SAP TechEd 2011 in Las Vegas- Review

SAP TechEd 2011

 

SAP hosted its annual TechEd conference from September 12-16 in Las Vegas (three more iterations will take place in Madrid, Bangalore and Beijing later this year).  About 6,500 attendees made their track to Sin City this year (out of an expected 16,000 for all four locations).

While there were no surprises on the agenda SAP did manage to put some ‘meat on the bones’ of previously announced initiatives.  The major theme was ‘in memory, on device, in cloud’ which has been SAP’s mantra for a few years now.  In terms of ‘real’ products this translates to HANA (High-Performance Analytics Appliance, SAP’s in memory database architecture), SUP (Sybase Unwired Platform, SAP’s mobile framework), SAP Gateway and, well, an assortment of tools geared to running SAP software in private or public clouds.  For cloud computing I refer to my colleague Thomas Runge’s posts on this site (here and here).  Below are my impressions about the other two topics.

HANA – In-memory computing

The main idea of SAP’s all-out bet on HANA is that an in-memory architecture will replace traditional disk-based database architectures in the long run.  By doing this the separation between transaction processing and analytics blurs; it will be possible to run analytics against the same database used for transaction processing and get better performance to boot.  Since SAP announced HANA in May 2010 the technology has matured quite a bit and is now available for all customers as v1.0.  Initially most use cases focused on the ability to quickly parse through a very large amount of data.  The scenarios on display at TechEd were more mature:  running SAP ERP CO-PA (the Profitability Analysis component in SAP’s ERP suite) in HANA or using HANA as a platform for SAP NetWeaver BW (SAP’s Enterprise Data Warehouse solution).  While SAP did not commit to timelines the goal of running the entire Business Suite on HANA was mentioned repeatedly.  During the keynote address Vishal Sikka (SAP’s executive board member in charge of technology and innovation) stressed that this architectural transition will happen slowly, over time and without disruption.  A new micro site offers more information about HANA.

 HANA is sold as an appliance to customers (preconfigured hardware delivered as a black box by SAP’s hardware partners) with memory ranging from 128 GB to 1 TB.  A more mid-market-compatible version (‘HANA Edge’) with 64 GB is in the pipeline.  With memory prices falling rapidly the price tag for a HANA appliance is expected to become more palatable to smaller customer in the next few years.  This means that HANA is not just the latest toy for large enterprise companies but something that can be considered for smaller corporations as well.

 

While most (if not all) HANA scenarios presented to date are focused on analytics (and despite the fact that the word
‘Analytics’ is featured in HANA’s name) it would be a mistake to think of HANA as a pure analytics engine.  During discussions with other partners and customers at TechEd a good number of more transaction-oriented use cases came up.  HANA is an answer that should be considered for problems that are bottlenecked by data selections (vs. data processing).  The best performance gains over classic disk-based database architectures can be seen when very large data sets are to be selected.  The     power of HANA can be accessed from a variety of different platforms:  ABAP, Java and the built-in capabilities make it easy to embed HANA in existing landscapes.  While there is a lot of enthusiasm in the SAP world about what can be done with HANA this does not present a magic silver bullet.  The problem has to be ‘right’ for HANA to be the best solution.

We at itelligence are at the forefront of this seismic shift in architecture at SAP.  We currently have a HANA appliance installed in our headquarters in Germany with a second one in the US coming soon.  A number of consultants have participated in the early adopter training offered by SAP and we are actively working on industry-specific use cases through SAP’s Early Development program.

Mobile Computing

 

On the mobile side SAP is making strides on three fronts:  SAP NetWeaver Gateway offers a very easy way to take existing SAP Business Suite functionality and make it available on mobile devices, the Sybase Unwired Platform (SUP) is now available in version 2.0 and actual SAP-built mobile applications (built using SAP Gateway) are available.

Gateway was first demonstrated during the keynote address at TechEd last year and is currently in ramp-up.  It should be generally available later this year.

Technically speaking Gateway allows for the creation of services that expose SAP ERP (and other Business Suite)
functionality to web-based applications using a REST-based interface (using OData).  Compared to the established web service-based approach to do this there is very little overhead as OData is stateless and supports only five functions (CRUD and query).  In addition Gateway contains plug-ins for the most common development environments which create a simple app based on Gateway services (Xcode, Visual Studio, Eclipse).  I attended a hands-on session during which we built a pretty snazzy ASP.Net app in less than an hour (end-to-end).  In a non-technical manner this means that developers can very easily (in minutes) take an existing transaction or function module in SAP ERP and expose it to web apps.  While the main focus of Gateway is on mobile apps it is by no means limited to that.  Since it exposes functionality using a standard layer (OData) all apps developed on platforms that support OData can leverage Gateway.  SAP also announced a suite of mobile apps developed (mostly) using Gateway that will be available later this year.  From playing with them at the demo pods I got the impression that they are much more polished and easier to use than previous SAP attempts to mobile.  Each app serves a very narrow dedicated purpose (e.g. travel expenses or time entry) and is geared towards addressing one specific problem (vs. an entire process in previous solutions like Direct Store Delivery).  More information about Gateway can be found here.

While Gateway offers a lot for developers a common challenge in enterprise deployments of mobile apps is the distribution and synchronization of data and apps, security and device management.  The Sybase Unwired Platform (SUP)is a set of tools that addresses these challenges.  It contains Afaria which is a well-established tool for device management and security, the Data Orchestration Engine (DOE) for replication of data and an SDK to make these services available in platform-native development environments (iOS, Andoid, Blackberry and soon Windows Mobile).

Miscellaneous

In addition to these larger topics here are a few tidbits that will change the way SAP solutions look like:

  • ABAP is a-changing – starts to look more like a modern language…  With HANA SAP had to address the way data is modeled and accessed from ABAP.  In addition (and not as a replacement…) to OpenSQL SAP will add ABQL (ABAP Query Language) which leverages a rich domain model to describe the data underlying a program.  SAP will gain expressions and functions as well as method chaining which streamlines source code a lot.
  • UI modernization is a topic that has caused some frustration over the years as much of SAP’s UI still uses the ‘classic’ SAPGUI vs. more modern technologies like Web Dynpro.  SAP’s challenge is that the existing transactions (‘Dynpros’) contain both the UI and the business logic which makes it very complicated to redesign them.  Instead of attempting to do a wholesale redesign of the familiar user interface SAP is now rolling out tools that add functionality to the ‘classic’ transactions without changing them:  using the NetWeaver Business Client (available for a while now) SAP is adding a ‘side panel’ which can contain CHIPs that react to the data currently being processed in the main SAPGUI transaction.  In real life this could mean a CHIP in the side panel of the sales order entry transaction that shows instant analytics or additional information for the customer or material currently being processed in the main transaction.  SAP will delivery predefined roles which contain predefined side panels (more than 500) in a forthcoming Enhancement Package.
  • The Process Integration (PI) platform will gain more powerful options in a Java-only deployment.  In the past all PI systems had to contain both the ABAP and Java stack which added complexity.  The ABAP stack contained a number of functions (ccBPM, IDoc connector) for which SAP will make substitutes available on the Java stack allowing customers to install PI with only a Java stack without loosing functionality.  In addition SAP will also make connectors for platforms available that were lacking in the past:  AS2, OFTP and SFTP.  This opens the door do using PI as an EDI translator without the need for additional connectors.

 

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