by Mel Duvall, Inter@ctive Week
23 May 2000 - Companies with multi-million-dollar SAP Enterprise Resource Planning installations say they are encountering a number of challenges in integrating those systems with electronic commerce initiatives. As a result, many are looking beyond SAP to third-party offerings to solve their immediate integration and performance needs.
The Westlake Chemical Group, a chemical and consumer product firm based in Houston, ran up against this issue when it decided to embark on two e-commerce projects earlier this year.
The company is building an Internet storefront to sell such products as gazebos, wishing wells, park benches and mailboxes directly to consumers. At the same time, it is launching a business-to-business site to sell chemicals and business-oriented products, such as windows, fences and siding, directly to its corporate customers.
Jesse Rocha, Westlake's SAP project manager, says the company looked at tying the Internet initiatives directly into its SAP applications and databases, but after a thorough investigation determined it wasn't the best route. Rocha says he does not believe the SAP system could scale to meet the sudden spikes in demand that can come from the Internet, and he was worried about any effects it would have on the performance of the corporate network.
"The basic SAP system is the best in the world for what it was designed to do, but it's not intended to be an e-commerce system,...We did an evaluation and looked at solutions from SAP, but we didn't feel they were ready at this time."
- Jesse Rocha,
SAP Project Manager
SAP's Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems are used by major corporations to run most of their internal systems, such as financial, human resources, sales and marketing, and customer service. Unlike previous systems, which operated as independent silos, ERP systems provide managers with a window into a company's complete operations.
One company's challenge is another's opportunity, and a variety of middleware vendors, such as Acta Technology, Haht Software and Informatica, have stepped forward to help companies overcome problems associated with linking SAP systems to e-commerce initiatives.
Acta last month released its eCommerce Data Platform, which essentially serves as an integration engine between SAP and Web systems. Acta Chief Executive Carol Mills Baldwin says the key to the system is a series of "eCaches" - essentially database modules that work in tandem with real-time access to SAP systems.
The eCaches store information contained in SAP systems and are updated on a scheduled basis - at the end of each business day or at the end of each week, for example. Rather than link directly into a company's SAP applications, e-commerce systems tap into the eCaches instead. Rocha says this method, which is used at Westlake, avoids performance issues and also provides the company with an extra layer of comfort, knowing that outside customers are not directly accessing Westlake's critical SAP systems.
Acta has had considerable success selling its platform to SAP customers, racking up recent deals with Albermarle Chemical, General Electric Power Controls, Guinness, Hunter Douglas and Monsanto.
Mix and match
In addition to the scalability concerns, Mills Baldwin says companies are turning to Acta because they want to integrate several types of ERP data, such as SAP, Oracle and Siebel Systems, and they want to work in a more programmer-friendly environment than SAP's proprietary ABAP language.
"We're not trying to attack SAP - it's great at what it does," Mills Baldwin says. "It just doesn't do everything."
Executives at SAP say they do not believe customers are encountering scalability issues. At the same time, Barth says he doesn't see a problem with customers turning to third-party providers for answers to their e-commerce needs. "We would prefer to sell them all the components for their business process ourselves, but that's obviously not a reality," he says.
SAP is rolling out caching technologies of its own that will address some of the concerns being raised by customers. Barth also says a variety of eXtensible Markup Language schemas will debut at the company's annual Sapphire conference in Berlin later this month that will make it much easier to link e-commerce applications with SAP applications and databases.
"SAP is known to have the most scalable architecture around,"
- Peter Barth
Director, Corporate Marketing
Dan Sholler, senior director of application delivery strategies practice at Meta Group, says SAP is addressing most of the issues associated with integrating its ERP systems with e-commerce initiatives, but third-party vendors have been bringing more complete offerings to market faster.
"Overall, SAP's technology strategy around externalization has been given a lukewarm reception by the market," Sholler says. "I think that concerns them because they're a company that likes to capture as much of the market for themselves as possible."