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Microsoft showcases updated version of Dynamics enterprise platform

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After announcing last November that the latest version of its flagship enterprise software, Dynamics, would be available “in the first quarter of 2016,” Microsoft Corp. pulled out the stops to ensure this month’s official release of Dynamics AX 7 would make an appropriately loud entrance. The company’s Canadian arm invited hundreds of clients and a handful of reporters to a Feb. 11 event at its Mississauga headquarters, where they were treated to presentations by the Microsoft Dynamics AX team’s general manager, Christian Pederson, and one of the company’s more eye-catching enterprise clients: Thomas Mayer, Chief Operating Officer of the Renault Sport Formula One Team.

Unfortunately, certain details were in short supply, such as an exact release date (Pederson estimated Feb. 19) and Canadian subscription rates (only U.S. prices were listed, with self-serve subscriptions beginning at $8 USD per person per month).

In their place Pederson emphasized the most significant difference between AX 7 and its predecessor, Dynamics AX 2012 R3: an intelligent, HTML5-based user interface that resembles an internet browser and was built from the ground up to incorporate Microsoft’s cloud service, Azure, rather than simply take advantage if it was available, as the current version does.

“We believe that this is a major, major step for the [enterprise software] industry,” Pederson told media before the day’s big event. “With this offering, we have actually been the main driver of influence into what Azure needs to deliver to serve businesses and business applications.”

Like a browser, AX 7 is equally adept at displaying information on both a desktop and mobile device, Pederson said, adding that when designing the platform, the AX 7 team created a virtual company where every “employee” had a different position, so that when manager “Lucy,” programmer “Jim,” or salesperson “Stacy” signed into their personal dashboard, they would all discover unique features tailored to their role.

“Stacy doesn’t care about machine-learning or IoT, she cares about doing her job here and now,” Pederson said. “When she’s seeking information to help make a decision, we can’t tell her to go and analyze something in a separate tool, it needs to be right there when she needs it.”

Another interesting feature of AX 7 is the user’s ability to define their dashboard’s “front-end” display. As an example, Pederson showed the audience the personal homepage of “Paul,” who was seeking a promotion and could access a list of jobs available, which resembled a standard online table.

“What if I prefer Excel?” he asked, clicking a Microsoft Office icon. Suddenly the exact same data was displayed in Microsoft Excel.

“I didn’t export the data out of AX and put them into Excel,” Pederson explained. “I am just surfacing the data directly in Excel, so now Excel is my front-end. And this is something you find in every single screen in every single form in Dynamics AX.”

Meanwhile, Renault Sport’s Mayer provided the audience with an engaging case study, explaining that – contrary to perceptions in North America, where it has a much smaller audience than every other continent in the world – Formula One racing is a global industry worth some $2 billion USD per year, and that his team alone runs a U.K. facility with 500 employees, longtime Dynamics users who were given the chance to work with a prototype version of AX last year.

For Renault Sport’s workforce, AX had two benefits, Mayer said: the user interface, which its younger, Internet-savvy engineers were more likely to use, and the platform’s more advanced capabilities such as machine-learning – as useful to a team that must design two new cars every year as it wasn’t to a salesperson like “Stacy.”

By incorporating Azure, AX can also take advantage of Microsoft’s considerable cloud storage network, which includes more than 100 datacentres around the world – six times more than Google and Amazon combined – and crucial to a team that participates in 21 races around the world every year, Mayer said.

“For us in the business, having a hosted solution as a service obviously frees up some of my resources,” he said, noting that with AX, his team’s engineers could accomplish what had previously required a team of IT professionals, or advanced training that would not contribute to the team’s annual goal of shaving two seconds from its average track time.

“We are not in the business of running data centres, we are in the business of racing cars and winning world championships, so we want to make the best use of our resources,” Mayer said.

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