As the Lars Dalgaard era begins, SAP faces a major challenge in sorting out its cloud strategy.
SAP's biggest hole for now is on the developer side, and here's where SAP's greatest potential strength is a major weakness. The cloud opportunity that SAP presents encompasses all three of its major focus areas: mobile, in-memory analytics, and business process innovation. In an ideal world a great cloud app would be mobile, use HANA when and if necessary, and reuse SAP's large base of business objects and processes, if not connecting directly to the Business Suite or ByD itself.
The problem with this vision is that there's no single development environment for building that cool mobile, in-memory, cloud-based, value-added business app. The erstwhile developer wanting to leverage all of SAP's coolness will need a lot of patience figuring out how to proceed. This pretty much guarantees a siloed approach to applications innovation, at least for the time being. That's part of the old-school, 20th century model that SAP has to kill off in order to make good on its potential.
Again, following Microsoft's lead may be a good idea. Microsoft iterated through this problem years ago by creating the catch-all umbrella of .NET and is now working on unifying its mobile, desktop and cloud development paradigm under the Windows 8/Azure umbrella. Some of this is more market-tecture than technology, but it's good market-tecture, as it serves the purpose of giving developers a single target to shoot for.
SAP certainly understands the need to make the developer community its new BFF. And in conversations across the company it was clear to me that this isn't just lip service but a significant new focus that acknowledges the need to pull in a vast ecosystem of partnerships--from individual developers to startups to big ISVs to global systems integrators to corporate IT shops--in order to make good on the platforms that SAP is depending on for growth. This makes the announcement of free developers' licenses for HANA one of the more significant ones at SAPPHIRE. And the prospect of a SAP NetWeaver Cloud that not only unifies the company's disparate cloud infrastructures but also provides developers with the option to deploy on non-SAP cloud architectures promises a degree of flexibility that will appeal to the development community.
This model will need continual extension and modification if SAP is to make good on cloud and other opportunities. For example, the company must make it easy for startups to partner, as opposed to the death march that partnership has meant for smaller companies in the past. And it must simultaneously make sure that quality and security remain top considerations for its ecosystems partners: Google and Android, with their almost criminally negligent security and privacy models, have handed SAP (and Microsoft and Apple) a golden opportunity to codify enterprise mobility in a real enterprise-class security and privacy model. SAP in particular can use the Sybase Unwired Platform to great effect in this regard, though of course it will need to be linked up to the rest of the SAP development world to provide the one-stop-shopping model that SAP's developers will need.
The rest of the SAP cloud story is, I believe, relatively sound, mostly because the market is still nascent enough that SAP doesn't need to nail it all right now. In fact, considering the agile development underpinnings of cloud technology and deployment, it's fitting that every vendor's strategy--as well as their customers' strategies--be refreshed regularly. Any vendor that says it has a 10- or even five-year strategy for the cloud would instantly reveal how little it understands the cloudy future of this market.
That situation should hopefully reassure SAP that it isn't late to the cloud in the way it was allegedly late to the Internet in the dotcom era. The cloud party has yet to get going; the realignment of the vendor community is only presaging a much larger realignment of global business towards the new functionality and business opportunities that the cloud can bring. That realignment—including those pesky customers who don't necessarily follow the market up every hill as quickly as vendors and pundits would like--still has a good ten years to play out. And ten years is a century in our industry.
Which brings me to a final point about Lars the thunder god. Nordic culture has a strong warrior ethic, and the Eddas, the epic poetry of the region and the Norse equivalent of Greece's Homeric tradition, are replete with stories of great struggles and heroics.
There's another, less well-known part of Nordic warrior culture that bears mentioning here. The Vikings had a special class of warrior called Berserkers, truly dangerous, wild men who fought with psychopathic fury and were feared and respected by their otherwise fearsome peers--in case you hadn't noticed, this is the origin of our English word berserk.
Berserkers were just the guys you wanted leading the charge against the most formidable foes, but in times of peace they were encouraged to go off to the forest and leave civilized society alone, as the traits that made them great warriors were antithetical once the war was over.
Lars' big challenge will be to stay in place as a Thor-like "god", wielding his hammer and knocking a few heads in the process, without being perceived as a Berserker, someone to keep around when heads need knocking but send back to the woods once the battle is won. SAP's cloud strategy is as much a cultural as it is a technological shift, and it's clear that Lars has been given a hammer precisely because massive cultural change is best effected by a combination of war and peace, of pen and sword. But to be most effective the two will must be wielded together carefully, very carefully, something a Thor might be able to do, but a Berserker could never accomplish.
As they say in Lar's homeland, til lykke Lars, good luck. And while luck favors the prepared mind, and Lars is nothing if not prepared, there's a large element of luck that will have to play out in order for him and SAP to succeed. The Lars/cloud bet is clearly SAP's biggest one ever. It's the most necessary and the most risky bet ever undertaken by a traditionally risk adverse company.
This is the hidden struggle--the lightning at the top of the storm that only high-flying pilots can see--that SAP must sort out as its cloud strategy matures into an expectant future. So do what I did that stormy night at 38,000 feet: fasten your seatbelt, dim the lights, and look out the window at the flashes of light in the distance. And remember, even as the storm on the ground abates and clear skies loom, the sturm und drang in the sky isn't necessarily over.
Josh Greenbaum is principal of Enterprise Applications Consulting, a Berkeley, Calif., firm that consults with end-user companies and enterprise software vendors large and small. Clients have included Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and other firms that are sometimes analyzed in his columns. Write him at email@example.com.
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