Good news for SAP HANA developers: free is a four letter word

SAP has made its HANA developer license free to all comers. This is important at multiple levels, not least because it opens the door to extreme applications.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

On the last keynote of the last day of SAPPHIRE Now, executive board member Vishal Sikka took to the stage talking HANA, partners and extreme applications. Having been privy to the possibility of a developer related announcement it seemed to take forever before Sikka uttered the magic words: "HANA developer licenses are now free for everyone."

Regular readers will know I have long criticised SAP for seeking vintage champagne pricing for anything to which it can attach an IP sticker. HANA is definitely in that camp. When the company does offer something that's free they expect its community to smile and applaud such magnanimous gestures. On this occasion, SAP deserves credit for not only making the developer license free to use but also available on Amazon Web Services - albeit users will need to pay for their AWS usage. That's a fair trade off given that HANA on AWS removes the need to acquire hardware that runs upwards of $50,000 but more typically in the $250K range. It means that for the first time, SAP is putting all developers large, small and anywhere in between onto a level playing field.

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In the Q&A that followed, Hasso Plattner, co-founder and supervisory board member SAP said that startup developers he ran into are telling him that HANA is easy to develop upon. "Developers can bring what they already know and apply it in the HANA environment," he said. That must be a relief to a company that is wondering whether it can turn its ecosystem of two million SCN members into HANA advocates.

SAP can discount 99.5% of those two million. They're rooted in the ABAP world of SAP R/3 and the Business Suite and will be for years to come. According to Plattner, the company is finding it challenging to get its internal army of ABAP developers to make the switch. "They ask, why should we change when things work just fine and are stable in ABAP?" says Plattner. It is a reasonable position given that enterprise applications and especially ERP are considered business critical. But that misses the point of HANA.

Of itself, HANA is nothing more than a container into which you put 'stuff' and then execute at high speed. The speed at which you can execute depends on many factors but in analytical applications, it is not uncommon to see orders of magnitude process time improvement. Once early adopters got over the speed shock, they quickly settled into 'so what?' mode. SAP is now at an inflection point where it has to figure out what to do with HANA beyond speeds and feeds. The obvious target is extreme applications but where do those come from?

I asked Plattner whether he sees HANA and its implications as reflective of the early start up days of SAP. The surprising (to me) answer was 'no.' "HANA requires discipline and order so no, it cannot be like those days." But then he revealed something which provides important insight into the reasoning behind the free dev license.

In the very early days of R/2, SAP was inside the companies it served. It acquired tremendous domain knowledge over a period of some 20 years. With the release of R/3 in the 1992/93 time frame, the emphasis shifted to one where SAP developed independently of its customers. Over time, that domain knowledge was lost. That explains why, even though SAP serves 23 industries, its R/3-Business Suite footprint is relatively small - maybe 30% of all requirements. By making HANA developer licensing free, SAP opens up the spigot to building domain specific applications that in many cases will only have a small number of customers.

In those cases where it is possible to generalise, the company will win handsomely, either because it has found a blockbuster or its partners have developed a blockbuster against which SAP can sell HANA deployment licenses. A great example is the working capital dashboard from IBM. SAP may even win in those cases where it co-innovates with customers in the building of extreme applications where the customer is prepared to put versions of its own build into the market. It's a bit like Honda selling engines to many auto makers.

Outside of generic databases, enterprise companies like SAP offered almost nothing for developers looking to build great apps that could be monetized. Apple got all the attention and rightly so. By unlocking the developer license, SAP is one more step towards becoming a developer ecosystem gravity center. There is much still to do, but as Aiaz Kazi head of SAP platform marketing said to me:  "Free is a four letter word for HANA developers...come one, come all."

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