SAP's HANA roadmap: does it convince?

SAP is touting HANA as the next gen platform for delivering an amazing smorgasbord of apps. Is it ready to deliver? This article explores that question.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Yesterday, SAP announced what it called a roadmap for HANA. HANA is SAP's take on the idea of in-memory technology for enterprise applications. In reality, the announcement was a selection of planned applications scheduled for release later this year. That's not a roadmap. It's a statement of intent. SAP has to do far better than that while at the same time providing its two million strong developer community a reason to listen. How well did it measure up?

Those familiar with the Big Enterprise ERP World will be used to 12-18 month product announcement cycles followed be a period of silence while SAP (Oracle is no different) developers destruction test every possible use case they can imagine. And then...three years later, something emerges. That is no longer acceptable in a fast changing world.

During the executive Q&A, Vishal Sikka, SAP executive board member rattled off a list of applications SAP expects to deliver by Q4 2011. These include trade promotion management, intelligent payment broker, smart meter analytics, profitability engine, customer revenue performance management, merchandising and assortment planning, energy management for energy customers and customer specific pricing.

A cursory look will tell you that SAP is going deep and wide on a bunch of applications that offer the potential for delivering both horizontal and vertical market business value. All applications will be offered as either on-demand or on-premise add-ons. In the words of the hero of Gladiator after he slays a motley selection of opponents: 'Are you entertained?' Well kind of.

The product roadmap was disappointing in the sense that it appeared to me SAP was already scheduling product delivery slippage from what it said towards the back end of last year. I quizzed Vishal Sikka on this point noting that in a recent discussion with Sanjay Poonen, SAP EVP line of business apps who told me: "We have to report quarterly financial results why can't we move to quarterly application release cycles?"

As I completed the question, anticipating that Q4 means 2012...sometime...I saw a broad grin spread across Vishal's face. He said that SAP is announcing Q4 hoping that it will be earlier. Later in the influencer Q&A, I returned to this theme.

SAP is attempting something that is a genuine problem in the complex Global 2000 environment: traversing the needs of its slower moving customers while demonstrating a willingness to be agile but without breaking the SAP core. As I explained to Vishal, if SAP wants to compete for mindshare with the Salesforce's and Workday's then it has to get release cycles down to 90 days. It has to stop promising and start delighting and surprising customers with usable solutions. Stop telling us that there is a new and beautiful vista ahead. We get that. Give us the solutions.

I put it this way: "Will SAP commit publicly to 90 day release cycles for product that customers can at least test and try out even if it is not 100% baked?" The answer from Dr Sikka is a slightly guarded 'Yes.' The next test will be SAPPHIRE Part 1 in May at Orlando. If SAP sets out firm delivery dates then it is on the road to the agile enterprise it espouses. But that of itself is not enough.

Alongside HANA, the ultra high speed backbone technology that drives 'speed and feed,' SAP has to do two things:

  • Explain the business value of adopting its new found in-memory religion beyond the handful of Global 2000 customers it sees in the anticipated $100 million pipeline. We got a glimpse of that during the influencer/analyst session but it was not well communicated in the customer keynote.
  • Show how SAP developers, used to digging around in the SAP code weeds can leverage the new technologies to help both customers and users achieve fast time to value with less integration, regression testing and the like. This remains a promise rather than something that is genuinely demonstrable today.

If the workforce planning example we saw that is delivered on multiple platforms and uses the fast track River development environment are indicators, then SAP has a genuine shot at meeting its objectives. But it has to do so much more.

These new classes of applications cannot live based solely upon massive data consumption out of SAP systems. They have to readily consume vast amounts of data coming via external services. They need a broad reaching REST API that will allow many developers, not just those steeped in SAP ABAP code, access to easily integrate external enriching services. On that front the jury is most definitely out. In an ideal world, this new environment will be attractive to Apple AppStore, Android, BlackBerry and....dare I say it....Force.com developers.

We did not hear for example how SAP plans to turn its investments in new technologies and platforms into something that developers can readily latch onto in the same way that, for example, Salesforce is able to tout the AppExchange or Force.com platform. SAP will argue that it is hefting a far more complicated landscape than Salesforce. True - but that excuse misses the point. If SAP can offer the kind of easy to develop environment of an AppExchange or Apple Store then it moves beyond 'cool.' It moves into a realm that no-one else has so far managed. Rapid (ie 90 day), simple  (ie less costly) value add for all customers in any landscape. That is an order of magnitude more appealing as a value proposition than anything Salesforce can offer despite the marketing pull of the Heroku community.

Is my vision wishful thinking, an over simplification or plain naive? I don't think so. There is plenty of evidence that SAP customers are looking elsewhere when SAP is slow to deliver. The flipside is that despite the marketing impediments. SAP has a good deck of development cards. Execs were keen to stress the agile nature of how it is moving forward and seem on the cusp of showing the proof points.

As colleagues suggested - we'll give SAP the opportunity to take the next step but in truth the acid test for SAP and its customers is only a few months away. SAPPHIRE...or bust.

The video at the top of this post provides an alternative point of view from John Appleby, Bluefin Solutions and Dick Hirsch, Siemens SIS. Both are representatives of developer businesses and fellow SAP Mentors responsible for providing solutions to buyer organizations. As such they have a keen interest in understanding what HANA and its surrounding technologies mean for the customers they meet on a day to day basis.

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