This blog post is a short essay describing my first adventure with Lifecycle Services for Microsoft Dynamics (LCS) (as I believe the solution is now called). Before I start going into details with my first experiences , I would like to give Microsoft some credit for:
- Investing so heavily in what has been an obvious missing link when it comes to implementing Microsoft Dynamics – especially in the enterprise segment where competitors have had these tools for a while.
- Recognising that the tool should be customer-centric rather than partner-centric.
- Having the courage to focus on some of the hard stuff e.g. business process modelling.
Start Using LCS
Before you can start using LCS, you will need to have a current Dynamics maintenance plan and you will need to have an Microsoft Live account associated with you Dynamics account. The first time you log in, you are presented with an Online Services agreement. Obviously, you are supposed to read this agreement in detail, but here are a few important things I have picked up:
- The agreement grants Microsoft a non-exclusive right to use and modify the data you upload.
- The customer (you) retains all ownership rights to the data.
With the button pressed and the agreement out-of-the-way, we are ready to start using the solution.
The whole solution is based around the idea of working with one or more projects. Apart from filling out basic details such as project name and description you must the select the type of project you are about to create. You can select the following project types:
The difference between the three different project types is the functions available. For instance, the only project phase available on a Maintenance project is Operate, which makes sense.
Once the project has been created, you are presented with this main screen:
Before starting the project definition, some basic settings must be configured using the Settings button:
A key decision under Settings is to decide if your documents should be stored in LCS or on an external site. In case you use an external site, you must provide a valid URL.
The first step after the basic settings have been configured is to set up you project team. To do this, you click on the Team button
and start adding team members. You can give each team member a distinct role allowing them different level of permissions to change project structure and contents.
If required, you can use the Role management button
to create new roles with unique permissions.
With the basic configuration of the tool out-of-the-way, it is time to start setting up you project.
Within the Phases section of the tool, the project has been divided into the five Sure Step phases.
When clicking on one of the phases, you are presented with a checklist outlining the key activities of the Sure Step phase, a set of tools relevant to the phase and a project status indicator. The checklist content can be edited to suit your specific project.
From within each phase (or from the main menu) you are able to edit the project plan:
As the above picture shows, the project plan is a simple start-end date for each phase.
From the main menu you are able to produce a simple project summary:
This summary gives you a basic overview of the project including:
- Overall project status.
- Work item statistics.
- Key project wins.
- Outstanding work (checklist items).
- Risk register.
You are also able to create issues of type Project Bug, Work Item or Risk. You can perform some simple tracking on the issues, but as far as I can tell, you are not able to assign them to any project activities, so really it is just as simple list.
The Business Modeller
The Business Modeller is the heart of LCS. With the Business Modeller, you are able to model your business processes all the way down to task level. Microsoft provides 140 standard processes out-of-the-box (as per June 2014) based on the APQC framework.
When you open the Business Modeller, you are presented with your business process libraries. Firstly, you have the libraries provided by Microsoft on the right-hand side and on the left-hand side you can create your own libraries by uploading the structure from a spreadsheet.
As for the APQC out-of-the-box processes; as a starting point I guess they are helpful, but they do not fully reflect the complexities and quirks of most enterprises.
As the following picture shows, the Business Modeller contains a process diagram tool, which allows you to draw business processes and attach certain meta-data to the process.
The tool is very basic compared to Microsoft Visio and is unlikely to support the requirements of most organisation. It is unfortunately not possible to link process diagrams at present.
From within the diagram you are able to open the associated Dynamics AX menu point. Also, you are able to link the process element to a gap in the gap list. However, so far I have not been able to find the place where the gap list is kept.
Another way to augment the process model is to record a certain process or activity using the task recorder:
The Task Recorder allows you to add sub-processes to an existing process framework and record the process for subsequent upload to the Business Modeller. This is a very effective and intuitive way to build process diagram elements. Also, the Task Recorder will allow you to generate Microsoft Word documents detailing the recorded process as shown in the following picture:
It is unlikely that the document can be used straightaway for training or test documentation, but is indeed an easy way to generate a good starting point.
Once you have finished working on the processes in the Task Recorder, you will need to generate a process package and upload it to the Business Modeller in LCS to take effect. This is a straightforward, albeit, slightly cumbersome and time-consuming process.
The task recorded process is added to the process model as a video.
To me, one of the key challenges with the Business Modeller if the fact that it is not version-controlled. This means that any change to a process diagram takes effect immediately. You can mitigate this problem, to a degree, by having to copies of the same process framework and copy from the “development” framework to the “live” framework when you want to deploy a revision.
Actually, it is version-controlled in as much as it records the changes as a new version everytime you change a process.
With the Upgrade Analysis tool, you are able to upload multiple .AOD files from an Dynamics AX 4.0 or 2009 environment and let LCS analyse the modifications made to the system. The solution is straightforward and to me is preferable to the same solution embedded in the Dynamics AX software, because it always contains the latest revisions to the meta-data-model.
Provisioning a Dynamics AX 2012 R3 Azure Environment
One of the key features of Dynamics AX 2012 R3 is the ability to execute on Azure. It is worth noting that at present this feature is not available for production environment deployment, but still you are able to deploy full demo environments.
Before you start provisioning a new environment, you need to sign up and create an account in Azure. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to go into the mechanics of creating an Azure account, but you will need your account ID to be able to provision a Dynamics AX 2012 R3 environment on Azure.
To start the provisioning process, you click on the
icon. This kicks off a very simple and self-explanatory process, which ends in a new environment, if all goes well. This picture shows an overview of my environments.
You simply provision a new environment by clicking <+>.
For me, all went well straightaway, and the simplicity and speed of the process is impressive. As the following picture from the Azure administration portal shows, the environment is now deployed:
You can connect to the environment using Remote Desktop Services (RDS). In the limited tests I have been able to do so far, the environment works well and is stable, but fast it isn’t. Obviously, one of the key points going forward with using Dynamics AX on Azure will be the ability to scale the performance of the solution from the Azure administration portal.
We are strongly considering using Dynamics AX on Azure for development and test purposes. However, to do this we still need to figure out exactly how it will work with AD federation and integration to an on-premise Team-Foundation-Sever (TFS) – so more about this in a future blog post.
The Issue Search feature allows you to search for a solution to a known issue and download the hotfix.
In the Usage Profiler you are able to enter or upload data relating to the use and complexity of your installation. Based on this data, LCS can generate an estimated sizing as shown in the following picture:
As far as I can tell, the estimates seem quite sensible, but I will need to gain more experience with this feature before making a final judgement. Also, I have not been able to associate the analysis with the Business Modeller. More on this in a future blog post.
RapidStart is not a direct feature in LCS as such, but a separate tool that allows you to configure Dynamics AX using a questionnaire-style tool set. You are able to link your LCS-project with a project in RapidStart. I will go into details with RapidStart in a future blog post, but my impression so far is that Microsoft’s intention with RapidStart is good, but it has neglected to develop the product for a while.
License Sizing Estimator
The license sizing estimator allows you to enter the number of employees by role by department as shown in the following picture:
Once all employees have been recorded, it is possible to generate the following report, which shows in necessary license CALs:
LCS in the Cloud
LCS is only being provided as a cloud services. Obviously, the key advantage of this approach is that it is easy to deploy and does not require any local installation apart from a connector between LCS and the Dynamics AX environment. However, with LCS being provided in the cloud there are also some drawbacks in my view.
Firstly, Microsoft deploys improvements to the solution on a regular basis. The Dynamics LCS blog is used to communicate the changes, but in my view, this agile approach will not work well with ongoing projects. Changes in solution behaviour during a critical phase of your project is probably not what you need, so therefore I would not be encouraged to use LCS for any mission-critical projects.
Secondly, you must be online to use LCS. Mostly, we are all online these days, but when you are not, it can be a right pain.
Currently, LCS only supports Internet Explorer (IE) browser. It will run on IE9, but if you would like to provision Dynamics AX through Azure or upload an .AOD file larger than 4MB (Upgrade Analysis tool), you will need IE10. It will appear that Microsoft still hasn’t recognized that not all of us are using IE all of the time.
Would We Go With LCS Right Now?
Certainly, we will be using the tools in LCS. The Upgrade Analysis, the License Sizing Estimator and Usage Profiler are fine. However, the solution has a pretty strong whiff of BETA about it, so we are unlikely to go all in – just yet… In future, definitely!
However, for me the biggest challenge is with the Business Modeller. Albeit, I can see the intention with the tool, it is still too simplistic to be used as a general business process modelling tool. When Microsoft has addressed the shortcomings and the missing features, I am sure this tool will become the de facto tool for all Dynamics projects.
The Projects feature of LCS is nowhere mature enough to provide adequate project management support – at least not for enterprise level projects. There are so many other tools out there today that will provide this type of functionality, so until Microsoft provides a full-feature tool set, I will be staying with my other products.
What Should the Future hold for LCS?
If Microsoft persists with the Projects feature, they should make sure it becomes a whole lot more operational. This would mean adding stuff like:
- Integration with Microsoft Project.
- Proper activity management including SCRUM-like artefacts such as backlogs.
- Better reporting features.
- Ability to export lists, reports and artefacts to PDF and Excel.
- Change request management tool.
We will continue to monitor the progress of the Cloud Hosted Environments tool and leverage that as new features become available.
Our conclusion is this: LCS shows promise and, yes, it is the future of Dynamics AX implementation and operation, but right now it is not quite mature enough to base an entire implementation on.