September 12, 2007

Nseer ERP 6.0 isn't fully baked

Author: Chen Nan Yang

The big names in open source enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, such as Compiere, get most of the publicity, but you have another choice: Nseer ERP, from the first Chinese company to open the source code to its ERP software. It offers a basic solution for small businesses.

Like many other open source ERP applications, Nseer ERP is developed under Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and is based on a client-server architecture. It runs on Linux, Windows, and Unix, and supports databases such as MySQL, Oracle, DB2, and SQL Server; multiple languages (for the time being, only English and Chinese); and the IE, Firefox, and Netscape Web browsers. The latest version is v6.0.

Installation, ease of use, and workflow

In Windows, installation is quite smooth. You can download two Windows versions of Nseer ERP: the general version (which requires you to install and set up MySQL, Tomcat, and J2SDK yourself), and the quick-install version, for which you should uninstall any existing MySQL, Tomcat, and J2SDK packages.

After installation, the source code of the software will be in the directory \APPDIR\webapps\erp\WEB-INF\src.

The company has not released v6.0 for Linux yet; you can transplant it from a Windows installation yourself, or download v5.30 for Linux. In Linux, after setting up MySQL, Tomcat, and J2SDK, you should copy the erp folder from the downloaded 5.30 package under the directory /usr/local/jakarta-tomcat-5.0.28/webapps.

Once the installation is complete, you can try the software in your browser by launching Tomcat, then visiting http://localhost:8080/erp/home/login.jsp. Choose your language and log in.

Getting started in Nseer ERP takes three steps.

Company setup: The first time you run Nseer ERP, you should log in as an administrator using the account name nseer_admin. Then you can select the menu item hr -> Customize setting -> Human resoureces management setting -> I organization setting (note the misspelling of "resoureces" in the second submenu) to set up the organization of your company. You can classify the departments of your company up to three levels deep here.

License release: After company setup, choose hr -> Human resources management -> Register to add new employees to the company. Then go to hr -> Human resources management -> Check to check and pass the new employees. Finally, go to security -> License of users management -> UL release to release licenses to the new employees. Out of the box, Nseer does not integrate with any directory services you may already be using for authentication.

Employees register: After they receive licenses, employees can register, log in, and use the system themselves. Each user can see only the functions for which they have been authorized, and the administrator can change their authorization via security -> Users management -> Change authorization of users.

Moderate functionality, weak customization

Nseer ERP 6.0 adds two new modules -- ecommerce and logistics -- and carries over 11 modules from the previous version: customer relationship, product design, management of production, storage, outsourcing, purchasing, financing control, finance system, human resources, cooperative work, and system security. With the new ecommerce module, users can easily publish the information from their ERP system to their Web sites.

6.0 includes most of the modules any ERP application should have, plus it has some special functions for Chinese users. For example, it has a detailed "buy and sell on credit management" submodule. That's useful in China because Chinese companies like to accept credit for goods, and almost every big domestic company has a special department in charge of dunning for debts by legal or illegal ways.

Nseer has done a good job on the interface and workflow, which makes it easy for users to install and input or manage the information in its modules. 6.0 uses AJAX technology, which increases the ease of use. For example, you can add a shortcut to any function on the first page.

Security of the application is also fine. Each module includes a set of privileges that provide granular access to data. Users can export the data as Excel, PDF, or XML files. An administrator can approve or cancel these privileges.

However, compared to other popular open source ERP applications such as Compiere, the details in Nseer ERP's modules are still too simple, especially in the manufacturing module; for example, there are not enough functions for the factory calendar, which deals with overtime, working Saturday alternation, plant shutdown, etc. Other modules have similar problems; for example, there are no functions for piece rates or hourly wages in the salary management module.

Right now, there aren't many advantages to using this open source application. Most average small businesses will need to do some additional development if they want to use Nseer ERP. But because of the weakness of its functions, companies have few choices when they do customization.

Nseer should add more detailed functions in subsequent versions; that would reduce the cost of further development and improve the ability of customization. And perhaps it will -- Nseer releases a new version about every four months.

Migration and compatibility

Like Compiere, Nseer is backed by an expert ERP team. The difference between them is that Compiere has an active, international open source group of people who support it. Nseer does not -- yet.

Currently Nseer is pusuing a "partner plan" to make some money to survive; ERP is Nseer's only source of income and Nseer engineers got only 70% of their salary last year when the software turned to open source. The company is neglecting to seek support from the open source community, which makes the software even weaker in the areas of migration and compatibility.

You may encounter some real problems in migrating to or developing for Nseer ERP. First, you may have problems when you transplant an Nseer ERP installation for Windows to Linux. You may need to redo setup for MySQL, Tomcat, and J2SDK, or switch to the versions that Nseer recommends: the jdk-1_5_0_10-linux-i586-rpm.bin, mysql-5.0.18.tar.gz, and jakarta-tomcat-5.0.28.tar.gz.

Also, Nseer uses the Guo Biao (GB) character coding in its database; you may need to change it to a better choice, such as UTF-8. And the English version contains some translation mistakes or "Chin-English"; you should beware of it.

Nseer expects the path of the database to be under /usr/local; otherwise you should change the database connect pool in your Tomcat installation. It seems that the software has to read the database every time a user visits a new page, which may slow the speed when there are too many users.

At times you may discover missing source code. For example, in its previous version, the directory /src/include/tree_index contained only businessComment.java, but CheckLogonTag.java and Right.java were absent. 6.0 has restored these two files, but if you find something else lost you can contact Nseer. Nseer engineers explained that this was done to stop someone from changing the comapny's copyright information with "hostility."

Cost analysis

Licenses for open source ERP software are free -- open source ERP companies make money not from software, but from services.

Nseer offers two service packages: one for manufacturing customers and one for distribution customers. Each package includes technology files, tools for further development, training, six months of telecommuting diagnosis, and six months of telephone support. The packages cost $6,900 and $6,100, respectively. Considering the current state of the software, the true cost depends mostly on the technological strength of the user.

Chen Nan Yang is a Chinese freelance journalist and a former official in the local Investment and Development Bureau in charge of promoting information technologies for government and enterprises.

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