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From BW to HANA: Can you make the SAP leap?

SAP has changed the way companies do business. With its sophisticated Enterprise Resource Planning systems (ERP), organisations from governments to banks have increased the speed and efficiency with which they report and automate their core operations, from accounting and supply chain management to HR and Marketing. Few technologies are as important to modern commerce.

SAP implementations though are notoriously difficult to roll out, due to the amount of data being managed and the complexity of the business processes being automated. These projects are often multi-year and require specialised teams made up of business experts, functional experts, and more technical experts, such as NetWeaver (BASIS) admins, Database administrators (DBAs), and developers, to implement and maintain SAP. They all need a deep understanding of the different requirements which make up a successful SAP migration or upgrade.

Then comes the data analysis. Over decades, SAP has developed several business intelligence products to help companies streamline processes, including Business Warehouse (BW) and HANA. SAP BW was rolled out in October 1998 to help companies evaluate and interpret business data and was the cornerstone of SAP's drive to offer companies more efficient decision-ready business intelligence.

Simple rip and replace?

Twelve years later, in November 2010, HANA was launched to act as SAP’s next generation business intelligence platform, allowing real-time response on all queries made by those who need insight immediately. So, is HANA a straightforward replacement for BW? As with many things SAP, it really is not so simple.

The desire to make quicker decisions from more current facts, as opposed to those stored (perhaps for decades) in BW, makes HANA a desirable platform for modern businesses. When sized correctly, HANA will retain all the data it needs directly in main memory, minimising the heavy input/output operations (Disk IO) which slows down traditional databases. Everything happens quicker.

HANA is also more suited to more fine-grained updates than disk-based column store databases, offering the potential of both transactional and analytical database workloads on one platform, unlike BW. This capability to act as an application platform means system integrators need to know modelling, application development, database administration, and security, as well as changes to the conventional development lifecycle management.

A workshop or a factory?

There are many superficial similarities between BW and HANA, including terms like cubes, models, and views. However, the devil is in the detail. One way to conceive the relationship is to imagine BW as providing a very full workshop for data analytics including the workbench with all the tools, whereas HANA an empty factory building, state-of-the-art but empty. In other words, the type of factory that could use a great workshop.

To complicate things a little further, over time the factory will get smarter. In technical terms, the work which Business Warehouse does at the application layer will gradually be possible in the database layer with which HANA integrates. Ultimately the virtual layers required to transform data by BW will look and be processed as if they were data by HANA. This though is some way off today.

The language barrier

The way applications are being developed has been markedly changed by HANA too. The HANA platform provides standard interfaces, a modelling environment, analytic, and statistical function libraries on top of its database capabilities. However, integrators may well need to be proficient in myriad proprietary and open source languages such as ABAP, JAVA, JavaScript node, UI5/HTML5 SQLScript, and SQL to natively develop efficient applications.

Working on the use cases for the HANA and BW platforms requires different skillsets. However, they often have some crossover in terms of implementation and delivery. Without a knowledge spanning both it is hard to choose the right technical skills for the business needs. But keeping both in-house is an expensive proposition. So, is there a best of both worlds?

Loving HANA, wedded to BW

There is indeed one situation though where a deep understanding of both platforms will be very useful to an integrator: when BW runs on HANA. This could turn out to be the ‘ideal state’ for many who are slowly ‘falling in love’ with HANA, but remain wedded to BW because it has proven itself to be an asset for many to glean value from the data they acquire over time. In such cases, HANA will improve the efficiency with which they can access those insights in real-time, which makes HANA less a replacement for BW and more a platform which BW can leverage.

Would it be a leap for those well-versed in BW to grasp and implement HANA? Perhaps, but help is at hand. In all the basics are the same, but making the move could be costly or risky, particularly when looking to make the move with in-house skills alone. Approaching consultants with expertise in both helps cut those costs by providing the expertise to streamline core business data flows and amplify the performance of the hardware infrastructure already in place. There is no need for HANA to be a leap into the dark. In reality, with expert help, HANA offers the chance to get the job done better than ever.

Robin Webster, director of technology and services at Centiq