SAP bets futureon web services

When Shai Agassi, SAP executive board member and (by some accounts) the heir apparent to company CEO Hasso Plattner, unveiled SAP NetWeaver in New York in mid-January, he found it difficult to stem the flow of hyperbole.

“This product will dictate the direction of the enterprise applications business for the next five to ten years. It’s the culmination of two and a half to three years of work by thousands of engineers. It’s a platform that will evolve over the years to become our full integration and application platform for everything we do at SAP,” said Agassi.

Plattner was equally effusive: He likened the development to the introduction ten years earlier of R/3, the phenomenally successful enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite that turned SAP into the world’s third largest software vendor.

Behind the rush of excitement, though, was some real substance and evidence that the company has been through a software epiphany. NetWeaver, and the underlying Enterprise Services Architecture, represent the first fruits of SAP’s acceptance that web services – the standards-based, revolutionary approach to software development and deployment – overturns the traditional applications model.

The product – at least on paper – embraces two core elements of web services. First, it is the basis for the company’s rewrite of R/3 as a set of modular functions that can be combined ‘on the fly’ to match changing business requirements. Second, it leverages web services standards to ensure that SAP applications can be integrated easily and seamlessly with the functionality of other vendors’ applications, as well as with so-called legacy applications. The aim is to enable organisations to develop composite applications that map directly onto their business processes.

At this stage, most of the elements of the NetWeaver platform are not actually new, but are a repackaging and reworking of the existing mySAP Internet technologies. One of its constituent parts, for example, is mySAP Enterprise Portal, which customers will use to access all NetWeaver applications – both those made by SAP and by third parties.

More pivotal to providing the foundation for NetWeaver’s web services and integration capabilities is the Exchange Infrastructure (XI), an XML-based integration broker that first debuted in June 2002. “XI allows you to connect SAP applications into any environment,” says Kaj van de Loo, director of product strategy at SAP Labs, who is in charge of the formulation and implementation of SAP’s web services strategy.

As part of the integration effort, SAP is also delivering a data rationalisation tool. Master Data Management aims to reconcile inconsistencies in related data that is spread across different systems. “You can have two procurement systems in which the same object is called ‘abc’ in one and ‘123’ in another. Without such a tool, you are not going to be able to see your consolidated spend,” says Martin Tenk, head of technology for SAP UK.

Sitting above these tools, and orchestrating the combination and recombination of application functionality, is a new business process management system.

Customers and analysts have cautiously welcomed NetWeaver. “It looks very promising,” says Abe Mullder, CIO at chemicals company Dow Corning, a flagship SAP site, adding that she is most attracted by the ability to build a “more or less seamless web services environment”.

However, Dow Corning is not rushing to shift to NetWeaver. The company will just ‘test’ it for some information delivery projects during the next 12 months.

Jim Mackay, a senior vice president at enterprise application integration (EAI) vendor WebMethods, argues that it will take the best part of two years before the XI integration component of NetWeaver is truly mature. Moreover, he says, it is difficult to see how it “will ever be as robust as the products we offer”. To integrate an Oracle application, for example, into the NetWeaver hub will still require ‘connector’ technology from a third party EAI vendor.

Byron Miller, vice president of ERP at analyst Giga Information Group, is positive about SAP’s efforts in the area of web services, but he too advises caution. Users should wait until a second version of XI arrives in the summer before considering a move to NetWeaver, he says.

Only when customers start to use NetWeaver in earnest, will they be able to judge if SAP’s web services conversion merits the hyperbole.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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