The big takeaways from SAP TechEd 2020

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy December 8, 2020 Audio mode
SAP CTO Juergen Mueller's TechEd keynote left us with plenty to chew upon. Here are the highlights with some preliminary analysis

Juergen Mueller - SAP CTO
Juergen Mueller, executive board member and CTO SAP (SAP)

While the SAP SAPPHIRENow 2020 day 1 keynote session was a blooper, the SAP TechEd 2020 keynote was a success on multiple fronts.

First up, there were plenty of announcements to content the curious and keep the chattering classes, well, chattering. Second, SAP figured out how to reasonably balance recorded content with live sessions. Third, season SAP presenters were in good form and fluent in their approach. Fourth, Juergen Mueller, SAP's CTO was in remarkably candid form. All of which served as a backdrop for well-delivered content. Was it all good? No. But I'll get to the rough edges later. First up the announcements, which I am taking in the order that I believe is most important to SAP customers.

Appealing to a broad church of developer types

Early on in the keynote, Mueller observed that:

We are not yet a particularly developer friendly company...and we want to change that. 

That's a huge admission from a firm that prides itself on having a five million-strong developer community. That admission, which Mueller acknowledges centers around the complexity inherent in SAP systems, sets the tone for what SAP has to do to attract a new class of developers.

In the familiar SAP developer world, the emphasis has always been on ABAP as the development environment. I know there was a period when Java was on the rise in SAP shops but that has been firmly eclipsed by ABAP. But as customers start their ECC to S/4HANA migration journey, there is increasing noise about the lack of the S/4HANA resources needed to get customers over the migration line. At the UKISUG session last week, for example, Paul Cooper, UK&ISUG chair emphasized that its constituents were not just concerned about the lack of skills but also the cost of S/4 HANA skills in what is rapidly evolving into a classic supply and demand problem. Integral to those skills is ABAP and here, there is concern that those skills are not only diminishing in number but that it is increasingly difficult to attract budding developers to ABAP. In short, SAP is not seen as 'cool.'

During an SAP TechEd pre-briefing session, we were told that ten percent of the total registrants for the event have never touched an SAP system. That's a big number when you consider that SAP reported 60,000 TechEd registrations. But even if all those who expressed interest turn up, the potential fresh faces are a tiny fraction of what will be needed. UK&ISUG is encouraging a range of initiatives including apprenticeships. SAP's UK operation is developing programs with its university network. These programs are designed to encourage young CS students to consider SAP technology as a pathway to a long-lasting and valuable career. I wanted SAP to articulate the top three reasons a rookie developer should consider ABAP. Mueller's Tweeted response was:

1: Impact - 100k customers & community of 5M developers, 2: Getting things done - #ABAP is still benchmark to solve business problems efficiently, 3: Future-proof: @SAP S/4HANA runs on ABAP & allows to adopt new trends like data management with SAP HANA.

Others piled on. Especially helpful was this from Thorsten Franz:

ABAP gives you everything that’s in SAP - all the business functionality plus platform/cross-app tools such as Workflow, business partner management, scalability, connectivity, extensibility, analytics, high-productivity development tools (yes) for rock-steady enterprise apps.

Is that enough to whet the appetite? Perhaps. But the bigger problem is that it is generally acknowledged that on the job experience trumps all the classroom learning and I have to wonder how customers and SIs will untie that particular Gordian Knot without incurring a massive cost problem. Nevertheless, Mueller went a lot further. He identified different types of developers including lo-code and no-code citizen developers. That may sound like a banal attempt to please the media people in the crowd who have glommed onto those sexy-sounding expressions but Mueller brought logic to his argument saying that:

When we talk about developers today, it's not just one persona. A developer can be a cloud-native developer, can be a data scientist, can be an enterprise architect, can be an application developer, integration developer, UX designer. Regardless, all developers have one thing in common. They make things...we want to create a future where SAP caters for all these and more developer roles. We want to make sure that when you work, at least with SAP data and SAP processes, this is best done with SAP technology. We want to help you to get your job done in the most productive way.  

And as if on cue, Thomas Jung, one of SAP's great developer teachers pointed to this keynote coming up later in the week. Where I see the bigger challenge though comes in harnessing the developer community inside the SAP funded community. This is a much tougher problem as social channels like LinkedIn and Slack have become the home for those who are less than enamored of SAP's developer community. Moving on. 

Multi-tenancy? Hang on a second

Although I have been briefed on certain aspects of multi-tenancy, I was not expecting the following from Mueller:

Today, I'm happy to introduce the SAP Cloud Platform ABAP Environment, multi tenancy capabilities with the latest version of Steampunk. It's especially interesting for partners, because we allow you to host multiple tenants with a shared ABAP codebase within a single Steampunk instance. This massively reduces TCO for any ABAP deployment that you have. And of course, the partner ecosystem is very important to us. This is why we are doing these and other investments. As you have seen in the beginning of the keynote, not all developers are about experts. But we also want to enable cloud native developers to build extensions for more of our products.

OK. So this sounds like a big one but you have to go deeper to understand what this means. In the SAP TechEd 2020 News Guide (PDF download) there is a section on page 27 that says:

As of Q4/2020, the 2011 version of SAP Cloud Platform, ABAP® environment supports multitenancy in an ABAP environment instance. This means the cost of managing customer tenants may decrease, and partners can onboard their customers with clear content separation. The ABAP client field is used to separate the content of different customers to make sure their data is correctly isolated and in no way mixed with data from other tenants. The new release allows the hosting of several customer tenants with a shared ABAP code base in one physical ABAP cloud instance. By using a new application called the Landscape Portal for SAP Cloud Platform, ABAP environment (accessed through the SAP Cloud Platform cockpit), partners can create new tenants. Then, customers can subscribe to the partner’s application directly in the cockpit. Multitenancy support for the ABAP environment benefits both cloud administrators (responsible for provisioning new tenants) and the app and integration developers who want to write multitenant-aware apps.

SAP Cloud Platform, ABAP environment, is a part of SAP Cloud Platform Extension Suite within SAP Business Technology Platform and is designed for transitioning existing ABAP investments to the cloud.

As I expected, those who look at cloud architectures had plenty to say. Brian Sommer pinged me on email and said the following:

This is NOT multi-tenancy. It simply allows a third party SI to load many different customers on the same data center/hyperscaler service. The SI is still doing all the app maintenance, DB tuning, etc. SAP is NOT maintaining the app s/w code in this instance.

You could, for example, have Accenture running dozens of customers on Amazon AWS. Some customers will be running their own instance of S/4 with nothing in common with other customers (i.e., hosted single-tenant world). Some might be running a quasi-cloud version described above where the customers are all using a ‘shared ABAP code base in one physical ABAP cloud instance’. That would be tricky to pull off as each entity would need to upgrade code at the same agreed timeframe. Who would do that? Probably a conglomerate with a bunch of homogeneous divisions who wants to keep all parts of their firm on the same code version at all times. However, expecting different firms to do this is unlikely. So, instead of real M-T, it’s really just M-T within a customer. Contrast this with a real M-T firm like Workday and the difference is night and day. All customers on the same code base, all customers upgraded at the same time, no SI’s needed to upgrade as the vendor does it automatically, etc.

Again, this is NOT multi-tenancy.

It's hard to disagree with Brian's assessment based on what was said but then SAP is threading its way through the eye of a very small needle in the shape of the SI community. We have said it before but it is worth reiterating: SAP does not have account control in many of the places it needs even though it likes to believe that to be the case. It is the SI that controls the relationship. That can be equally true in the cloud world except that in the cloud world, it is the software author who controls the code. SAP is well aware that part of the simplification story it is endeavoring to tell requires that customers configure the core applications and extend to the side. 

SAP also knows that it cannot and will not move all workloads to a true multi-tenant cloud architecture because it does not make sense or advisable, for some applications. Long story short, assuming SAP does go the conventional cloud route then some applications will not. At least not for the foreseeable future. 

What this release does is act as a sort of halfway house where SI's can confidently develop and deploy to whatever cloud they choose. But, as Brian points out, the upside for cloud operations is limited and customers will need to examine how this works in the real world. We know for example that moving on-premises SAP landscape looks attractive on paper but there is a veritable laundry list of pre-requisites that customers have to ensure are in place. Will the SI's do this work and effectively share the cost burden among customers? Time will tell. 

The upside is that SIs can now build applications that can be efficiently deployed to one or many customers as side-by-side additions and innovations. We have to presume this option will allow customers to enjoy an improved ROI on their extended SAP deployments and we encourage customers to evaluate based on that assumption. TCO is important but that's table stakes. It also means developers on SAP systems have the opportunity to extend and apply their learnings beyond the SAP code line. That's equally important for developers looking to extend their careers. 

Free tier for developers

There has been plenty of discussion about the available trial versions of SAP technology. Much of the most recent discussion has been highly critical of SAP offering what amounts to a 90-day dead end. You can read my extensive critique in Why SAP developers can't have nice things and listen to the podcast I recorded with Matthias Steiner and Jelena Perfiljeva on this topic in October. 

SAP has addressed some of the issues today but the longer term is more interesting. From the News Guide:

SAP plans to launch a free tier model in 2021 designed to allow customers, partners, and individual developers to try, learn, develop, and implement integration and extension scenarios on SAP Cloud Platform in one technical account. The goal is to eliminate the need to rebuild content to transfer projects to production. 

In briefings, SAP would not be drawn on exact release dates because it's not fully baked and there are plenty of internal compliance hurdles to overcome. However, my personal view is this should be counted as an important step forward for a community that has been rightfully vocal in its frustration at SAP's glacial pace in both acknowledging and acting upon the problem. In the interim, the 90-day limitation has been extended to 365 days as previously announced which gives SAP ample opportunity to get this important work completed. 

Ten other goodies

The News Guide contains plenty of other fodder for those interested in SAP technology. Briefly, and in addition to what I have already discussed above, these comprise:

  1. Integrating More Data Sources With Data Flow Builder
  2. Extending SAP HANA Cloud with On-Premise Software as a Hybrid Data Solution
  3. Integration of SAP Analytics Cloud and SAP S/4HANA
  4. General Availability of Enhancements to
  5. SAP Cloud Platform Integration Suite
  6. General Availability of First Objects in SAP One Domain Model
  7. SAP Business Technology Platform: Expansion of Process Automation Capabilities
  8. General Availability of Developer Productivity Tools Within SAP Cloud Platform Extension Suite
  9. General Availability of Event-Driven Architecture with Enterprise Messaging
  10. Exclusive, Free Access to SAP Learning Hub for SAP TechEd Attendees

Of these, the learning hub generated the most chatter in my timeline with correspondents happy to see SAP remove a cost barrier with which many struggle. The question now comes, what happens in 2021 to the virtual learning hub SAP created for SAP TechEd 2020, where I assume that there will be some sort of in-person event? There will be plenty of debate on that topic in the coming months. 

My take

Much of my critique is outlined above but the one area where I felt SAP dropped the ball was in the media and analyst Q&A. As with the keynote and immediately after the keynote show, this was an open Q&A session. That's good news. However, several elements fell well short of what we expect from this type of event.

Restricting the Q&A to 30 minutes was a terrible idea. Similar in-person event sessions run an hour. Having attendees type in questions that are then voted on was also a poor idea. It's too easy to game those mechanisms. Before we got to questions, 10 minutes were lost in a re-run of what we'd already heard in the keynote. In essence, we were left with 20 minutes. While I accept that some people might not bother and only go on what they see in press releases, that was not the case here. I also accept that when you run a Q&A by submitting written questions in real-time then you inevitably end up with more than can be answered. I counted 18 questions that remained unanswered. That's a lot.

For example, timelines were not meaningfully addressed. That's important because customers need to prepare for new technology. Numerous nuanced questions around multi-tenancy were wholly overlooked. A top of mind question regarding the acknowledgment of heterogeneous landscapes was missed. 

It is conceivable that the next keynote or detailed sessions will address some of these topics and to be fair, in recent times, SAP has pivoted away from what it wanted to discuss onto topics that analysts and customers have consistently raised. And let's not forget that as a virtual event, we can't readily get the kinds of meetings we'd like in which to follow up on topics. That has to come later. 

Even so, SAP should be congratulated for putting on a professional event that packed a great deal into a small space. 


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