Line of Business Applications
For years, businesses and organizations have needed custom software applications to carry out day to day business. Applications that are unique to an industry, and sometimes unique to the way a company operates within that industry, are commonly known as Line of Business Applications.
To be clear, I am not talking about applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations or collaboration software. I am talking about software designed for the exclusive data capture, automation, and integration of the business processes used by that organization in carrying out its day to day business. When a company is faced with the decision to select software, it has a limited set of options to choose from.
In this post, I aim to unpack those options based on my experience.
Bespoke Software is one option a company has to build a custom application explicitly designed for that company’s needs. The benefit of this solution is an app that is a 100% perfect fit for the business needs, and it can often enable a commercial advantage over the competition.
There have been many times in my career that I have engaged with companies that have opted for a bespoke solution. They took one of two options to do this. Either they found a developer or a company that specializes in one off-custom software development and has commissioned the application to be built to their specification. Or I have also seen full-time developers brought on staff to create the custom application.
I have been called in when the limits of the resulting software have been reached, and advancements in technology can no longer be retrofitted into the bespoke application.
Some examples I have come across:
- The staff member maintaining the software has left the company, and no one knows how to manage the software. Or the staff member is holding the company to ransom as the software has become mission critical, but the employee is no longer a good fit for the company.
- The company that built the original software is no longer in business, or they are no longer interested in maintaining the software as the cost to maintain is more than the value of keeping you as a customer. Often this can be because of staff movements within that company as well.
Other things I have come across is the software development language, or underlying technology of the application is obsolete and vulnerable from a security or compliance perspective as well as the inability of the application to operate as modern integrated application including automation, reporting, and multi-device support – most importantly, mobile.
Commercially Available Off-the-Shelf (COTS)
Another option for businesses is to purchase a COTS software application. COTS software is an application that is built by a software development company that has created an app for a specific industry. There is no completive advantage with this software and the company building the software will have many customers just like you are using it. The benefit of this is that the total cost of ownership is generally cheaper than the bespoke option above, but when it comes to meeting the business requirements, it may be more like an 80% fit to your needs.
However, the company will most likely support the product long term as well as have an ongoing development schedule to add new features that they see their collective customers would like. If you want an add-on created for your specific requirements, they will generally come at a premium. Also, if you do choose to extend or customize the software, you may end up not being able to upgrade the software due to your changes.
Best of Both
At this point, you have a third option, one that delivers the best of both bespoke and COTS software applications. That option is choosing a software Cloud Platform.
Let’s look at the benefits of a Cloud Platform.
A large vendor designs a platform, think Google, Amazon or Microsoft who have a global presence and proven track record when it comes to trust, security and customer focus.
The platform provider should support small to enterprise customers and allow third-party companies to build software applications on the platform for their customers.
When building Line of Business Software Applications today, you want to deliver maximum business value in the least amount of time, while making sure all the standard requirements of any modern application should include right out of the gate. All software needs to have common foundations in place before business value can be added.
My Top Ten Foundational Checklist
Check the platform you select has these features built-in where relevant:
- Security Compliance and Inclusion
- Industry standard Authentication
- Interoperability such as API’s and data transformation
- Integration with Office applications such as spreadsheets, word processing and collaboration software such as email, real-time conferencing and chat applications
- Reporting and insights software
- Automation and Business Rules engine
- Unlimited scalability to grow with your business
- User Experience designer
- Support for all device form factors, such as mobile, tablet, desktop
- And finally, a global talent pool of professionals trained on the platform
Since 2003 I have been working with a Microsoft technology that has matured, over multiple iterations, into an enterprise scale cloud platform that meets all my top ten requirements above. Many may think that this platform is Microsoft Dynamics 365, but that is not what I’m talking about.
Dynamics 365 is an application that sits on the Microsoft Power Platform; the business does not need Dynamics 365 to build Line of Business Applications. To understand this, we need to look at some history so we can appreciate the Power Platform and how businesses can take full advantage of it to build Line of Business Applications.
A short History of the origins of the Power Platform
In 2003, Microsoft came to market with a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application that was available for on-premise installation.
As Microsoft iterated the product, companies could customize and configure this software to meet their Line of Business needs, up to a point. In parallel with this, Microsoft introduced a concept called xRM, the idea being that the C in CRM is dropped, and replaced with ‘x’. The x stood for “any”. We could build any (x) Relationship Management systems with Dynamics.
Along came the cloud and Microsoft continued to iterate the application. To create scalability and to break down silos within companies. Microsoft separated the Dynamics suite of applications from the underlying technology pathing the way for the Power Platform and the ability for companies to build Line of Business Applications without the need to purchase Dynamics 365 Applications. With this, Microsoft introduced new Power Platform licenses called Plan 1 and Plan 2.
If you want to see a throwback video on the xRM concept, check this out.
Microsoft Power Platform & Common Data Service
The Microsoft Power Platform is a new breed of software that does not sit on a single database, but rather on a collection of modern database technologies. These currently include SQL Azure, Azure Cosmos DB and Blob Storage known as Azure Data Lake Storage Gen2. These tightly coupled technologies, that the Power Platform is built on, are called the Common Data Service (CDS). However, to think of CDS as only a database would be incorrect. The Common Data Service easily structures a variety of business data to support interconnected business applications and processes.
If we investigate the Common Data Service, we see the following:
For each instance provided by Microsoft to build a Line of Business application on the Power Platform, you get two of the above as they are replicated in data centers separated by at least 200km for geo-redundancy.
In building a Line of Business application, we need to look at the context of the people who will use the app and the environment they will operate in. With PowerApps, Microsoft provides the ability to create a range of experiences including Phone, Tablet, and Desktop Experience, with applications that support new modern experiences such as Mixed Reality.
PowerApps allows for a familiar design experience that empowers subject matter experts (SMEs) to design Line of Business applications that comply with corporate governance policies. PowerApps also provides for advanced interface designs using PowerApps Component Framework (PCF).
Automation is provided with Flow, allowing SMEs to create workflows and model business processes, not only with the Power Platform but beyond into third-party applications.
Integration is also supported with Flow, but not limited to this, as Event Hubs, Service Bus, and App Services are supported.
Reporting and analytics, including reports, dashboards, and charts are integrated using Power BI. Allowing you to move from data to insights in minutes.
Artificial Intelligence Platform
To top this all off, Microsoft released AI Builder recently. Microsoft wants to empower businesses so that every application has AI. AI can be built into every business process and allows every employee to use AI, without needing a data scientist.
Let me know if you want me to expand on any of the above in more detail.