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In its rise to leadership of the ERP market, SAP (NYSE:SAP) shrewdly placed bounds around its strategy: it would stick to its knitting on applications and rely on partnerships with systems integrators to get critical mass implementation across the Global 2000. When it came to architecture, SAP left no doubt of its ambitions to own the application tier, while leaving the data tier to the kindness of strangers (or in Oracle’s case (NYSE:ORCL), the estranged).

Times change in more ways than one – and one of those ways is in the data tier. The headlines of SAP acquiring Sybase (for its mobile assets, primarily) and subsequent emergence of HANA, its new in-memory data platform, placed SAP in the database market. And so it was that at an analyst meeting last December, SAP made the audacious declaration that it wanted to become the #2 database player by 2015.

Of course, none of this occurs in a vacuum. SAP’s declaration to become a front line player in the database market threatens to destabilize existing relationships with Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and IBM (NYSE:IBM) as longtime SAP observer Dennis Howlett commented in a ZDNet post. OK, sure, SAP is sick of leaving money on the table to Oracle, and it’s throwing in roughly $500 million in sweeteners to get prospects to migrate. But if the database is the thing, to meet its stretch goals, says Howlett, SAP and Sybase would have to grow that part of the business by a cool 6x – 7x.

But SAP would be treading down a ridiculous path if it were just trying to become a big player in the database market for the heck of it. Fortuitously, during SAP’s press conference on announcements of their new mobile and database strategies, chief architect Vishal Sikka tamped down the #2 aspirations as that’s really not the point – it’s the apps that count, and increasingly, it’s the database that makes the apps. Once again.

Back to our main point. IT innovation goes in waves; during emergence of client/server, innovation focused on database where the need was mastering SQL and relational table structures; during the latter stages of client/server and subsequent waves of Webs 1.0 and 2.0, activity shifted to the app tier, which grew more distributed. With emergence of Big Data and Fast Data, energy shifted back to the data tier given the efficiencies of processing data big or fast inside the data store itself. Not surprisingly, when you hear SAP speak about HANA, they describe an ability to perform more complex analytic problems or compound operational transactions. It’s no coincidence that SAP now states that it’s in the database business.

So how will SAP execute its new database strategy? Given the hype over HANA, how does SAP convince Sybase ASE, IQ, and SQL Anywhere customers that they’re not headed down a dead end street?

That was the point of the SAP announcements, which, in the press release, stated the near term roadmap but shed little light on how SAP would get there. Specifically, the announcements were:

  • SAP HANA is now going GA and at the low (SMB) end come out with aggressive pricing: roughly $3000 for SAP BusinessOne on HANA; $40,000 for HANA Edge.
  • Ending a 15-year saga, SAP will finally port its ERP applications to Sybase ASE, with tentative target date of year end. HANA will play a supporting role as the real-time reporting adjunct platform for ASE customers.
  • Sybase SQL Anywhere would be positioned as the mobile front end database atop HANA, supporting real-time mobile applications.
  • Sybase’s event stream (CEP) offerings would have optional integration with HANA, providing convergence between CEP and BI – where rules are used for stripping key event data for persistence in HANA. In so doing, analysis of event streams could be integrated or directly correlating with historical data.
  • Integrations are underway between HANA and IQ with Hadoop.
  • Sybase is extending its PowerDesigner data modeling tools to address each of its database engines.

Most of the announcements, like HANA going GA or Sybase ASE supporting SAP Business suite, were hardly surprises. Aside from go-to-market issues, which are many and significant, we’ll direct our focus on the technology roadmaps.

We’ve maintained that if SAP were serious about its database goals, that it had to do three basic things:

  1. Unify its database organization. The good news is that it has started down that path as of January 1 of this year. Of course, org charts are only the first step as ultimately it comes down to people.
  2. Branding. Although long eclipsed in the database market, Sybase still has an identifiable brand and would be the logical choice; for now SAP has punted.
  3. Cross-fertilize technology. Here, SAP can learn lessons from IBM which, despite (or because of) acquiring multiple products that fall under different brands, freely blends technologies. For instance, Cognos BI reporting capabilities are embedded into rational and Tivoli reporting tools.

The third part is the heavy lifting. For instance, given that data platforms are increasingly employing advanced caching, it would, at first glance, seem logical to blend in some of HANA’s in-memory capabilities to the ASE platform; however, architecturally, that would be extremely difficult as one of HANA’s strengths –dynamic indexing – would be difficult to implement in ASE.

On the other hand, given that HANA can index or restructure data on the fly (e.g., organize data into columnar structures on demand), the question is, does that make IQ obsolete? The short answer is that while memory keeps getting cheaper, it will never be as cheap as disk and that therefore, IQ could evolve as near-line storage for HANA. Of course that begs the question as to whether Hadoop could eventually perform the same function. SAP maintains that Hadoop is too slow and therefore should be reserved for offline cases; that’s certainly true today, but given developments with HBase, it could easily become fast and cheap enough for SAP to revisit the IQ question a year or two down the road.

Not that SAP Sybase is sitting still with Hadoop integration. They are providing MapReduce and R capabilities to IQ (SAP Sybase is hardly alone here, as most Advanced SQL platforms are offering similar support). SAP Sybase is also providing capabilities to map IQ tables into Hadoop Hive, slotting IQ as alternative to HBase; in effect, that’s akin to a number of strategies to put SQL layers inside Hadoop (in a way, similar to what the lesser-known Hadapt is doing). And of course, like most of the relational players, SAP Sybase is also support the bulk ETL/ELT load from HDFS to HANA or IQ.

On SAP’s side, for now, is the paucity of Hadoop talent, so pitching IQ as an alternative to HBase may help soften the blow for organizations seeking to get a handle. But in the long run, we believe that SAP Sybase will have to revisit this strategy. Because, if it’s serious about the database market, it will have to amplify its focus to add value given the new realities on the ground.

Disclaimer: Author is an analyst with Ovum; the opinion stated does not necessarily reflect that of Ovum.

Source: SAP And Databases: No Longer An Oxymoron