Data Touted as the “New Gold” at SAP SAPPHIRENOW 2017

Data took center stage at last week's SAP SAPPHIRENOW event in Orlando, Florida.


Data took center stage at last week's SAP SAPPHIRENOW event in Orlando, Florida. From SAP analytics chief Mala Anand's declaration that, "Data is your most important strategic asset," to SAP founder Hasso Plattner's chronicling of SAP's journey from ERP pioneer to database powerhouse, it was obvious that the company's vision and strategy depend on data or, "the new gold," as CEO Bill McDermott put it.

Today's software-driven companies are releasing applications at a faster and faster pace. And data is the key to both unlocking release speed, and developing new capabilities. Simplicity and ease of data access were themes that resonated throughout the conference proceedings, with SAP touting progress in both of these areas. In fact, industry watchers are have even been trumpeting the arrival of a digital era where data is akin to oilcurrency, and even bacon.

The SAP Data Strategy: Past and Present

What was perhaps a bit surprising to some was the alacrity with which SAP suggested the need for a consolidated platform approach to managing transactional data and data analytics. "I was always against these separate systems," said Plattner, referring to the practice of extracting data from transactional ERP systems and loading it into separate, dedicated environments for reporting and analytics. "I fought as hard as I could in the late 90's against data warehousing and lost. We do not run around with our valuable data, we do not move it from system to system."

With its columnar stores and in-memory processing, HANA allows customers to skip painful extraction processes and instead query data in-place. For SAP, this leads to a repatriation of the business data that it wants to keep in its systems. For customers, the arrangement simplifies IT operations and gives development teams the opportunity to quickly bring new, more capable applications to life. Now a mature solution, HANA is the reason SAP spent so much of SAPPHIRE showcasing its Big Data, real-time analytics, and IoT credentials, once spaces where the company would struggle to muster up a robust story when the company was all about ERP.

HANA undoubtedly remains the foundation for all of SAP's future solutions, and yet the company spent remarkably little session-time at SAPPHIRENOW discussing HANA in an explicit fashion. Rather, SAP--and conference attendees alike--seemed to treat HANA as a given, a toll paid to gain entrance into the SAP ecosystem. The focus, instead, was on the HANA-based solutions themselves, a new generation data-driven applications that tap into HANA's promise of "fast" and "simple."

Of particular note was the coming out party for its "innovation platform," SAP Leonardo, and the lengths to which the company went to emphasize customers' smooth transition to the latest version of its business suite, S/4HANA. Plattner described S/4HANA as "basically done," dismissing the notion that further major development work would be needed for its flagship project.

The migration of data from IBM, Microsoft, and, of course, Oracle systems, to HANA, SAP was less sanguine, with Plattner and other representatives describing this process as only "relatively" straightforward. This remains a concern for customers hoping to execute a speedy and painless transition to S/4HANA, and possibly to new cloud environments as well. Indeed, established best practices for converting and moving massive amounts of business data to new environments, at speed, didn't clearly surface.

Looking to the future

Nevertheless, SAP is in an enviable position with its customers' key data still locked into its core ERP modules, running on HANA databases that increasingly reside in SAP-managed clouds. At several sessions, SAP trotted out the well-worn statistic that 76% of business transactions are processed by SAP, a number so enormous that even Plattner himself expressed incredulity: "I don't really believe this. I have to give a call to my good friend Larry. If he has 54% then something is wrong."

It's undeniable, however, that SAP seems poised to do everything it can to continue the transition from back-office software provider to the dominant "Postmodern ERP" player where data-driven, customer-facing applications feed off of the digital core. To be sure, SAPPHIRENOW featured a dizzying array of industry-specific, analytical, and IoT solutions as evidence that SAP is moving well beyond its comfort zone as the system-of-record king.

How well it will execute that transition is another matter. In a world where some companies are able to execute application releases every day or every hour, SAP must shake its reputation as being slow. Customers expect a faster release pace from SAP itself. They further expect that their own development projects--often involving integrations with the ERP backbone-- won't be bottlenecked by SAP's rigidity.     

SAP must prove that solutions like Leonardo have staying power, that large enterprises are moving their operations and their data to S/4HANA en masse, and that its recent investments in cloud (including newly announced partnerships with Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud) are truly taking hold. What SAP reports back at the next edition of SAPPHIRENOW will be telling as to where the company will land in this new world where data is all-important.