Should SAP open source HANA?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy June 17, 2015
On and off back channel discussions about open sourcing SAP HANA come back into view as IBM gets with the open source theme.

There may well be a fair few raised eyebrows at SAP with this headline but there is a seriousness attached to it that is worth exploring. I am not the only one who has thought of this. A few years ago, when SAP Mentor/developers were getting a good amount of attention from SAP's technical folk, the licensing topic was never very far from people's minds.

At one point, the question of whether SAP should open source HANA was very much in the air but not considered seriously by the company. They thought HANA was far too valuable a property to toss into the open source arena. Regardless of where you stand on this topic it was hard to argue against the commercial considerations of the time, especially given the implied promise that HANA made.

SAP's open source chops

In the interim, SAP has quietly gotten alongside some of the larger open source communities, committed code into various groups and generally shown itself to be a good actor in the open source world. It didn't go un-noticed that SAP had a booth at the recent Hortonworks Hadoop event. It partners with Cloudera - again Hadoop, has a role with Cloud Foundry and a long term relationship with Eclipse. Then there is Open UI5. So you can readily make the argument that SAP has got a fair degree of open source credibility. So why bring this topic up at all?

As I've spent more time in the commercial open source world, it has become clear to me that the majority of business application development is going to happen out of open source components. SAP recognizes that already to a limited degree.

Bring on the hardware

That same thinking is creeping into the hardware space. Check the weekend piece about Facebook pushing its OCP into open source. While Business Insider is all over this as if the world is going to come to an end for the likes of Cisco, this is not as apocalyptic as it might sound. Having said that, I'm thinking about how the server market is shrinking, how prices are under pressure, how commodity hardware is really the only way you can get to web scale at reasonable cost. On the other hand, I'm also thinking about how another Facebook invention, Cassandra, has become a focus for software development. Facebook saves many millions of dollars by working on open source projects of this kind.

IBM is in

Then there was the weekend announcement that IBM is plunging deeper into open source with a commitment to Spark, yet another of the Hadoop related projects. In this case, Spark really is more of a science project than product per se but then it has one of the largest, if not the largest communities inside the Apache network Something must be driving of interest. Here's your starter for 10:

[IBM]...will embed Spark into its analytics and commerce platforms, and to offer Spark as a service on its Bluemix development platform. IBM also is expected to announce that it will assign more than 3,500 engineers and developers to work on Spark-related projects around the world, and that it will donate its IBM SystemML machine learning technology to the Spark open-source ecosystem. It also is expected to launch a Spark technology center in San Francisco and help educate data scientists and engineers in the use of Spark on a mass basis.

Given IBM's reach, the commercial considerations are obvious: IBM + new hotness (Spark) = bums on consulting seats and lots of code being written aka kerrching at the IBM cash desk. In short it allows IBM to ride open source coat tails while protecting and enriching its business model.

Yes yes well this is all very nice but where does this SAP HANA thing fit in?

So what about SAP HANA?

HANA is the database all SAP technology will eventually sit upon. That means, if you buy SAP then you buy HANA. If you already own SAP you eventually buy HANA. I think that's at best a sustaining proposition rather than a growing value proposition unless you are in a position to solve the kinds of problem for which HANA was originally designed. If anything it suggests that all SAP is really doing is seeking to grab maintenance revenue from Oracle, Microsoft and IBM to itself. Those other companies supply the databases upon which SAP technology has traditionally worked.

For its part, SAP could hardly be said to be coming into market with anything fundamentally new, unless you count S/4 HANA in that bucket. And I for one do not. Even so, others think that SAP's product portfolio is adding new solutions at a fair clip.

All of that means SAP is devoting resource to building database technology and sidecars but not doing that much of what it is best at: solving big hairy problems. At least not as far as I can tell.

Like every other software development organization, SAP has limited resources. If it was to drop HANA into the open source community, I am betting that it would see much wider adoption and become a focus for accelerated development from the point of view of fresh eyes.

That in turn would allow for the acceleration of use case development beyond ERP that itself would provide a rich seam of product SAP could take to itself but which doesn't exist today. It would also allow the ecosystem to flourish in ways that are not clear today given that SAP is pushing as much as it can onto cloud platforms.

Such speculation doesn't come without problems. There is history here with MaxDB that SAP at one time jointly developed with MySQL. But that kinda died on the vine. Then there is the question of whether HANA revenue - as in real license sales -  is a significant contributor to top line revenue. That used to be fairly clear but now is very difficult to determine. The common answer of 'HANA is everywhere' doesn't really address the question.

My take

  1. We consistently hear that customers take one look at HANA and baulk at its cost, largely because the business case is perceptually difficult to make. It's not just the license but the hardware specifications that hobble making standing up a HANA case. Open source solves a good part of that problem. Intel for instance has no trouble working with Hadoop in its chip designs. It has worked with SAP on HANA. How much further could that partnership extend if Intel thought there could be additional revenue from an expanded customer base? How fast would smart hardware designers review HANA specs and come up with something truly innovative like OCP and its spawned products?
  2. Loyal SAP developers who have been muttering about open source for years would likely find a new reason to continue nailing their colors to the SAP mast. Those folk are pretty vocal and world class advocates for a company they believe in. Why not use open source to further exploit that loyalty and get code into the bargain? Even if you think that open sourcing doesn't change any of the internal development dynamics, it has to be attractive.
  3. The biggest hurdle is the internal perception that HANA represents the company's crown jewels. I totally get why that would be the case but it isn't the only answer to many of the issues SAP customers face. And in any event, in going open source, SAP would not lose a penny in consulting or maintenance.
  4. Taking SAP HANA off the price list removes a pressure and distraction for sales. That has to be a net good because it means they can concentrate on the value add applications that SAP has always envisaged as the real prize for customers.

Disclosure: SAP is a premier partner at time of writing

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