SAP Influencer Summit: SOA grows up

I'm spending a couple of days at the SAP Influencer Summit, an invitation-only event for approximately 500 key SAP partners, bloggers, analysts, user group leaders, academics, and the press. According to Mike Prosceno, Vice President for Marketplace Communications, the Influencer Summit is intended to facilitate "networking and relationship building, and is the last formal opportunity of the year for SAP to address its ecosystem of SAP watchers.

I'm spending a couple of days at the SAP Influencer Summit, an invitation-only event for approximately 500 key SAP partners, bloggers, analysts, user group leaders, academics, and the press. According to Mike Prosceno, Vice President for Marketplace Communications, the Influencer Summit is intended to facilitate "networking and relationship building, and is the last formal opportunity of the year for SAP to address its ecosystem of SAP watchers."

Through a carefully-orchestrated set of presentations, SAP offered attendees a glimpse at important accomplishments and future plans. Here are some thoughts and impressions from the first day of this event:

Overall, I'm impressed. SAP's product vision is forward-thinking and comprehensive. Years of SOA-based product development effort have finally started paying off with Business byDesign and the revamped ERP Suite, both based on the NetWeaver platform. Business byDesign, an ERP suite for small enterprises, was created from the ground up, using modern development tools, methods, and a globally distributed development environment. Call me a geek, but I buy into the platform's underlying depth and elegance.

In the long run, products such as Business byDesign will make implementations shorter and more successful, reducing the size, scope and impact of potential project failures. Obviously, that's a good thing.

Simplifying complexity is an important theme which arose during presentations, as well as in private blogger meetings with SAP executives, such as CEO Henning Kagerman and Executive Board member Peter Zencke.

Customizing is out; extending is in. Continuing a mantra stated during dialog at Sapphire in Vienna last spring, custom code is history at SAP. In response to my question, Peter Zencke described three types of customization:

  1. Setting configuration "switches," which continues to be an accepted and approved method to make packaged SAP software work in varied customer environments.
  2. Directly modifying code, "which SAP will not support, so customers can maintain the ability to perform in-flight maintenance."
  3. Extending the software, using a "composition layer" that gives access to SAP's SOA services, has become the approved way for adapting SAP software to meet specific requirements, such as those posed by "micro-verticals".

In plain English, SAP now provides a foundation, on top of which third-parties (customers and partners) can write new applications and which prevents the core SAP code from being changed. This approach ensures a clean, future upgrade path without the downstream costs traditionally associated with custom code. Customer adaptations integrate directly with the core SAP software to extend it's functionality, but again, the core remains protected.

In subsequent conversation, Jim Hagemann Snabe, who is responsible for SAP's Business Suite product line, reaffirmed the importance of avoiding custom code.

Some observers remain skeptical. Analyst and blogger Judith Hurwitz, who also attended the Summit, registered concerns during a late-afternoon conversation:

It all works, if you assume you live in SAP-only world. But the reality is many customers have complicated, multi-vendor environments that include many parts. Unless you make the SAP world your context it wont work. In fairness, you can say that about any enterprise software world. Each vendor wants you to view their offerings as the center of the world.

Judith discussed the same issue on her blog:

So, why does this bother me? I think that because that the strategy and platform assumes that customers will be willing to adopt a single vendor platform that everything in their enterprise will flow through. To its credit, SAP does expect that third party applications and environments can be integrated through well defined interfaces. These outside resources would be integrated through the repository. However, will a customer want to give a single vendor that much power? Perhaps? Will most customers overcome the internal political issues to have everyone agree on a single platform across departments, subsidiaries, and even partners? I would say that I am skeptical.

Fellow Enterprise Irregular, Prashanth Rai, offered another note of concern during a conversation. He's impressed by the technology, but wants to see businesses adopt the new software before he fully buys-in. From Prashanth's perspective, without more customers, the vision remains unproven:

SAP has delivered and continues to deliver on the technical aspects of "business network transformation," but the realization of this, from a business/customer point of view, remains to be seen in 2008.

When a large company such as SAP offers a view across its many initiatives, it's not possible to comment on everything at once. This post summarizes first impressions, based on a long day spent trying to absorb buckets of information very quickly. Others may disagree with these assessments and opinions, but that's my broad comment for today.

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