Postbooks Offers a Unique Spin on ERP Platforms

IT vendors large and small have pushed out their own variations on ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software over the past few years. Whether major firms such as Oracle and Salesforce pushing out holistic platforms with lots of bells and whistles, or tiny startups offering a single cloud-based tool for measuring customer interactions or pulling management data into a single stream, the common refrain is that the latest and greatest ERP and CRM offerings will better equip businesses to deal with not only customers, but any fluctuations in the broader market.

SourceForge’s Rich Bowen recently sat down with XTuple CEO Ned Lilly to discuss the latter’s latest project, an ERP platform called Postbooks (it’s SourceForge’s project of the month for March), and what it takes to build an effective business platform at a time when it seems like every IT vendor on the planet is interested in that particular segment.

Rich Bowen: SourceForge is delighted to announce that the March project of the month is Postbooks. Postbooks is an ERP and I’m speaking with Ned Lilly, who is the CEO of XTuple, the company behind this project, to talk about what that means, and where the project is going. Congratulations on winning the project of the month.

Ned Lilly: Thanks. We’re excited about it.

Bowen: The vote was much closer than we’ve seen in years past—I guess you followed that.

Lilly: Yeah, it really was like a race. I was picturing the TuxKart guys in their little graphics going up and down. Hopefully they’ll have another bite at the apple, because it sounds like there was a larger number of votes than you often see.

Bowen: Let’s talk about Postbooks. For people that aren’t really familiar with it, can you give us an overview of what it is, what it does, and in what kind of business somebody would want to use it.

Lilly: Postbooks is a full-featured ERP, Accounting, and CRM application that we developed, ourselves, from scratch. XTuple, the company, has been around for about eleven years, and Postbooks has been on SourceForge, free and Open Source, for… since the summer of ’07, so, five and half years. It’s had a good steady stream of popularity. We’ve got a good community of… last guess, probably 30,000 active users. In a nutshell—I said ERP, Accounting, and CRM, so it’s the next step up from a desktop accounting package like Quickbooks or Peachtree, but it scales up to full-featured ERP that competes with Microsoft Dynamics, SAP, and the R3 product. And we’ve had people move to our ERP from just about any package you’ve heard of. Postbooks is he core, and it’s licensed under the CPAL license, which is successor to the Mozilla Plus Attribution. It’s been great. Ever since we’ve had a steadily growing community.

Bowen: I guess at some level ever company needs something like this. Is this primarily aimed at the enterprise, or is this something that could be used in nonprofits? Who are your users?

Lilly: That’s a great question. Our roots are in inventory based businesses, so, in manufacturing, distribution, there’s a lot of good tools for that kind of stuff in the product, but we’ve got plenty of people that don’t carry any inventory that are some type of services. We use it ourselves to run XTuple, and it’s not like we’ve got a warehouse full of floppy disks or anything. In addition to all of the standard ERP stuff you’d expect, in the way of inventory manufacturing distribution, there’s time and expense management that’s tightly integrated with the accounting. Anybody that’s got a professional services capability in their business can automate a lot of that. Non-profits are an interesting area for us because we have project… there’s integrated project tracking management as well, and then we have an add-on called project accounting which allows you to do financial reporting by project, and track that kind of stuff. That’s pretty similar to the fund accounting that a lot of non-profits are organized around.

One of the fundamental ideas behind Postbooks is that accounting is accounting—It’s not like there have been fifty new and exciting ways to build a general ledger introduced in the past thirty years. You’ve got your debits and you’ve got your credits, pretty much. It’s a good candidate for Open Source because there’s a horizontal core of common functionality that any business would, could, and should use. And then we’ve got the fully integrated CRM as well. That’s something you see in a lot of low-end ERP and accounting packages.

Bowen: Tell me about the relationship between your company and the community side of things. What parts of your business are not Open Source? How does that work for you guys?

Lilly: Postbooks is sort of the core of the product. The two key technologies are the Postgres database on the server side and the GUI client is built with QT, the C++ framework. Those are the two core technologies. The GUI client that you download from SourceForge, depending on what database it’s talking to, could be Postbooks, or it could be one of our commercially licensed editions that adds bigger company functionality. The GUI client is exactly the same. Building out from the core of Postbooks, we have what we call the standard edition, which has some more distribution type functionality for companies that have multiple warehouses and are doing some planning, and lot and serial control, and that kind of stuff across multiple warehouses. We have a manufacturing edition, which adds some some manufacturing specific functionality. And then we have an enterprise edition, which is everything with the kitchen sink. A couple of other packages people have build over the years. The difference between those editions is just additional tables and whatnot being created via script in the postgres database. We have an updater tool that you can also download from SourceForge, which does both updating you from one release to another–updating your database–as well as upgrading from one edition to another. The key there is that it’s the same code base, and that any contributions–any enhancements that anybody makes to one version of the product have the potential to flow through all of them.

Bowen: On the community side, do most of the contributions to the product come from within your company, or from the community? And to add on to end of that, if I want to become involved in your community, where can I plug in?

Lilly: Since we sort of originated the project, it’s more the model where one company started it and is the big fish in the pond. We do have an active community of contributors as well as users and participants in various forms—bug tracking and so forth. We’ve got a great deal of developer-oriented documentation on the website that goes into how you can get involved in developing both the core and we have a capacity for scripted add-on packages. QT has a variant of Javascript that allows for modifying screens in a GUI application. And we have a package management system for rounding up all those changes that you might make to individual screens and scripts and functionalities and bring them into one package. The one great example that is a guy in New Zealand who jumped into a conversation about fixed assets on our website, and people start talking about does this functionality exist somewhere, and someone else says no, it doesn’t exist in XTuple but here’s how I’ve seen it in other packages, and they start this design conversation in the forums, and it evolves into a spec document and this guy coded it up as a package. He actually ended up building a concentric circles model like we do for our products. There’s a core fixed assets module that you download for free. And then he’s got additional functionality that for a couple of hundred bucks you can add depreciation schedules and integration with the general ledger and that kind of stuff. It’s neat to see the free/open source community model and the ability for community members to have some economic gain in this too.

Bowen: What’s the future? Where are you going with the project? What are the exciting things on the horizon?

Lilly: I mentioned that we’re moving over to Git. The reason for that, or the work that we’re doing there is all related to a new mobile web client that’s kind of exciting that we’re developing. It will live alongside the QT client. We actually just released the first pice of it in December. It’s an all Javascript/HTML5 framework called Enyo, which came out of the HP acquisition of Palm. It’s really slick. It’s still the same Postgres database on the back end. The QT client connects directly to the Postgres database. Instead of doing that, we have a middle tier now. The Node.js server manages the data source. We built a model layer with Backbone.js, and then Enyo on top of it for the front end. And the really cool thing is the two clients are completely interoperable, so you can have your accounting and manufacturing types back at the home office using the GUI client, and then the sales people out on the road with their iPads, or their Zunes or they Galaxys, or whatever. We looked for a very long time for the mobile equivalent of QT when it became clear that QT wasn’t going to do that any time soon. We really are very happy with Eyno. It’s fantastic. We’re big fans. And I think we’re going to end up, as was the case with QT, having one of the most substantial enterprise applications built with this tool set.

Bowen: Thanks so much for your time. Congratulations again.

Lilly: Thanks, Rich, appreciate it. And thanks for everything you guys do managing SourceForge. It’s an incredible resource and we’ve been happy participants for years, and we wish you all the best.


Image: rvlsoft/