The enterprise world of SAP isn't just structured data: it's the fundamental infrastructure of countless international businesses. In business you follow the money to understand deal flow, and automating the planning and tracking of financial transactions from end to end has made SAP an international powerhouse in this field.
Industrial strength enterprise system user interfaces tend to look battleship gray, and users are generally aware they are interacting with a hugely complex system, which belies the evolutionary change often gradually taking place behind the scenes.
At the 3rd annual SAP Academic Research Conference last week there was a clear delineation between what SAP is today and exploring the future of enterprise applications.
Fellow attendee Jeff Nolan posted a video that demonstrates the basics of columnar vs. row database architecture on his blog. With students from his institute, Plattner demonstrated how columnar data storage can provide tremendous speed increases and information slicing and dicing options.
The two sections of my video above are first manipulation of sample data to demonstrate how fast and malleable the columnar approach is, then a demonstration of manipulating data pulled into excel spreadsheets and finally contextual email integration.
At a briefing following this keynote SAP CTO Vishal Sikka and Chief Scientist Ike Nassi were at pains to make clear to me that that Hasso Plattner (who is also co-founder and chairman of the SAP Supervisory Board) was presenting findings purely on an academic research level after I inquired about application of these ideas to SAP's future products, particularly on a cloud computing level.
Given that other parts of the conference were focused on planning a future smart grid for the USA, for example, Plattner's presentation was clearly futuristic. Nevertheless, the sheer sophistication of thinking from a mind which had helped conceive and grow the original SAP AG starting in 1972 (after leaving IBM) was striking.
Skimming the SAP historical surface, SAP r/1 launched in 1973, SAP R/2 launched in 1979 and was re architected in 1981. With the change from R/2 to R/3 in 1992, SAP changed from mainframe computing to client-server architectures. Plattner, who retired as chairman of the board in 2003, would have seen the teething pains from the inside during this business growth explosion which also saw the internet integration of mysap.com.
The fundamentals of columnar data storage are tough to grasp unless you're living and breathing this stuff, but the business benefits of the approach are clear: increased transaction speed (stuff happens on screen quicker) combined with broader surfacing of contextual data (more valuable information appears around the subject you are looking at).
Plattner envisages a future world where executives sit in a business 'cockpit' combining the human-to-human communication strengths of Cisco's Telepresence with sophisticated contextual data dialed up on the fly in a much more agile future SAP enterprise infrastructure.
To achieve this Plattner's institute has been investigating stripping down the complexity of the dozens of database tables to two columnar constructs, as the videos embedded here investigate.
I'd add to this sensory experience the power of contextual unstructured data - 'collaborative networks' to use Cisco CTO Padmasree Warriors' term. Drilling down into transaction history and financials becomes much richer with associated relevant information and communication.
SAP are of course like everyone struggling with today's economic problems and their client's realities and are wise to keep futuristic academic research at arms length from their incremental product refinements (and of course integration of Business Objects powerful analytical tools in to their client's arsenal of tools).
Nevertheless this glimpse into a possible future direction provided some fascinating insight, not least into how Plattner's mind, and the boffins at the Plattner institute, work.