Semantics over syntax -- SAP evolves into framework thinking

Today, users are looking to leverage pre-built application packages whenever and wherever possible. From a component development perspective, applications represent the biggest piece of software -- or the largest component, if you will -- that developers do not have to code, and therefore they are a boon to developer productivity. Companies such as Peoplesoft Inc., Pleasanton, Calif., Baan Co., Menlo Park, Calif., and SAP AG, Wayne, Pa., can have significant impact in this market. SAP's recent Sapphire user group meeting afforded an opportunity to revisit this latter player's R/3 system and the role such software can play in enterprise systems development scenarios.

SAP has evolved over the past decade from a purveyor of mainframe-based, manufacturing applications to a world force in Unix- based and WinNT-based applications covering a variety of functions and industries. The company's R/3 suite of human resources, financials, retail, manufacturing and other vertical industry applications is found in over 11,000 companies, helping drive the German software giant toward $2.38 billion in worldwide revenue last year.

Designed around the concept of three-tier architecture and incorporating the notion of business objects, the R/3 system has also been retrofitted recently with SAP's highly touted BAPIs -- Business Application Programming Interfaces. These have (and are) being created to "open up" the R/3 system to the outside world by permitting direct communication between business applications from any supplier deemed necessary. Also, with Release 3.1 of R/3, SAP has added Internet functionality to allow SAP customers to develop Web sites which provide comprehensive sales and service functions for their clients. The SAP Java GUI now allows access to all existing R/3 applications.

SAP has evolved its concept of the business framework as well. The framework comprises SAP's strategic product architecture and infrastructure. This includes all R/3 business components, their corresponding integration technologies and the BAPIs which allow R/3 and complementary partner software to interoperate. In an effort to ensure seamless and secure interoperability among these large components, SAP requires that all third-party software and hardware products be certified within this infrastructure. This takes considerable pressure and responsibility off the user.

Further, R/3 installations can take advantage of the Business Engineer, an underlying business modeling and R/3 configuration tool designed to deliver a uniform methodology based on best practice business models.

Dr. Peter Graf, product marketing manager at SAP AG, maintains the concept of the framework is analogous to a puzzle. What SAP has created, he contends, is an entire picture based on process models. To accomplish this, SAP and its partners have spent a great deal of time with customers to learn exactly what their processes are.

SAP expects the "componentization" of the R/3 system within the business framework will save customers significant amounts of time and money.

For example, many SAP customers must comply with a variety of federal and trade laws. With the component architecture, they will be able to update the system as the laws change by simply refurbishing the relevant portion of the software. There will be no need to disrupt the entire system for an upgrade.

Graf also pointed out that the BAPIs have been carefully architected to work with the component. "Think of it this way," he said. "A component runs out of the box, so to speak, and comprises a set of business objects. In this sense, HR can be a component. The defined interface to these components (objects) consists of well-defined methods within the business framework."

BAPI fever

He added they learned with the R/3 release 3.1, it was useful to have object-oriented BAPIs within a system, and now SAP is applying the concept of BAPIs externally throughout a given enterprise. He shied away from labeling this a best-of-breed approach.

"We're not talking about syntactical interoperability, but semantical interoperability," Graf said. By this he means the BAPIs are designed to be language-independent, and SAP is shouldering the burden of providing all the infrastructure.

This includes a serious commitment from SAP for Corba (Common Object
Request Broker Architecture), ActiveX/DCOM and Java interoperability. This move towards plug-and-play componentization is a long-term strategy for SAP, whose goal is to enable customers to evolve R/3 systems as necessary.

Of course, it is still probably two years out before R/3 will be fully componentized on a three-tier application computing level. The vendor is working on componentizing the graphical user interface (GUI) with ActiveX and Java technologies.

SAP hopes to penetrate mid-range market accounts with its packages. "Mid-range," as defined by SAP, encompasses all companies showing between $200 million and $2 billion in revenue. Anything below the $200 million mark is handled via SAP's Certified Business Solutions -- a VAR partner program which offers bundled R/3 solutions through a local single point of contact.

The question still remains however -- can SAP gain ground in vertical industries looking for cost effective packaged solutions? Sam Cox, CIO at Brother Industries, U.S.A., seems to think so. We all know Brother Industries -- the folks that make typewriters, fax machines, printers and the like. The privately-held company has offices worldwide.

Cox spoke to me from the Memphis factory facilities, where they produce typewriters and word processors. The factory itself has been using SAP R/3 for about a year and a half now, and Brother is using the ASAP program (Accelerated SAP) to reengineer a portion of the SAP programs.

"Originally SAP was installed here without all the necessary requirements for a successful implementation," Cox said. The deficits included limited reengineering capabilities and insufficient training. His mission is to turn this around, and he is using the ASAP program to re-implement and reengineer current SAP modules, including warehouse management, sales, distribution and HR.

Characterizing Brother Industries as an "intermediate size" company, (the Memphis factory accounts for between $400 and $500 million of revenue per year), Cox said that it was premature for the company to get SAP when it did. "The big corporations got SAP first. At the time we implemented, we were not the right size for SAP."

He feels that this has changed with the newer SAP focus and that Brother is ready to leverage the advantages of its SAP installation. He believes R/3 software can (and will) increase business speed due to the product's ability to increase the visibility of financials and materials.

Brother is apparently realizing several major benefits from the installation. This includes improved customer service due to shortened lead times and better management of materials, labor and the manufacturing processes. Brother is also integrating SAP into its Memphis-based R&D center to reduce product development lead time.

According to Cox, the ASAP program has been instrumental in helping Brother identify goals, set measurements against the achievement of these goals and provide an organized structure. He likens the program to a "road map," adding that it has been "cost effective so far."

Brother has undertaken to determine return on investment (ROI) factors for each individual project. Information systems (I/S) identifies the project, the scope and the ROI. This process, in turn, helps I/S to define what they need to address first.

Pure technology and development issues aside, we believe SAP's primary challenge today is to successfully tell its story of quality application software in a light that makes the product seem both open and easy to use, and to integrate as necessary in a distributed enterprise

The company is steering away from its legacy of complex, expensive and lengthy systems installation with the creation of several programs and partner solutions designed to shorten time to deployment and make the software more user friendly to today's technologies. These programs have a unifying theme:

3They are committed to providing an early SAP estimate of resource requirements. This includes time, cost and actual estimates of work hours and is based in large part on data derived from customer feedback;

  • Standardization of R/3 implementations across all lines of business, regions, countries or continents;
  • All partners are mandated to commit to shared, standardized SAP project strategies; and,
  • Commitment by SAP to an optimal foundation so customers may easily leverage all R/3 upgrades with minimal custom software modifications.

Perhaps Brother Industries' success with the "new improved" SAP installation process can be used as a barometer for others looking to leverage pre-built applications. As enterprise customers evaluate different applications packages in an effort to determine which components to buy and which to build, they should consider that companies such as SAP, while sometimes the more costly choice, inherently have a wealth of experience and wisdom in important business areas.

This type of experience could prove invaluable in systems construction and could save time and money -- and headaches -- down the road.

About the Author

Sally J. Cusack is research manager of application-enabling technologies at IDC, Framingham, Mass.