SAP TechEd 2009: Open Thinking

by Dennis Howlett on November 1, 2009

SAPopenthinkingSAP TechEd 2009 was an event marked less by obvious innovation and more by a company consolidating its message going forward that reflects the feel of a company in transition and a tad unsteady in its beliefs. Perhaps the best detailed wrap comes from Michael Cote, one of the Redmonk boys – it’s worth the reading and especially for detail around the notion of ‘timeless software.’ What did I learn?

Having created its SAP Mentor community, the company had this merry band of 30+ people front and center in many of its sessions, on TV, showcased at DemoJam – you get the idea. Whether they are being exploited or not by SAP is a moot point. For the first time, SAP drew Mentors into NDA meetings. This is something of a novelty but was really about new and experimental things SAP has going on that it wished to share with a small group it believes can add valuable feedback. Given there are hundreds if not thousands of projects that disappear into SAP Labs, it’s understandable if frustrating. Fact is this group knows its stuff and is well able to ask the right questions and get the answers. A good example came in the intro meet up with Singh Mecker, Zia Yusuf’s successor.

For many in the Mentor group, open source is a top of mind topic, especially given the convoluted way that SAP tackles this issue. So on the one hand everyone welcomed the notion that SAP is a commercial sponsor of the Apache Foundation but on the other hand access to free (as in free to develop but not deploy) Netweaver licenses remains a bone of contention. SAP says it is ‘weeks’ away from getting this resolved but those of us who have had to wrangle the many problems associated with SAP licensing of any of its IP remain suspicious of a company that at times has the feel of being run by the legal department. It’s been a year since Mentors were told this was a top of agenda item. And herein lies a conundrum SAP needs to address.

As we batted around the ‘open’ issue, execs from SAP spoke from both sides of SAP’s mouth. On the one hand they say they have open software (yes, but not source code) and on the other hand they want customers to have easier consumption models – open source is one way of achieving that. Speaking personally, the meeting with Singh Mecker was a great opportunity to let him know that just cuz he’s the new kid on the exec block doesn’t mean he gets a pass on the grumbles some of us have. And in fairness to the fellow, he took it all very well, expressing what seems a genuine desire to get things done. As always, we’ll see in the fullness of time.

It is no coincidence that Mentors have as their unofficial motto ‘Open Thinking’ a term coined by Oliver Kohl and a theme SAP has picked up (as you can see from the photo above.) It’s much more than a cute expression but a way of getting past the ‘Not Invented Here’ axiom that characterizes much of what we see at SAP. Both Pascal Brousset, a top of house strategist and Marge Breya, EVP and general manager, Intelligence Platform and SAP NetWeaver Group made mention of data consumption that at least recognizes there is more to life than SAP generated data. That should be the starting point, skin in the game if you like. If SAP is to truly embrace open source then it will have to demonstrate much more than paid for lip service. If it ain’t feeding into TCO then what’s the point? A year from now and we’ll know the answer to that one.

As to the notion of transition. Last year I said SAP is a two speed company: hardening of the core at slow pace, innovation whizzing around the outside and wondering how SAP will square the circle. It’s something James Governor dubs ‘pace layering.’ This year, SAP ‘came out’ on that one with Jim Hagemann Snabe invoking the 15th century ghost of Pacioli and double entry book-keeping while evergreen demo man Ian Kimball spun us through some fun stuff using sensor led technology. My sense is that if this had been a house full of business buyers looking for ways to free up IT budget then there would have been an almighty collective groan. As it was, Jim struggled to keep the attention of geeks who want to see innovation and new toys. It was a pity for instance that they didn’t serve up Google’s Lars Rasmussen’s with the Google Wave and Gravity demo at the opening keynote. Instead, it was reserved for DemoJam, drawing loud and warm applause. In hindsight I learned that Lars’ team was a last minute replacement for a DemoJam contender who had to drop out due to illness. Given that SAP had already invited the Googlers, why not put them front and center. At least give us a reason to want to believe in SAP’s commitment to innovation. Regardless of what some of my peers may think – this was truly heady stuff and a welcome addition.

Marge Breya’s depiction of Polestar was equally compelling but I was left wondering whether SAP is overly obsessed with transaction data at the expense of truly getting across a message that spells out innovation. Kudos to Marge for doing her own LIVE demo and afterwards putting up with a drilling from a group of us wanting to understand how SAP turns its vision of the marriage between structured and unstructured data into some semblance of meaning. Some of us remain unconvinced although we see the good intentions. Unfortunately, in the breakneck world of innovation, good intentions are not enough. I hear the siren sound of resilience, hardening of reliability etc etc. And of course it is comforting to know the Apple AppStore runs its millions of transactions with an SAP backbone. Or that 75% of the world’s beer production runs on SAP. I am grateful for both of those things at multiple levels. But it’s coming at a cost many of us believe is unsustainable and not matched by the innovations we see coming from cloud computing – as an example.

Overall, one gets the sense that this year we were witnessing an SAP that, while it has a sense of the direction it wishes to follow, remains far too cautious. The lack of bold statements are a worry. The perceived need to keep some things under wraps irritating. The lack of understanding that some things just should be open sourced and/or made freely/low cost available is perplexing. (SAP was at pains to state that open source doesn’t mean free – well maybe not to them.) Open Thinking? Perhaps like so many things it is ultimately an aspirational statement that looks good on the CV. But then I’m also left wondering about SAP and Java. Oracle’s proposed acquisition of Sun carries with it commercial threats to SAP’s use of Java that don’t go un-noticed. Just how are those being addressed when a good chunk of SAP technology relies on the Java stack? Silence prevailed.

Finally and as a counterpoint to David Dobrin’s analysis of Solution Manager, I spent time with one of Walldorf people working on SolMan and saw a canned demo. Note: canned. Without going into the intricacies – and believe me David is right – it’s complex. I sense that it is not quite the ‘5 miles wide, 1 inch deep’ product some of my peers believe. 2 inches deep more like and missing templates plus a ton of partner content that will be essential in practical situations. Also missing, end user experience monitoring (due in the next at an as-yet-to-be-determined release date.) I have been told that SAP has customer references for SolMan at Ferrero Rocher, Intel, Valero, Coca-Cola and Pepsi. If so then bring ‘em on.

Here and to return to the ‘open thinking’ theme, Helmuth Guembel hits the nail on the head when he says:

But let us assume for a moment that SolMan were the perfect product cutting the customer side of applying support by 50% or more. At this time, when even SAP experts can become redundant, many a competence center hero would rather prefer to discount the merits of SolMan to being laid off. As it turns out, SAP made SolMan sufficiently complicated and hence contributed to job security. If I had to suggest something to SAP, I’d say (once again) “put SolMan into the public domain – make it open source”. That should do wonders.

Oh yes. The Mentors may be SAP’s perceived cream but even among them I sense a nervousness at the future of SAP consulting. Rates under pressure, changes that eliminate job requirements and a move that tends towards end to end processes rather than emphasizing ABAP all play into THAT equation.

Enough for one post.

Disclosure: I’m an SAP Mentor and they comp’d my T&E for this event.

Image courtesy of @siliconchris

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