SAP's Sikka on HANA: it's about a platform for developers

Vishal SIkka is expanding his vision for HANA. Here's what it really means.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Vishal Sikka, executive board member SAP delivered a SAP TechEd keynote unlike any other I have seen from a geek who sits near the top of the C-suite pile. Unlike previous years when he would dive quickly into the bits and bytes, Sikka was on a HANA selling mission to the assembled crowd of coders. That's a tough job at the best of times but after three...(or is it four?) SAP TechEds where HANA has sat front and center, Sikka had an especially tough challenge. Why? Bill McDermott, co-CEO put it best later in the day: "HANA lies at the heart of the intellectual renewal going on at SAP." And it is because of this over arching theme that Sikka needed to carry the audience to the next step in the HANA journey. In the past it was about the database. Today it's about HANA as a platform for developers. 

Speaking personally, I was pleased with what I heard. But then I would say that given SAP had reached out to me in pre-brief during which we discussed much of the content that was presented. Sadly, the implications of Sikka's vision seems lost on many of my colleagues and those among the SAP community. Some choose to carp about the relatively modest level of revenue contribution that HANA makes to SAP's overall revenue stream. They're missing the point.

Let's put the revenue point to bed once and for all. I asked McDermott: "For all the talk about HANA throughout your remarks, why does SAP only have 603 customers and 100 or so developer HANA start-ups?" The question was deliberately phrased to provide SAP with an opportunity to make a better case for adoption at a time when the company cannot directly answer questions related to revenue.

McDermott's answer was surprisingly candid: "We need to do a better job." That despite SAP continues to say HANA is the fastesat growing revenue line item in the company's history. On the basis of what I know, the '600' number has been 'stuck' for a little while, suggesting the pipeline is suffering from indegestion. McDermott said afterwards that he will say a lot more on the upcoming earnings call. But even that does not get to the heart of what is going on after years in development and a huge marketing effort. 

HANA as a database has a long way to go. The fact it has sold as much AS a database, suggests there is much more to come. SIs are hungry in the wake of customers wanting to move over to HANA. One obvious example is payroll, where SAP cannot hold a performance candle to Workday when operating at large scale. But again, that's only a part of the story. 

The closest we come is around the announcement of HANA One, a (small) 64GB HANA instance that operates on Amazon's cloud for $0.99 per hour. That's price competitive with Microsoft, the other big applications dog running cloud instances of its wares. It is a good start. But it is the annoucement that SAP is making developer licensing free for NetWeaver Cloud (soon to be renamed and subsumed into the HANA Cloud architecture) that provides a better clue. 

This is about SAP enabling an as yet unformed ecosystem of partners to get hold of HANA and see what they can build when large copmanies are compelled to pay premium prices for their large on-premise HANA implementations. This is a genuine step in the right direction because for all its internal resources, SAP cannot hope to build all the applications that customers will need going forward. While there are plenty who want to see HANA as a retrofit to existing solutions: BusinessOne is already HANA enabled, that is little more than going back to the prize cow and trying to get one more suck on the milk teat. It might pay some dividend but it is not where the real prize lays. 

So what, beyond getting friendly on licensing and price is SAP working on? Three things:

Bring your own language: SAP wants to present HANA as a platform upon which anyone can make HANA part of their infrastructure. That is so far removed from the insular ABAP world I am not surprised some are struggling to get their heads around it. SIs have made fortunes around ABAP development but that cannot continue in a world where the value is no longer perceived to be in the code but in the data that it produces. Right now, SAP natively supports Java but there are other languages in the pipe such as Ruby and PHP. SAP says that it is working as hard as possible to develop the platform so that it becomes - or at least looks - language agnostic for early next year. It will be an iterative process but opens up a wealth of possibility among the broader developer community and puts to bed the persistent idea that you can only develop for SAP on SAP tools. This is an entirely new dynamic that opens the door to the second leg in this equation. Expect SAP to make further announcements at SAPPHIRE Madrid in four weeks' time. 

New ecosystem. I take the view that SAP's Community Network (SCN), the home for close to three million signed up people within the whole SAP community, is not the place for HANA developers. SCN is still the go to repository for those implementing and upgrading earlier instances of the BusinessSuite, All In One and BusinessOne. 

HANA is completely new in that regard and needs a home of its own. If it is taken under SCN's wing then I guarantee it will fail. It will not be possible for instance to readily take advantage of the potential to create developer challenges of the kind that has made CloudSpokes successful in less than 18 months. Logically, you cannot talk about renewal and then say you are going to shovel the emerging HANA community into one that represents an older though necessary paradigm. Again, expect to hear more in the coming weeks and months. 

An expansive vision: SAP has struggled to articulate a way of re-imagining new enterprise applications in such a way that it becomes attractive to a new generation of developers and customers. Providing examples is the best way, yet to date, SAP has not done so well in that department.  In the above video, Sikka explains what he means. For instance, he has long held a vision that HANA has the potential to change the world. His primary interest is in healthcare and financial services. An odd combination but one that amply demonstrates how to solve some of the most intractable problems on the planet but which could drive millions or billions in revenue. He talks examples but these are largely custom builds. What is needed are examples that can be replicated. Perhaps some of these will be replicated. In McDermott's address, I was particularly struck by the heavy hint that HANA as a platform could become the place where modern apps are built but without a need to have an SAP landscape. If so then it follows in the footsteps of Salesforce.com's Force.com. 

The HANA platform is a work in progress and SAP has plenty to do on many fronts, not least of which is to convince its many legacy customers that there is value in a toolset that can provide top line benefit beyond database TCO comparisons with competition. 

See alsoSAP unveils HANA-powered cloud development platform (Chris Kanaracus, IDG News Service)

UPDATED for what follows...

Conclusion: Naysayers and other curmudgeons will argue that SAP is once again playing a me too game with insufficient detail and no word about how the SI ecosystem will adapt. My answer is simple. If SAP successfully gets close to Sikka's vision then those same SIs will have a choice: come to the party or someone else will take your seat. 

When you take these three elements together, add in the fashionable allure of in-memory technology plus the promise of a platform upon which developers can go wild building enterprise class applications and you have the ingredients for taking HANA into a completely different realm. That's not to say that SAP will be successful. However, right now, and against the odds, Sikka is pushing the company aggressively towards a model that reflects the 21st century needs of openness, transparency and inclusion. This is what many are not seeing. Neither are they appreciating just how different a path this represents when compared to the SAP of the past. Those same folk are failing to appreciate the risks Sikka is taking to get SAP to the next stage. This is SAP's chosen pathway to transition if it is not to be rendered irrelevant other than as a back office compliance and governance oriented solution provider. It is much more than becoming another platform play although that looms large on the horizon. 

Finally: those who might think I am being overly generous to SAP are also missing the point. For a company that has eschewed risk taking for as long as I can remember, the macro risks to its overall business model should not be under estimated. Offering HANA on Amazon at $0.99 per hour contrasts sharply with the millions of dollars some companies have been prepared to fork over. It is disruptive in the positive sense because it now makes HANA something that can appeal to all comers. 

This strategy could easily end up in tatters, not because it is wrong but because a company that has a population the size of a small city is inevitably riven with political fault lines that run deep and which could fracture the fabric of its being. The success with which SAP management navigates the minefields that exist in this scenario will determine its future.

I wish them well on executing this audacious plan. 

Bonus points: SAP's Vishal Sikka on 3 things developers need to think about (video)

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