Review: For ERP, Is It Time To Applaud Openbravo?


Think of any proprietary platform, and there is an open-source alternative, whether it's an operating system or a database, or even, yes, an ERP system.

Enterprise resource planning software is used for operational planning, including managing orders, inventory, accounting, and logistics. Long dominated by industry giants Oracle and SAP, ERP deployments are generally associated with the large enterprise. Open source ERP systems bring the technology within reach of the small and midsize enterprises, and all the way down to the small business.

There are a handful of open source ERP solutions that can be considered business-ready --- thorough documentation, extensive technical and customer support, and a regular release schedule. Openbravo ERP, from Spanish company Openbravo is one. The Test Center deployed the Web-based ERP and discovered a fully functional system that supports procurement and warehouse management, project and service management, production management, and financial management. It also supports BI and CRM. Designed for the SME, Openbravo ERP is flexible, scalable, and affordable.

A big concern about open source has always been about interoperability: would it work with what's already in production? Openbravo ERP eases those concerns somewhat, supporting both proprietary Oracle (10g) and open source PostgreSQL databases. Openbravo ERP is Java-based and requires several Apache products. At this point, Microsoft-centric customers with SQL Server databases, .NET framework, and IIS, won't be feeling the Openbravo love, but they are probably looking at Microsoft Dynamics ERP, anyway. However, Openbravo does run on servers running Microsoft Windows XP, 2000, 2003 Server.

Openbravo is different from other open-source ERP in that its interface is entirely Web-based. The user can view production information, inventory, customer information, order tracking, and workflow information all from a Web browser. This simplifies access, since authorized users don't have to wait for special client software to be installed on their computers. As most Web applications, the interface is intuitive and menu options are easily accessible. Various management options are organized as menus, such as sales, procurement, and production. Clicking on the option opens up all the associated tasks in a drop-down. For example, transactions such as sales and shipment orders are accessible under the Sales Management menu. Each task window is icon-driven, and the icons are pictorially easy to understand. Reports are easy to create and there are several templates, as well as the ability to create customized ones. The reports and data can be exported to Microsoft Excel or saved as PDF.

Openbravo spent a lot of time designing the architecture the ERP is constructed on. The metadata-driven engine is based on a 2002 version of another open-source ERP project, Compiere. Openbravo improved upon the engine, and consists of only 10 percent of the code base, according to the company's Web site. The entire system is constructed on two development frameworks: the Model-View-Controller and Model-Driven-Development. Under MVC, data is manipulated by controllers, not directly by the user. By referencing a data model dictionary, the application engine can automatically recompile and rebuild whenever the administrator makes a change. And MDD allows models of code for user-created code. These two models simplify integration with other programs.

Deploying Openbravo ERP requires getting all the supporting applications installed and configured first. Test Center used a Debian 4.0r3 Etch server. Openbravo has been tested on other Linux flavors as well, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS, Novell SUSE, Canonical's Ubuntu and Fedora. The testing server already had the latest Java and Ant installed; solution providers would have to remember to install them beforehand. Ant is an Apache software tool that automates software builds for Java files (similar to make).

Because it's a Java-based application, Openbravo also requires Tomcat, an Apache Web container that specifically handles Java Servlet and JSP. For the database backend, PostgreSQL was installed on the test server.

Once the individual components are in place, the actual Openbravo ERP installation is script-driven. Openbravo is distributed with all source code developed by Openbravo and few third-party libraries. The script requires information about the database server, such as IP address, username, and port, and about the system, such as the Web URL. Once the script completes, the Openbravo ERP is accessible by pointing the browser to the specified URL.

Next: Openbravo Works For System Integrators Deployment is where solution providers can really provide service. Compared to an SAP or Oracle deployment, Openbravo is relatively easy, but it's still not plug-and-play. An ERP implementation typically is handled by, or at least, supported by, system integrators and consultants. This works well with Openbravo's distribution model, which relies on the channel.

Openbravo is available in two versions: the Community Edition and Network Edition. Community Edition is available for free from SourceForge.net and intended for developers and non-critical environments. The Network Edition is the production-ready and stable solution, available through certified partners. For this Test Center review, Openbravo Community Edition was installed.

The latest features are available in the Community Edition and there are frequent releases throughout the year, while the Network Edition is updated biannually. For an annual subscription (prices vary depending on number of users or unlimited use), the Network Edition offers automatic upgrades, bug-fixes, unlimited support, and embedded licenses for proprietary software and third-party support.

Montclair, N.J.-based Corra Technology is an open-source solution provider providing system integration, support, and consulting services. CEO Ron Bongo estimated the company has already been contracted to do four or five Openbravo installations in 2008, and the company expects to do at least ten or fifteen this year.

ERP systems have to support big companies with complex business systems and a large user base. Does Openbravo scale? Bongo said a typical Openbravo deployment for Corra Technology is in the $10 million to $100 million range, and scalability has never been a problem. The company's focus on model-driven architecture makes the application stable, scalable, and easy to develop for.

System integrators with software development capabilities can develop applications for Openbravo, especially with the Eclipse IDE. Other applications can synchronize data with Openbravo using the Java-based Openbravo API. Also, Openbravo ERP is released under the Mozilla Public License 1.1, which means the code can be used as a foundation for other proprietary licensed products.

Openbravo also offers Openbravo POS, an application specifically designed for touch screens used in the retail industry. Openbravo POS can work together with Openbravo ERP, or separately in any existing point-of-sale environment.

System integrators can speed up some of the deployment by creating an appliance with the basic components pre-installed. With proper hardware, the appliance can have the ERP system and its dependencies in place, waiting to be configured according to each customer's individual specifications and requirements.

A note about documentation and support: many open source projects often rush to get the product out, which often means documentation, if available, is usually skimpy and often riddled with errors. While a strong community-driven-forum is essential for an open source project, businesses need access to thorough, in-depth, and clearly written documentation. Openbravo shines in this aspect. The installation guide, user manual, and associated reference materials on configuring third-party applications and hardware specifications are superb. Bongo said Openbravo spent a long time getting the software ready, but also in getting the commercial team behind the product for support. "They have all the pieces in place," he said.

Corra Technology is in the enviable position of not having to convince customers to consider open-source deployments since "99 percent" of its customers approach the company asking for open-source solutions. For solution providers still trying to convince their customers, selling open-source ERP doesn't have to be a difficult conversation. According to Bongo, many CIOs are actively considering open-source solutions when considering IT projects. Open source solutions save customers money, especially for ERP. Customers can specify their requirements and have only those services in the ERP system, so that they are not paying for services they aren't interested in. The ease of customization also means customers are no longer locked in to expensive ERP software and supporting systems.

Cost-competitive, a modern architecture, and flexible (and it works!) -- what more do customers need for ERP?