How to avoid an Oracle ERP upgrade disaster

Users who have gone through the experience advised their peers during OpenWorld

While Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison hyped up the company's burgeoning aspirations in cloud computing during OpenWorld this week, many customers in attendance had their minds focused more on life in the trenches, where matters such as upgrading aging ERP (enterprise-resource-planning) systems remain crucial but risky affairs.

Smiths Medical was compelled this year to pull the trigger on upgrading its sizable E-Business Suite implementation due to a number of pressing issues, including the expiration of software support and obsolete hardware, company representatives said during an OpenWorld session.

The medical device maker managed to complete the upgrade from version 11 to 12.1.3 within 10 months, but only because of extensive planning and practices it put in place, said Smiths Medical Vice President of IT Vaughan Hennum and global project manager Lisa Ruddell.

"Governance was absolutely key," Hennum said. "Every presentation I've gone to on an upgrade says you've got to have good governance. You really do."

The company formed an executive steering committee for the project, which held monthly meetings.

The close participation of subject-matter experts from around the company was imperative, as "they know how [E-Business Suite] works," Hennum added.

Smiths Medical has about 7,900 employees, with 5,000 of them E-Business Suite users. The implementation handles 25 operating units, 30,000 SKUs and has 20 major software "bolt-ons," which had to be upgraded as well, Hennum said. "It's a very big environment."

Some 400 employees helped out with testing.

"We had a high, high volume of testing activity and we really had to get our arms around it," Ruddell said. The project team used analytics to develop charts and graphs that depicted the status of testing in visual ways. "It kept the business motivated," she said. "They understood where everything stood and where the challenges were."

The cutover to the new system, which occurred in August, was successful but remains in a stabilization mode. "We are experiencing issues," Ruddell said. "Nobody would say we wouldn't."

While the project was a general success, Smiths Medical still learned a few lessons.

For one thing, version 12.1.3 has major changes in the finance module, and companies should make sure they have plenty of project staffers well-versed in this area, the presenters said.

Customers should also figure out a way to mimic their current production loads when testing 12.1.3, which "by nature just performs a lot differently" from earlier versions, Ruddell said.

Another key is to keep in close contact with Oracle before the upgrade, and even closer afterward, according to Hennum. "You cannot be closer enough to them after the upgrade because issues will arise. There are still new bugs that are coming out and some of these could be severe."

If the company's Oracle account team knows it is going live on the new version, it will be easier to get a support issue escalated to a high priority level if need be, Hennum said.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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