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NetSuite 9.5 Redefines Web-Based Business

A single Web application integrates all business functions using an enhanced GUI.
NetSuite's claims for its eponymous product seemed a stretch, even by the standards of an industry notorious for its hype. Could a single Web application integrate all business functions for a company with up to 1,000 employees, at a total cost of ownership 90 percent less than that of comparable products?

To find out, I put NetSuite 9.5 to the test. By simulating business transactions involving several company departments, I examined the product's cross-organizational integration and reporting capabilities.

To my delight, most of the vendor's assertions proved true. However, NetSuite's one-size-fits-all approach is a double-edged sword. The product's feature sets--accounting, customer service, e-commerce, inventory management and sales-force management--lack the advanced customization of specialized business applications like Microsoft's Great Plains and Remedy's ARS. But its highly integrated modules easily enable enterprisewide data reporting in real time.


Accounting & ERP Lite

For testing purposes, I created a product matrix for widgets of various colors and lengths. This record tied in with several modules, letting me match the products with their corresponding COGS (cost of goods sold), income and asset accounts, as well as build a 1,000-unit "point and select" inventory reordering system.

Next, I set up several price breaks based on volume, letting NetSuite update employee and corporate discounts automatically using preconfigured pricing rules. I also created a custom Web store product description, related-item table and pricing structure when filling out the product-information form.

Upon setting up my account, I could enter the Web store as a new customer, search for a specific widget model and place an order. To test the pricing rules, I returned to the admin interface and gave my customer the role of sales manager. Accordingly, when I ordered widgets at the Web store, I received an employee discount.

When inventory levels fell well below the required reorder points, I responded by creating a PO (purchase order) for various colors and lengths, which I could e-mail or fax to my favorite vendor. Next, I marked the items on the PO as received. My action was instantly reflected in the inventory numbers, which were made available to CxOs, sales reps and the Web store.

Sales-force automation and customer-service features are integrated tightly with the Web store front end. I submitted a support case for the widgets I ordered through the Web store and then tracked it as it was assigned automatically to a support technician. Similarly, Web sales-lead forms can be directed to appropriate members of the sales team, and customers can request and review sales quotes from the Web.

NetSuite 9.5 supports basic planning and management for both product- and service-based organizations. But unlike offerings from vendors such as PeopleSoft/J.D. Edwards and SAP, it lacks advanced ERP (enterprise resource planning) functionality, such as shift management, manufacturing scheduling and vertical solutions.

Slick GUI

Compared with earlier versions, NetSuite 9.5 features an enhanced GUI. Drag-and-drop list reordering and customizable drop-down menus complement a series of portlet dashboards, real-time graphical trending data and drill-down capabilities. Although you won't forget you're in a Web browser, these features, together with customizable color schemes and the ability to tweak the behavior effects of menus, drop-down lists and other elements, give NetSuite a slick interface.

I found that the new GUI works best with Internet Explorer 6. Netscape's browser doesn't support all the advanced GUI features and Opera crashed while the dashboards were loading.

Role Playing

Good
  • Great key-performance indicators for business
  • Excellent user interface
  • Low initial TCO
  • Bad

  • Clumsy security model
  • Poor cross-browser support
  • NETSUITE 9.5, $4,800 per year for two users; $900 for each additional user. NetSuite, (877) 638-7848, (650) 627-1000. www.netsuite.com

    As in earlier versions, user roles are central to NetSuite for security and navigation, but their implementation leaves much to be desired. In most RBAC (role-based access control) products, users are assigned one or more roles, and when they log in with their user name and password, they gain the access privileges of all their roles. But in NetSuite, users must switch from one role to the next to obtain such privileges.

    Contributing to NetSuite's promised TCO savings is the vendor's ability, as an ASP (application service provider), to deliver the product online. Sign up, log in and get started--there's no hardware to buy or software to install.

    NetSuite comes with preconfigured roles, but these may be too rigid and confining for most small and midsize companies. Customizing roles for optimal use requires a chunk of time and a good understanding of how the product's pieces interact. The good news is that once configuration is complete, the system requires little administration aside from adding and removing users.

    Your existing corporate data can be imported in batch by uploading QuickBooks, CSV or smbXML files (smbXML is the Small and Medium Business Extensible Markup Language developed by NetSuite), but you'll also need to create items such as work-flow approval paths and support escalation rules.

    Bottom line: NetSuite 9.5 offers uniformity and integration across the enterprise, but at the expense of depth and customization of particular business processes.

    Daniel Koffler is an IT consultant and a manager of several open-source projects. Write to him at [email protected]