Microsoft Dynamics GP, NAV or AX – What’s the Difference?

NAV exceeds 100k

Over 100,000 NAV sites

The Microsoft ‘Dynamics’ family of accounting or ERP products encompasses NAV, GP, AX and CRM (and SL, though we don’t hear much about that one). Not surprisingly, the business marketplace is a bit confused by this. We often get calls to help with ‘Dynamics’ at a possible new support customer which prompts us to ask, err which one?

Microsoft has been active in the accounting or ERP market space since 2001 when they bought American software provider Great Plains. At the time, I was selling Great Plains (now GP) in the UK and had visited Fargo in North Dakota twice for GP’s annual ‘Stampede to Fargo’ event. On the second visit, I was even on stage, with my then employer, as we received an award for ISV of the Year (UK). As a Scots company, our kilts went down well with the audience and we were chuffed to have slipped our skean dhus (google it) past the US Customs.

By the time Microsoft had bought Navision, I was back consulting on and selling that product. A two year aberration you might say but it was useful to understand where the alternate products were coming from. As a consequence of buying Navision (NAV), Microsoft also inherited Axapta (now AX) as Navision had taken over their Danish rival a couple of years before.

For a period, Microsoft declared that with ‘Project Green’, they would amalgamate all of the ERP products into one, single ‘Dynamics’ solution. This was a laudable but ultimately laughable premise. The products were so dissimilar that this was a non-starter from day one. Since they all remain available today, how do we differentiate them?

Well, we can leave aside Dynamics CRM as it obviously has its own focus. Some have argued that this has been to the detriment of the Dynamics ERP solutions which incorporate CRM functionality, limiting any further development there, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Great Plains, or GP, began in the US and had great traction there. It was the most obvious first choice purchase for Microsoft. Today, there are around 47,000 sites but these are mainly in North America. My experience of selling the product was that European subsidiaries would be told to buy it, an easy sell, or the excellent FRx reporting product which came with it was what won the deal. (Sadly, FRx is now in a state of ‘phased discontinuation’ by Microsoft.) Developing in the product was cumbersome and it relied heavily on 3rd party add-ons. Most of these came out of the US and, at one time, multi-currency was an alien concept to these developers! Things have changed, obviously, but that’s the legacy of GP which means that it has never been able to assume any leadership in the European marketplace.

Axapta, now AX, had a similar development history to Navision. Both came out of Denmark and both majored on providing great accounting functionality, full multi-country and multi-currency capability. However, the crucial differentiator was an in-built development capability. Thus, if the product didn’t deliver specific functionality ‘out of the box’, it could be developed for the customer. At the time, this was revolutionary. Get 90% of what you wanted as standard, and develop the rest to ensure a 100% fit. Second time users in particular were delighted. They had suffered from the ‘it doesn’t do that, you’ll have to work around it’ mantra of standard accounting software for years. Now they could have a system that delivered what they wanted, in full.

Where AX differed was in the method of delivering this functionality. AX focussed on ‘upgradeability’ i.e. their development environment should mean that each new release of the software could be implemented with minimal fuss and all of those development changes could be ‘dropped back in again’. At least, that was the theory. Once again, a laudable sentiment but not entirely practical in the real world.

It is probably more relevant to focus on where AX now differs from NAV in the recent and current marketplace – scalability. With little more than 19,000 sites worldwide, one might think the product hadn’t been much of a success. But that figure disguises the fact that many of these are big, in fact very big, sites and are replacing or beating the likes of SAP (the proper big one!) and Oracle in competitive bids.

Costing the most and taking the longest to implement, AX is for the company willing to spend. It’s not quite ‘If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it’ but you get the idea. Many sites take years to roll out fully and some never get past phase 1. We won a large deal against an AX supplier simply because of site visits. While our customers were happy to comment on the continued ongoing development of their NAV solutions i.e. they would ask for changes and could happily identify the cost-benefits of making the changes, our competitor’s customers were commenting that once past phase 1, many of their ideas for additional development were stalled because the costs didn’t justify the benefits.

While size and scalability differentiate AX from NAV, we have NAV sites with 100’s of users accessing the data via web or ‘lite’ users and these users can be geographically scattered across the globe. And there are numerous examples of very large, very distributed NAV sites. However, we wouldn’t dream of competing with AX when 1000’s of users require access and that large-scale capability required by multinationals is a fertile ground for the AX reseller. Meantime, NAV continues to lead the pack, easily providing solutions to businesses with users from less than 10 to over 500. The wide appeal of NAV is easily seen by its reach – over 102,000 businesses use NAV and there is a NAV site in pretty much every country on the planet. I’m assuming North Korea doesn’t have a site but who knows?

In summary, and in my obviously slightly biased opinion, GP is strong in small to medium ERP among North American businesses and their subsidiaries, although NAV is an established and fierce competitor in that space. NAV leads the small to medium sized charge for Microsoft across the world. However, there comes a tipping point where a multi-national appears. Those businesses that see themselves as naturals for the big Oracle or SAP ERP solutions are now a very fertile marketplace for AX which is both more tailorable and more cost effective. And all have the Microsoft ‘badge’ ensuring continued investment and ongoing support. I hesitate to say ‘guaranteed future-proofing’ but it’s as good as you’re likely to get.

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