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Can SAP Deliver IT Simplicity?

Apps vendor talks real-time; customers hear "removing IT infrastructure."
There's no doubt that SAP customers are excited about the in-memory and column-store database technology announced at last week's SAPPHIRE event. But are they hearing only what they want to hear from SAP? And if that's the case, when can the company deliver what they are really after?

SAP put the emphasis of its SAP Business Analytic Engine announcement on delivering what it called "real, real-time" analysis. But among the SAP customers InformationWeek canvassed, the bottom-line takeaway on the "New DB" described by Chairman Hasso Plattner was that it could simplify IT environments by eliminating business intelligence infrastructure.

"Most of what we look at through BI is just data that's in SAP R3 put in a different place so that we can report on it quickly and efficiently," said Mike O'Dell, CIO at Pacific Coast Building Products. "If suddenly I can do that same reporting on a live system because it's in-memory and it's fast, then I don't need the infrastructure for BI."

An executive at Kraft Foods had much the same take. "The real value is in removing complexity," said Tom Zavos, senior director of Business Intelligence at Kraft. "I won't have to do ETL anymore, and I won't need a separate Business Warehouse database or additional appliances like the [SAP] BW Accelerator."

In fact, Zavos and others told InformationWeek that the desire for simplicity trumps the demand for real-time analysis. "We do have situations where people want real-time insight, but that's more often the exception," Zavos said. Customer-facing users like salespeople might appreciate real time, he added. But he questioned the need for marketing, procurement or manufacturing personnel to go beyond daily updates.

In the six-step roadmap outlined in his keynote address, SAP's Plattner said the New DB/SAP Business Analytic Engine would first serve as a sort of turbo charger alongside existing application and data warehouse infrastructure. This "no risk" approach offers the advantage of not ripping and replacing existing systems, he said. Workloads will be moved over to the new environment gradually, he said, and aging legacy systems decommissioned over time.

But if simplicity is what customers are really after, how quickly can companies hope to get to the latter stages of SAP's roadmap? It's too early to say, co-CEO Hagemann Snabe told InformationWeek. He did allow, "it will start in analytics, and then you'll see us building more advanced optimization applications like planning."

The response at least suggests that customers won't have to wait years to consolidate BI infrastructure. The real question on most customer minds is, how much will it cost?

In an interview with InformationWeek, co-CEO McDermott said questions about cost can only be answered when the product comes to market, but he noted that "by definition, it seems that removing layers takes cost out... There will be different situations for different customers, but the theme is, let's get rid of redundant IT and free up cash flow for innovation."

The bottom line is that SAP is selling consolidation as well as real-time performance. And on both fronts, there are many questions about cost, performance, storage capacity, data integration flexibility and many other details that are nowhere near being answered. Nonetheless, SAP customers like what they're hearing.