the right actions to optimally address their task. We are very excited about we are working on here, and expect to deliver great things in future releases.

Again, we also think about the work we’re doing to drive user experience for a new generation of users as an evolution of our RoleTailored concepts. Think about things like more visual cues related to those I collaborate with, search emerging as an alternative to reports for finding things, and visualization of information related to multiple tasks concurrently as all shaping the future of RoleTailored UX to increase productivity and delight a new generation of users, and as I’m frequently reminded, some of us old users too.

2.) The second area in your post talks about system architecture. The three major pieces in this area of focus are listed as: Cloud, Service orientation and Model Driven development. These could seem wide spread areas, but actually cross domains in relation to one another. So for this area, can you give some details examples of how you see the Cloud playing a role in enabling customers, and allowing for hybrid clouds to exist? Also why the cloud matters for customers in solving real business problems, vs. just being a new platform?

For many, the first thought of the cloud is simply focused on cost. Moving applications to the cloud in this context is essentially just a different style of IT outsourcing. For Dynamics, as part of an enormous all-up Microsoft commitment to the cloud, this is certainly true, but it is far from the whole story. We definitely believe that, over time, our datacenters, emerging cloud platform, and an evolved Dynamics family will offer the ability to deliver great business application experiences at the lowest possible cost and with outstanding security, privacy, backup and disaster recovery options that exceed what the majority of businesses are able to provide internally today. The cloud also offers more flexibility to scale a solution up and down for businesses with dynamic user populations during the year. We already have great results today with our Dynamics CRM On-line and with a number of our partners hosting Dynamics ERP. But again, low cost, scale flexibility and great backup and disaster recovery options are only the beginning.

In Dynamics, and across Microsoft, we are focused on the ability to combine software plus services – on-premise assets with the cloud – using each to their maximum advantage to deliver the best capabilities to our customers. We are doing that today, extending our on-premise and on-line products with cloud-based services – in some cases developed by us, and increasingly working with others developed by partners. We are really focused on three types of solutions where the cloud simply is better:

  • Connection of the business system to the public internet – making one connection from the business system to Windows Azure in the cloud, and providing solutions there that drive the scenarios related to connection to the public internet, allows us to deliver a strong and uniform solution to availability, security and privacy with maximum reach. Examples include collecting information from new potential vendors, employment candidates, or customers registering a product.

  • Large volumes of shared data that is frequently changing – consider solutions like product compliance that have rules reflecting regulations, restrictions and requirements for shipping products containing particular components to a specific geography. The cloud offers the ability to have this information maintained once by an expert partner dedicated to this domain, with a connection to Dynamics applications that may be running on-premise or hosted by another partner. Maintaining the data in one place – the cloud – simplifies provides a more efficient solution.

  • Connected supply chains – there is both great value and great complexity in connecting supply chains digitally. It is dramatically easier to connect many partners to a single hub in the cloud than to make all of the point connections between them. Beyond the connection, which is immensely valuable in itself, with proper design of security and privacy cascading over the members, having all of the data together in a cloud hub enables analysis that simply can’t be done any other way. That analysis can lead to insights which can be shared by the participants to achieve dramatic new efficiencies.

2a.) Focuses on service orientation, a move to this was seen with the release of Dynamics AX 2009, and more focus on AIF, Service References, and the alike. In talking with Lachlan Cash from Microsoft last year, Microsoft's strategy and vision for Dynamics AX and SOA, Lachlan mentions the move toward SOA, and even between Dynamics AX modules themselves. Is this the service orientation that in included in your post? Can you give some more insight into this area, and why this makes sense?

Yes – this is exactly the same progression of our investment in service orientation. Starting with Dynamics AX 2009 – in fact, with AX ‘4’ – we brought out web service interfaces to Dynamics AX. These interfaces, around the outer edge of Dynamics, have enabled stronger, simpler integration between Dynamics and other systems.

The Dynamic Business vision reflected in the blog post points beyond this to the evolution of service orientation between Dynamics AX modules. This evolution will simplify the creation of robust connections between systems at finer granularity. From a business perspective, this technology change will provide a stronger base for shared services in the business deployed across hub and spoke configurations, better software solutions over outsourced processes, and better models for multi-instance deployments. Again, the ability to drive our innovation in this area together with innovation across Microsoft in areas like Master Data Management enables to drive great solutions through Microsoft Dynamics.

2b.) Model driven development is not a new concept really, but for Microsoft and traditional technology developers it can be a different mindset in thinking. Does this mean the former code named Microsoft "Oslo", now known as SQL Server Modeling CTP, will have a big impact on how process are developed? Is there a new technology and approach that will make use of SQL Server Modeling, Workflow and a new Designer to enable process development by functional / business analyst? Can you give more insight into this area?

Yes, definitely. Dynamics AX has always made a big bet on modeling. The metadata accessed through the AOT is a core part of what makes Dynamics AX development highly productive. Our evolution points to more and more done through declarative modeling instead of code – making it both more efficient and more resilient through upgrades over time. In the next major version of Dynamics AX, we’ll move this metadata from the file system to the SQL Server database. This is a deployment simplification and one that moves towards the capabilities of SQL Server Modeling – our roadmap and the result of what was “Oslo”.

We are very excited about this work. The potential is enormous based on providing a model store that many Microsoft product use, along with tools innovation to provide great richness around model lifecycle – eg., tools that allow model content to be explicitly versioned and promoted in an automated way from development to test and then production in the partner and customer environment. The alignment between the innovation in the platform and tools and our priorities for continued innovation in model driven development is truly exciting.

Workflow, based on the innovation in the Windows Workflow Foundation, is one aspect of Dynamics AX 2009 that we are very excited about. Starting to provide the system with declarative models of process enables greater control, while at the same time helps the system make users more productive by prioritizing the tasks that have been assigned to them.

3.) For the BI section of your Application evolvement section, you talk about making BI easier and easier for users to define and make use of. Is this core of this enablement, based on the technologies now known as Microsoft PowerPivot? This includes SharePoint 2010, SQL Server 2008 R2 and Office 2010 to enable?

Absolutely. This is one dimension (sorry, BI pun) that really highlights the ability of Dynamics to bring together the innovation from multiple parts of Microsoft into a strong value proposition for our customers and partners. As you highlight, these capabilities build on work in SQL Server, SharePoint, Office and Dynamics.

There are three areas where we will really drive our innovation in this context. The first is deeply embedding BI in the application, not treating it as something separate and external. We see this today in the RoleTailored experience, with cubes, KPI”s and analytics deeply integrated in the application experience. Next, simplifying what it takes to deploy and implement the BI aspects of the solution. This starts with concepts like making sure that the security model defined in Dynamics also governs BI visibility. Finally, we will continue to build on our models and user experience to make it easier and easier for end users to create the reports and analytics that they need.

4.) Out of everything you talked about in your executive insight blog post. What do you think will be the one or two most game changing parts for Microsoft Dynamics Customers and Partners?

Wow – you’re asking me to choose between our work on UX, SOA, Model-driven development and embedded BI? I am not sure that I can. Instead, how about I suggest one of the other blog points?

In our Dynamic Business vision, and in the blog post, we talk about Dynamics enabling an increasing connected ecosystem. We are already seeing the business application move from a small number of accounting users to cover a very broad set of roles in the business, touching more users and enabling greater productivity. You will see this trend continue as we drive to bring capability in future product releases – both directly through Dynamics and through the reach enabled by our work with SharePoint – to every user in the business, and beyond by increasing the connection to external customers, vendors and partners. With our connected cloud services, this goes even further to the public internet.

Finally – at least for now – we are looking at exciting new capabilities that come from connecting the information that is emerging from social networks to the business processes driven through Dynamics. Making Dynamics the hub that enables a business to truly connect with its ecosystem in the broadest sense is one of the big game changers that we see coming.

There are more…topics for a future conversation.

As part of this interview, I asked Mike for a closing paragraph, this is that closing statement.:

Thanks for the opportunity to expand on the comments in the blog post, and on the vision for the Dynamic Business. We really view Dynamics as a journey that we are taking with our customers and partners – it is great today, will be even stronger tomorrow, and has almost unlimited potential as we look forward. Combining the innovation of all of Microsoft with our passion to deliver business applications that focus on simplicity, value and choice, we look forward to continuing that journey together.

First I just want to thank Mike for a very detailed interview. I know how busy he is, so I am honored to have been able to have done this.

I hope that you have enjoyed this interview, and the details just as much as I do. We have some much going on with Dynamics AX from a technical aspect, and this kind of information helps us line ourselves up, to make sure we are getting prepared now to make use of the not to distant technology in future Dynamics AX releases.

Finally I would like to thank Katie, from Waggener Edstrom for helping Mike and myself with getting this interview togeher!

That's all for now, but check back soon as more great post are coming. Also look for Mike to appear on this blog again in the future!

A direct link to Mike's Bio, off of the Microsoft PressPass site, can be found here.: Mike Ehrenberg Bio.

"Visit the Dynamics AX Community Page today!"

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Blogger Tommy Barr said...

Mike Ehrenberg is the BEST presenter that I ever worked with. He is also the Smartest.

4:08 PM  

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