Changing customer views on HANA at Controlling 2013

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 25, 2013
While the in-memory database wars flared, a gathering of SAP customers weighed in on their HANA views from Controlling 2013 San Diego.

While the in-memory database wars flared, a gathering of SAP customers weighed in on their HANA views from Controlling 2013 San Diego. This is the conference's second year - when it comes to HANA, the contrast between the two years was striking.

I got an earful on HANA both in formal presentations and in backchannel conversations with approximately 100 customer participants (125 attendees overall). Obviously 100 customers is not a huge sample size. It's also important to keep in mind that these are SAP controllers we are talking about.

SAP controllers - a numbers-driven tribe

Most attendees are senior-to-expert in configuring the SAP Controlling module, which spans areas such as Profitability Analysis and Product Costing. Think budgeting, forecasting, business planning/consolidation, and yes, lots of slicing and dicing in Microsoft Excel, and you have a feeling for where this group is coming from.

Since this is the only controlling-focused SAP show, participants covered many geographies. EMEA representation was notable, including representation from SAP's own controlling leadership in Walldorf and Newtown Square. Company size varied though this is a large enterprise (SAP ERP) dedicated conference.

It's also good to keep in mind that controlling reporting is often tied to closing periods. Thus the controllers' real-time reporting needs are not as pressing as you might hear from a group of sales managers. This doesn't mean controllers can't benefit from real time data, but if you made a list of in-memory benefits for controllers, real time reporting isn't likely to be at the top.

On the other hand, once you start talking about being able to dispense with clumsy aggregates and drill down into line item level data to analyze profitability on a customer-by-customer basis, you have their complete attention.

During his presentation on Net Margin Analysis, Julien Delvat of Alta Via Consulting noted that the biggest returns on analytics come when analyzing revenue and cost data (Delvat sent along a PDF link to a Nucleus Research report on return on analytics). This is right in the controllers' wheelhouse. That means SAP controllers have a continuing interest on the best analytics tools and approaches, whether it's SAP BI or a specialized third party solution.

Affordable ways to get a better reporting result carry the most weight - though some SAP controllers are involved in complex global projects - often driven by mergers/acquisitions or process standardization - that are the exact opposite of instant gratification. Most SAP controllers support financial users who also have reporting needs but are not as sophisticated in their knowledge of SAP tools and analytics.

SAP controllers on HANA - in a nutshell

Here's a high level view of what I learned over three days at the show:

  • HANA awareness amongst the SAP customer base is high, though some customers still have not heard of HANA (the work of marketing is never done)
  • Most customers who know about HANA understand it as an in-memory database, not as a platform for building 'next generation applications.'
  • HANA's ability to work with big data or pull in external data sources such as sensor data is just beginning to take hold in customers' minds.
  • Customers understand the BW on HANA use case best. Some have experience developing proof of concepts, including custom HANA projects. All are curious about ERP on HANA but have plenty of questions on benefits and cost.
  • Customers may not be moving forward with HANA but most are moving into evaluation mode in terms of future roadmap and capabilities. Some of these evaluations are still informal tire kicking.
  • There is more interest in technical performance than I expected from this group, though interest in pure performance varies (companies with lighter planning data and less reporting data are less interested in speed increases for their own sake).
  • Customers live on HANA attract plenty of questions and interest from their peers (results/lessons learned/building a use case). There were at least two such customers present here.
  • In some companies, CIOs turn to controllers to assess HANA from a business case perspective. Unless there are critical reporting performance issues, the business case is not proving simple to build, and requires some real effort to move beyond 'speeds and feeds'.

The backdrop of the aforementioned database wars made me wonder if the SAP customers present were paying attention to Oracle's in-memory announcements and SAP's reactions. I found no interest in this kind of vendor blow-by-blow, leading me to tweet: 'SAP customers here not paying any attention to "in-memory database wars" in media. Focused on their biz problems.'

I got a reasonable response from Solution Architect @shankar1242:


I think that's a fair point. The more in-memory database competition, the better for customer pricing. That doesn't mean that customers want the blow-by-blow of the keynote barb soap opera, regardless of the wishful thinking of some marketeers. During a lunch conversation, I heard plenty of agreement with my contention that in-memory speeds will become a commodity sooner rather than later. The differentiators will be great apps, savvy industry partners/advisors, easy 'build your own' tools and cloud/mobile deployments, and all the other ingredients of a healthy apps ecosystem, complete with a thriving apps marketplace.

Advanced use cases are emerging

So where does that leave SAP controllers and HANA? Today it starts with the CO-PA Accelerator, or BW on HANA - reporting and analytics use cases. The obvious approaches, with improved reporting performance, have limited appeal given the license/hardware costs. Big shops and those with reporting bottlenecks, yes - but beyond those in major performance pain, we're heading into nice-to-have territory rather than business urgency.

But there are more advanced use cases that resonate. One customer told me about a global rollout that started with improved COPA reporting speeds but then moved into planning, which may sound mundane but is anything but. The planning piece, now live, had good numbers: 12-14 times improved system performance times, but more importantly, a reduction of 30-40 percent in the overall planning process.

The bulk of the planning still happens in Excel, but the intention was never to eliminate the beloved spreadsheets - the goal was to reduce keystrokes and improve the user experience via an Analysis for Office front end. In addition to the hard numbers, the user experience surveys indicated not only improved satisfaction, but increased adoption of the system.

Once speeds start impacting user adoption of strategic functions like business planning, the 'but HANA is faster' argument gets more persuasive. But this gain is thanks to careful evaluation of an existing process flow, an out-of-the-box front end and less custom work - plus co-innovation with SAP.

More results from this use case: one region finally abandoned their massive offline spreadsheet 'legacy' in favor of this improved online environment. For global companies with tightly managed planning processes, these are good outcomes. But, this kind of HANA story is still on the cutting edge of where most of the customers at this conference were at.

Another popular session was Delvat's Net Margin Analysis overview. Alta Via advised SAP on the development of this SAP-created RDS solution that is powered by SAP HANA. For those customers who are already on HANA and the CO-PA Accelerator, this is the kind of value-add app that wins handshakes and smiles?

Why? Because it provides a user-friendly way of slicing and dicing the numbers that really count. Figuring out why certain customers are profitable and others are not is a heck of a lot easier with line item access. Generally-available solutions, developed with field experts, are what grabbed the most HANA attention here. The first slide in Delvat's presentation was revealing for its lack of tech talk:

reprinted with express permission of Julien Delvat and Controlling 2013

Framing solutions in terms of a pressing business problem is the win here. As these types of solutions are more readily deployed on the cloud, the price points will be that much more appealing. There wasn't much discussion of that here, but I would expect much more talk of HANA cloud options at next year's show.

Final thoughts

For those inside SAP whose mandate is to scale HANA quickly for revenue reasons, the modest amount of live customers and thorny business case questions at events like this has to be concerning. But from a customer viewpoint, I saw a significant change in views on HANA from last year's show. In 2012, the only customer that could speak to HANA was a customer involved in a proof of concept that was murky and confidential.

This year, we heard from live customers with tangible benefits. SAP's own employees who attended did an exceptional job of addressing HANA questions in language controllers could understand - without the sales pitch. Though not every aspect of HANA's potential was well understood - even the predictive capabilities were under-explored here - this was the first time I picked up on a consensus that the eventual move to ERP on HANA was inevitable.

As to the OLTP and OLAP convergence, that was another lunchtime debate without a simple answer. But the conversations reminded me that customers are going through their own business upheavals. Some of the work is mundane (e.g. combining SAP instances post-acquisition) but the Controlling 2013 attendees seemed to grasp that they were not going to get through the next five years heads down in spreadsheets. Agility doesn't just apply to SAP.

I had a customer ask me about HANA architecture, including external sensor feed data from their wind turbines. That's the kind of talk that makes the SAP big data evangelists smile. I emceed a pre-conference panel on real-time analytics and was hoping to dig into these issues. Instead,  most of the attendees wanted to grill the SAP panelists about the nitty gritty of HANA performance. SAP has to be happy that customers are broaching the big data issue in SAP product terms.

Finally, I continue to see an urgent need for more HANA startups and more awareness of existing third party HANA solutions. During the final day, I talked with a BW on HANA customer in the utilities industry that felt they had not derived much value from HANA yet (they didn't have big performance issues in BW when they purchased HANA).

When I showed him the videos Den and I did with Basis Technologies (a HANA startup program member with utilities expertise with a utilities-focused solution), the customer was not only interested, his mind was opened to what HANA might be capable of in a way that he wasn't before.

Partner-built HANA apps tailored to industries are an indispensable ingredient. SAP realizes this, but there are always questions about where development resources are best applied. I would advocate that significant resources should be invested in the HANA Cloud Platform and startups building on that platform. Now that would lead to some fascinating discussions at next year's show.

Photo credit: Julien Delvat, Controlling 2013 attendees talking shop

Disclosure: Erp Corp, which funds the Controlling conferences, has been a client for 2.5 years. Erp Corp paid for the bulk of my travel expenses to Controlling 2013 but this blog post was not sponsored by Erp Corp or anyone else. SAP is a premier partner of diginomica as of this writing.

A grey colored placeholder image