I onboarded the AX7 technical conference this week with the impression that AX7 was ‘just’ a new UI exposing AX2012R3CU9 code on a new platform with some adjustments to ‘make it work’ on the new Azure platform. But already after the first keynote I felt embarrassed about my initial thoughts which quickly made place for respect and amaze for this enormous leap in technology.
I can only compare the way Dynamics AX has developed in the last 10 years with a boxing game: initially, the boxers tease and challenge each other by some quick targeted moves. But the game really takes off when one of them finds his ‘punch’ (say with the release of AX2012) The opponent is driven towards the corner of the boxing arena and receives punch after punch, each punch having bigger impact. I think AX7 is at the core of this ‘momentum’. In this blog I’ll share the main ‘punches’ and my personal interpretation of what’s going on. If you want to dig deeper then visit the publicly available AX7 wiki.
AX7: my top 12 highlights
1. AX7 is a true Saas/Paas platform leveraging the Azure platform natively
In the literal words of Mike Ehrenberg, AX7 is not a ‘lift-and-shift’ of AX2012R3CU9: simply shifting the on premise platform to the cloud, as many competitors have done. Instead, Microsoft managed to separate the AX7 application layer and platform layer which allows AX7 to run on native Azure technology. So the many future Azure enhancements ahead will directly impact AX7 positively. With SQL Server, this was an exciting journey as only from CTP6 Microsoft was able to run SQL Server natively on an Azure VM.
2. AX7 is Microsoft-wide achievement
When Steve Jobs and Bill Gates ignited Silicon Valley with their innovations, they could achieve a lot with a very small team of people. Now with AX7, the AX7 ‘pyramid’ is constructed from many already giant pyramids, ranging from SQL Server technology to Azure to BI technology. Each ‘pyramid’ has its own big team of experts. It’s amazing how Microsoft has managed to blend all these broad specialisms into the AX7 product.
3. With the AX7 release is not incorporating new technology but driving new technology
With AX7 being a cloud-first platform fully in line with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s focus for service orientation, The new Dynamics is now fully in the spotlights within Microsoft. Beyond that, AX7 is on a path where it drives the other Microsoft teams to enhance, instead of ‘just’ incorporating existing technologies in new releases. A good example is real time analytics. With the market demand for real-time analytics, AX had to move away from non-real time data warehousing and SSAS technologies in favor of the new read-only secondary database (replicated in seconds) and AX entity database (replicated in minutes). Instead, AX required new technology to allow true real-time analytics. This technology was found in new SQL Server 2016 in-memory technology, leveraging indexing on columns instead of the conventional row-based indexing.
4. Enriching AX functionality exactly according to market demand
AX7 has been developed with more customer, partner and ISV involvement than ever. But that’s something that could have been done 10 years ago. The new thing here is that telemetry data is collected from actual AX7 usage. Based on already available data up to the recent RTW release, Microsoft has been able to identify exactly which areas of AX are used most and which areas have been customized most. This enables targeting all available development capacity spot on. Can you imagine what will happen if AX7 is enrolled to thousands of customers worldwide?
5. The visible part of the iceberg is getting smaller
With the release of AX7, the production environment will no longer be accessible by customers or partners. Microsoft ‘frees’ the customers and partners from the responsibility to maintain this environment, to apply patches and – again in the words of Mike Ehrenberg – to allow the partners and customers to focus more on unleashing the potential of the software for their respective business instead of being bothered by ‘low-value’ activities. I prefer to use the metaphor of an iceberg in the water to express what is going on: the part of the iceberg which is really visible and tangible (the part above the water) gets smaller and smaller and the part under water bigger and bigger. In other words: less effort and ‘hassle’ against maximum value and service.
6. AX7 resolves many implementation pain points
With AX7 Microsoft truly expresses an ongoing focus for shortening the AX implementation cycle. Many pain points are now solved by Microsoft:
- Fast code deployment: the application code base has now been split up in multiple models. Code can now be compiled and deployed in smaller chunks and in a much faster way.
- Easier code upgrades: the conventional ‘layering’ option is still there, but custom code can now be implemented as an extension (applicable to not all but many AOT elements). As such, the extension is completely segregated from the out-of-the-box code base, which makes customizations much more flexible, especially regarding future upgrade scenarios.
- Shipping of configuration data among environments: with so called data packages (a collection of data entities which are an aggregated collection of tables and views), sets of data can easily be shipped across different environments. Optionally the data in the data package can be edited in Excel prior to deployment as the data package is physically nothing more than a zipped collection of Excel files added up with a header and manifest XML. So called ‘process data packages’ can even associate a data package with a specific process in the LCS process library. You can have a new sales order posted in a brand new originally empty environment in minutes.
- Multi-purpose task recorder: the new task recorder can record tasks in AX not only to train people on any task in the software (including interactive guided clicking), but can also be used to automate testing. The recorded tasks (including the data captured) can be made part of new software builds to automatically regression test the build before deployment.
- Retail: activation of a cloud-POS or mPOS device can now be done through an easy-to-use wizard. As there’s only 1 channel database for all your channels in the new cloud topology, the wizard preopulates the channel database URL and also the stores the device can be associated for (based on the Azure AAD user > worker > store address book > store association).
7. Life Cycle Services (LCS) is no longer a recommendation but a requirement
In many ways adoption of life cycle services can no longer be avoided. Some scenarios to highlight this:
- As AX7 no longer provides access to production environments, the telemetry LCS offers is crucial in identifying issues. Then consecutively, LCS is leveraged to quickly deploy a representative environment, load relevant reference test data and simulate the issue with a task recording.
- Data packages and other assets are all stored in the LCS Asset Library. LCS is the central repository for storage and deployment across the various environments. LCS has a hierarchical structure: a ‘corporate’ section which allows re-using ‘assets’ among different projects.
8. Support 2.0
AX7 re-defines the way you can support your users. Having your users record the issue they face through the task recorder is one thing. Being able to create a ticket from AX7 which is directly converted into a Visual Studio work item for the support engineer is another thing. But the earth shaking thing here is the available telemetry for the support engineer: as AX7 continuously logs system performance and system activity along the way, the work item is automatically enriched with a ‘snapshot’ of the state of the system at the time the issue occurred: what browser did the user utilize, what batch jobs were running, what was the user doing exactly etc.
9. Business process orientation
Although I think the business process repository on LCS could be organized and incorporated in a better way, the AX7 UI offers a brilliant new way its application functionality is exposed to the business users: workspaces. Conceptually the workspaces have many similarities with the good old role centers: tiles are the new cues, tabbed lists are the old enterprise portal enabled listpages (although the new ‘tab’ structure is very handy) and charts and links can be embedded as role center offered (although far more sophisticated now). However, a user can now be offered a numerous number of workspaces, all supporting a specific set of tasks related to a process the user is affiliated with. The set of workspaces together forms the user’s dashboard.
10. New features
OK, they might have become a bit less prominent because of the other hot topics mentioned, but AX7 still offers some great new features – a glimpse of the less prominent features:
- Finance: cross company general journal entry: creating and posting journals without having to switch companies.
- Retail: being able to download updates to mPOS from the device form directly (self-service installer). Process: a new update is made available by IT and a store manager can download and run the update package locally in the store.
- Enterprise search and ribbon search: just type ALT+G to open enterprise search and then type “U C”. AX7 will come up with “Unit Conversion” immediately – one click and you’re in the form. You can even navigate to other pages by simply changing the URL. Type ALT+Q and you can search for a specific function in the ribbon, regardless of the tab group the function belongs to.
11. The cloud: a new way of thinking
With the actual AX7 cloud release you have to be aware that basic on-premise functions have suddenly become a challenge. Here’s a shortlist of challenges and the way Microsoft managed to tackle those:
- Accessing on-premise files and folders is not possible from the cloud: AX can no longer poll on-premise folders and pull-in files for processing, for example in recurring integration scenarios. Instead, files have to be pushed into the cloud. Here’s how: Microsoft has exposed an API which allows a source system to push a file into Azure blob storage accompanied by an enqueuing message which flags a recurring AX batch job that there’s a file to be processed. Microsoft will ship an application to do the enqueuing (and similar dequeuing for exports) on behalf of the source (or target) application. This application will be able to work with processing folders (IN, ERROR, COMPLETED etc.) as many customers were used to with the DIXF batch job (see this blog post by Kurt Hatlevik).
- Printing on local network printers is not possible from the cloud. Again, we need an on-premise pull mechanism here. For this case Microsoft will ship a ‘document routing agent’ which will query an Azure queue for messages which contain meta data for new documents to be printed (stored in Azure blob storage). Network printers can be configured on a specific form in AX7 which will allow the Azure queue message to contain meta data which printer the ‘document routing agent should send the document to.
- Hot keys: the different browsers have different reserved hot keys. To stay as much in line as possible with current hot keys users are familiar with, Microsoft had to be creative. For example, the ‘new record’ hot key CTRL+N has now been replaced by ALT+N, which is still pretty familiar for hot key addicts.
12. Relatively low threshold for adopting AX7
It’s a challenge to develop and release a new product which involves so many paradigm shifts. But it’s pretty handsome if you manage to make the adoption of the new product still relatively easy – very important when it comes to minimizing costs for existing partners to make the shift and minimizing costs for customers to upgrade. Why I do consider the AX7 adoption to be relatively easy:
- Developers will have to embrace Visual Studio, the AOT is re-arranged a bit and developers have to get used to work with the extensions and file based code and packages. But X++ is rather untouched (only enriched at some points) and for those who have some Visual Studio experience, a lot of ‘new’ things is actually common to .NET/Visual Studio in general.
- Yes, the cloud environment requires a new way of thinking as stated in the latter point, but many things will be managed by Microsoft ‘under water’. As always, understanding the concept is much easier than having to become a specialist in an area.
- With the earlier CTPs operating the new AX7 UI was a bit different than the familiar AX2012 navigation. But with RTW the similarities are very clear again. The area pages are back in town for those who worship them, form dynalinking (selecting a different record in the listpage is reflected in a details form) is working flawlessly and the good old ribbon and favorites are still there.
I hope this post inspired you to embrace the new AX7 features without any fear to make the jump.
Happy renewed DAX’ing.