SAP's Bold BI Push

It’s hard to avoid the impression that SAP is making a big BI push.

ERP giant SAP AG next year will ship a line of pre-built analytic applications targeted for specific verticals. That’s the future.

This week, however, SAP announced a refresh of its NetWeaver platform—NetWeaver 2004S—that also incorporates several business intelligence (BI) amenities, including a more usable Business Explorer (BEX) front-end tool, an SAP-branded operational reporting front-end, and an analytic accelerator appliance. Considered together, these developments give the impression that SAP is making a big BI push.

“It follows the trend of operational vendors that want a piece of the analytic pie. Siebel has been aggressive at it, and Oracle has a solution of its own [Daily Business Intelligence],” says Mike Schiff, a principal with data warehousing and BI consultancy MAS Strategies. “And SAP has been aggressive with Business Information Warehouse [BW] since way back when. Operations and analytics are two sides of the same business coin, and they want to play both sides.”

BEX has long been the SAP power user’s tool. It’s an analytic query environment and design studio. But BEX is far from an intuitive environment, which—thus far, anyway—has restricted its use to business analysts and other power users. Not surprisingly, it’s typically power users who tap BEX to configure NetWeaver—which includes the former SAP BW—for rank-and-file knowledge workers. “The super users or power users, those are the ones that can actually go in and create the information cubes, but that’s a very small number [of users],” says an SAP consultant who spoke on background. “[BEX is] not intuitive. It’s not something that can easily be used [by knowledge workers]. To go in and set up the [multidimensional] relationships, that’s what the BEX power users do.”

In the NetWeaver 2004S release, BEX has been revamped for usability, says Lothar Schubert, director of SAP NetWeaver solution marketing. It ships with a Web-ified interface, for starters, and SAP has concentrated on making it a more intuitive environment, such that knowledge workers can also use BEX to perform some tasks. That being said, Schubert concedes, BEX’ more sophisticated functionality—i.e., the identification and creation of multidimensional relationships—is still primarily restricted to power users.

“Business Explorer is our front-end tool which is being used both for interactive analysis and slice and dice,” he says. “In [NetWeaver] 2004S, we have very much revamped the whole BEX. It’s now available in a Web version, and it introduces so-called patterns, where a casual user who just wants to get more detailed reports can go in and do so.”

The revamped BEX also ships with a native reporting component, a first for SAP, which has traditionally bundled Crystal Reports for that purpose. The Crystal bundling relationship is alive and well in NetWeaver 2004S: BEX’ formatted reporting capabilities are inferior to those of a best-of-breed tool such as Crystal Reports. (BEX doesn’t support pixel-perfect reporting, among other features, and many SAP shops have developed custom Crystal Reports.) At the same time, Schubert says he expects that many SAP customers will tap NetWeaver’s BEX-based reporting capability to support basic reporting requirements.

SAP’s Visual Composer analytic application development tool also gets an overhaul in the newest NetWeaver release. For one thing, it’s incorporated MacroMedia’s Flex rich Internet application technology, with the result, Schubert says, that it can produce more powerful analytic tools.

“Flex itself delivers a richer Internet application experience, such as animation capabilities and support for certain interactivity directly in a Web page without the need to refresh a Web page,” he comments. “So [users] can use a mouse and move it over a certain graph and see the respective numbers being highlighted, as well as see specific navigation features.” Schubert describes the revamped Visual Composer as a no-coding environment, but says it should still largely be the province of business analysts and other power users.

Another new feature in NetWeaver 2004S is a BI Accelerator appliance, which SAP has developed in combination with Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., and IBM Corp. “It’s an appliance tool that can significantly boost up scalability of BI queries. It uses in-memory technology and indexing technology to basically index a cube, and then to run queries very fast,” Schubert explains. “Where we see specific strong opportunities and also interest is in industries where there’s traditionally a high volume of granular data that has to be analyzed very quickly, such as in the retail environment with sales data, or in utilities.” NetWeaver 2004S includes a license for the BI Accelerator technology, but the appliance itself (an Intel-based blade server) must be purchased separately from HP or IBM.

SAP Announces Pre-Built Analytic Apps

In the enterprise applications space, Siebel Systems Inc. and (among others) have announced pre-built analytic applications designed for specific vertical markets. These apps are typically constructed by both companies in conjunction with integrator partners, and—in most cases—they incorporate analytic expertise that’s custom-built for individual verticals.

In this respect, SAP’s pre-built analytic apps—which are premised on a similar model --should place it in good company.

“These [analytic applications] are pre-built by SAP and its partners, built by the Visual Composer technology,” Schubert says. “They are targeted for specific verticals, for specific processes in specific verticals. They are going to be branded applications, and I believe they’re supposed to hit the street in [general availability] sometime in the second quarter.”

MAS Strategies Schiff says it’s a good move. “It isn’t a unique idea— announced something similar a short while ago—but it makes sense,” Schiff comments. “It’s something where the partners that have the expertise [in these industry-specific verticals] do a lot of the heavy-lifting [for SAP], and it helps them as they chase after a bigger piece of that [analytics] pie.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.