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Open Source Cloud: Article

The Open Source Solution for ERP and Integration

A platform that will enable future growth

(SYS-CON Media) - The Marena Group in Lawrenceville, Georgia, has always followed its own path and bucked convention. A maker of compression garments for athletic and post-surgical use, the company exports approximately half of its domestically produced goods to overseas markets - a true exception in the garment field. The company has also followed its own instincts in the area of information technology and has readily embraced open source products.

For many years, Marena relied upon one Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) product, but the longer we used it, the more dissatisfied we became. The existing application had undergone numerous updates and add-ons over time, which made it extremely difficult to maintain. In addition, the vendor was acquired by another company and, during this transition, customer service declined considerably. Responses to change requests or reported conflicts were either non-existent or extremely slow, often taking weeks at a time. This placed a considerable burden on our limited internal IT resources and, as a result, we decided that it did not warrant any further investment.

In the fall of 2005, Marena began looking at a wide range of ERP choices. The field was narrowed down to two final candidates: SAP Business One and OpenMFG, a provider of ERP software built with open source components, such as Qt, the Linux operating system, the PostgreSQL database, and the OpenRPT report writer.

At that time, there weren't many high quality open source ERP alternatives on the market and OpenMFG was the only one we felt confident in, even though it was relatively unknown. After comparing functionality and cost, Marena selected OpenMFG.

The biggest factors in the decision were cost and the software itself. OpenMFG was approximately one-fifth the cost of SAP. Marena could implement OpenMFG and link it to our Web store, all for the price of simply upgrading our existing ERP system. Another positive was that we could download a virtually complete version of the OpenMFG ERP software prior to purchase. As such, our IT group was able to run it on a test database and work with it for as long as we wanted. This significantly increased our comfort level and made our decision much easier. We also liked the open source philosophy of being able to directly contribute to product improvement.

Once we made our decision to adopt OpenMFG, we began setup and installation - a fairly straightforward process involving basic data and process conversion. Within five weeks of purchasing the product, Marena took OpenMFG live.

A Catalyst for Open Source
Initially, The Marena Group used standard Windows clients on Dell hardware, but soon after going live, the company introduced its first Linux server. The catalyst for this decision was a severe Windows virus, which essentially tore apart our entire Microsoft network. Among the applications sidelined was the Microsoft SQL Server database. Until this time, Marena had been running OpenMFG on the open source PostgreSQL database in parallel, on the same Windows server. Despite the severity of the virus, OpenMFG and Postgres were unaffected by the attack.

During the incident, thumb drives were loaded with the OpenMFG application and it was installed on local PCs. Because OpenMFG is simple to deploy, Marena was able to resume normal business operations after only one hour. Unfortunately, it took approximately two months to reassemble the Windows network, primarily due to the company's limited internal IT resources. In hindsight, the virus attack and the resilience of the open source applications acted as a catalyst for Marena to adopt additional open source solutions. One thing was certain: if Marena had continued to run its old Windows-based ERP system, the company would not have been able to process orders for days and perhaps even weeks.

Open Source Integration
For many months Marena had discussed purchasing a business integration tool to replace its homegrown solution. It was paramount that the company's disparate systems "talk to" each other and it was decided that a more sophisticated software solution was required. Microsoft BizTalk was at the top of the list as it was the only affordable package suitable for a small company like Marena that relies heavily on Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) to communicate with its customers.

Due in part to the success of adopting OpenMFG, Marena began investigating open source business integration packages. While options were very limited at that time, we discovered a beta version of Jitterbit, an open source business integration software package, which seemed promising. As we implemented a pre-release version of the software, we faced a number of bugs and issues. However, the service and support from Jitterbit was outstanding and, after installation and upgrades, Jitterbit has proved to be extremely robust.

Application integration using Jitterbit enables Marena to receive purchase orders in XML every half hour from our biggest domestic customer. Jitterbit is used to "convert" those purchase orders into sales orders. Marena also operates a Web store where customers can place orders and, in this instance, Jitterbit receives an XML file from the Web site and automatically processes the order. This provides huge labor and cost savings for the order entry process, and reduces the error rates to zero as no re-keying of information is required. Before Jitterbit was installed, our homegrown integration system could process sales orders directly from customers, but no orders from the Web store.

Jitterbit has also provided Marena with more flexibility. For example, to increase operating efficiencies, Marena wanted to process orders in XML for our largest foreign-based customer and, using Jitterbit, we were able to set this up within a week. Both Jitterbit and OpenMFG run on the Postgres database, another open source solution.

Jitterbit also integrates the company's email. Until the virus attack, Marena used Microsoft Exchange. However, after that incident, Marena now uses Solve360 from hosted business email provider Norada.

Embracing the Open Source Philosophy Perhaps the most unique aspect of using open source products is instant membership into the community of fellow users. This has been extremely positive on both corporate and personal levels. As an open source software user there is always a community to turn to, even if the company supporting the product goes out of business. As Marena experienced firsthand, a proprietary software vendor may go out of business or be acquired, and there's really nothing that the community can do, no matter how bad service or support becomes.

The open source philosophy encourages community sharing and contribution, and this has been embraced at Marena. The latest software release of OpenMFG includes a "Buffer Management" module that we developed and decided to share with the user community. This new feature draws upon the Theory of Constraints model and lean manufacturing concepts to provide users with more flexibility and control over their manufacturing process. By defining "buffers" around time, inventory and capacity, Buffer Management provides companies with the flexibility to reprioritize and reorganize manufacturing to address production bottlenecks or accommodate unforeseen circumstances.

The buffer management code eschews proprietary terminology and adheres tightly to industry standards from respected manufacturing groups such as APICS. By learning the OpenMFG coding conventions and data models, it was a fairly simple process to create the desired functionality for the module. After a public review of the code and in-house Quality Assurance testing, the module was included in version 2.0 of the officially supported product.

Other positive aspects of the open source community are the forums and issue- tracking channels on the vendors' web sites. With OpenMFG for example, I can see the issues, comments and suggestions of other users. This is also very beneficial as vendors themselves can see what the issues are and prioritize what needs to be done and when. This is in stark contrast to our previous ERP vendor's web site, where I could only see my submission for a fix or request and no one else's.

Open Source Suits MarenaB One year since The Marena Group adopted three open source solutions (OpenMFG, Jitterbit, Postgres) it is safe to say that we are happy with the choices we have made. Reliability has been excellent and, in fact, OpenMFG has proven to be much more reliable than our former proprietary ERP system. Since moving to the production version of Jitterbit there have been no significant issues and Postgres continues to perform well.

With these products supporting The Marena Group's manufacturing operations, the company has the platform in place that will enable future growth. By reducing our costs and increasing reliability, these open source solutions have helped the firm not only stay price-competitive with its overseas and domestic competition, but also manage the hugely diverse array of products we offer.

More Stories By John Rogelstad

John Rogelstad is director of operations at The Marena Group.

More Stories By Alex Knezevic

Alex Knezevic is director of information technology, The Marena Group.

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