SAP listens, then adds WAN optimization to its applications approach

Tim Scannell, Site Editor

SAP isn't in the WAN optimization business per se, although the technology and tools are playing a larger role in its

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enterprise productivity strategies. Users of the company's CRM, ERP and other applications are more mobile and remote than ever and are demanding faster access, better performance and higher reliability from centralized and software as a service (SaaS) offerings. If a client couldn't access SAP software quickly and affordably, then the company's bottom line was at risk—especially as more users took to the cloud for mission-critical applications and data.

Why did SAP decide to move into the area of applications acceleration and WAN optimization?

Jana Richter: We saw an immediate need for improving WAN access for Web-based offerings. We presently have two or three types of customers we are targeting.

First, we have a lot of customers who are seeing an increasing amount of traffic and are at the point where they need to buy more bandwidth—which can be quite costly in certain regions. 

Or they have to set up local servers for certain tasks, just because the applications are not performing well over long distances.

A second type is the customer who wants to increase user productivity by providing more usable tools—typically Web-based tools—so that users can work a lot more efficiently with their applications and improve the productivity and overall output of the company. It is also cucial that you have a good response rate to those applications so that you do not have people idly sitting in front of their PCs for long periods. In this case, consider the productivity of those users and not just the immediate savings from a technology point of view.

Third, we have those who hesitate to do any kind of new IT project at the moment. There is no real way to convince them to do this if it is not in their interest and does not meet their internal guidelines. 

Implementation of the product itself is not difficult. What really takes an effort is fitting everything together, from an applications, network infrastructure and security perspective.

Jana Richter
Product manager, NetWeaver Solutions Management DivisionSAP AG

Do you think SAP has an edge in that respect, since your software typically extends across the network and supply chain and your approach is more applications-centric?

Richter: What SAP is doing more of these days is giving recommendations to customers about how to cut their network and applications infrastructure. We often tell customers how a certain type of network landscape or architecture can better suit them. From a cost point of view, and a technology point of view, we usually say it makes sense to set up centralized applications.

From our standpoint, of course, it is really necessary to enable those customers to work with those applications. So we address customers that see performance challenges when using, for example, an application that is located somewhere in Australia when they are located in Europe. 

Are technology approaches like cloud computing and virtualization affecting the way you deal with customers now and will in the future?

Richter: Yes. The more we go into these areas, where the applications are further from the users, the more the issue of accessing and using the applications in an optimally performing manner comes up. Our goal is to handle this challenge and show how to cope with it. 

What are your views on the balance many companies are trying to strike between centralizing applications and resources and, at the same time, delegating more network autonomy and power to distributed branches?

Richter: From my perspective, there will always be two streams of technology. Most companies cannot really decide on one stream, whether to be fully decentralized or fully centralized. 

 Depending on the boundaries, it may make sense for individual divisions to get their own applications locally—for example, if that division is very independent from the central location and has its own data and applications.

On the other hand, there are applications that do make more sense when they are centrally managed, like customer relationship management (CRM) systems. This might make sense, because all customers belong to the whole company and you would like to do some up-selling here and there.

Of course, the more you decentralize and the more applications and technology you provide locally, the more this increases the cost of the overall IT infrastructure. 

So it would seem to be more beneficial and cost-effective in the long term to take a centralized approach?

Richter: I think for most customers and in most cases a centralized approach makes more sense, in order to maintain costs at the lower level and simplify things at the administrative level. It also makes sense from an SAP applications' perspective because there is some logic involved if you have synchronization here and there and you risk losing some communications. I usually recommend that customers set up central systems if they do not have a really good reason to set them up separately and with very small overlaps. 

Does virtualization add another level of complexity, or does it increase the security concerns when you are dealing with multiple sites, as opposed to a centralized architecture?

Richter: Not really. From my perspective, the virtualization question is usually independent of the decision to centralize or decentralize. It's really a question of whether one of these remote sites decided to use virtualized hardware or decided to use a dedicated device or dedicated hardware. 

How challenging is it from a user perspective to focus WAN optimization activities or resources on the applications themselves, which can be quite varied?

Richter: It can be pretty challenging. We always tell customers that implementation of the product itself is not difficult. What really takes an effort is fitting everything together, from an applications, network, infrastructure and security perspective and with users who have particular pain points. The goal is to build a prioritized list of applications. When you have a performance issue and are working on a global basis, you should always involve people from the applications, network and security groups to find the most appropriate setup and integration of the acceleration tools into the landscape.

In big corporations, IT departments can be very strong and very independent of one another. Working together is a great benefit if you look at the outcome. But it isn't something that always works smoothly. 

So, in a centralized environment, minimizing the delays associated with retrieving and transferring information and applications – especially among different departments and divisions – would seem to be a top priority in terms of an overall goal.

Richter: Right. And you can add a special SAP applications perspective. In many cases, SAP provides within Accelerated Application Delivery more than just generic acceleration and caching because, in the end, the user doesn't care whether the application is located in a neighbor's office or another part of the globe. He just wants to work with the application in the most effective manner, and of course SAP knows its own solution and applications and how to tune them best. 

Does this application-specific approach to WAN optimization, with an obvious emphasis on an SAP environment, give your company and edge when it comes to network acceleration and such?

Richter: Of course, we do have a competitive edge here by addressing WAN performance topics with application-aware optimization technology. However, we do not see our offering as a full-fledged network acceleration solution, and thus it is not in competition with any established vendor in the market. We really see ourselves as complementary because we look at the applications and place SAP acceleration technology on top. Some customers might run both technologies in parallel—running on a generic infrastructure for certain tasks and on the SAP acceleration environment for SAP and Web-based applications. 

Our long-term vision is that these products are not going to be very separate but, for most customers, will be smoothly integrated. There are some challenges, however, in really addressing those points and establishing a model. 

Our customers are telling us about their applications and their network landscape and then asking us for some best practices on structure and optimization.

Jana Richter
Product manager, NetWeaver Solutions Management DivisionSAP AG

Is SAP assuming the role of a professional services organization, especially if everything at a customer site is so centered on SAP and Web-based applications?

Richter: What we are planning to do over the long term is to look more and more at our own broad variety of applications, especially as we listen to our customer needs. Our customers are telling us about their applications and their network landscape and then asking us for some best practices on structure and optimization. We started with this process a while ago, providing a solution. But, of course, we are keeping an eye on all those different technology architectures and use cases and extending our own solutions for those SAP scenarios. 

Given SAP's background in software and Web-based applications, do you see the company's acceleration and optimization product strategies evolving into more of a managed services approach?

Richter: Providing managed services in this area is currently not within our offering and not planned in the next upcoming release either. Right now, our customers are asking us to provide the necessary applications, give recommendations on what to do with their network and applications landscape, and provide answers on certain issues that relate to SAP. For example, this covers global access and how to ensure that their applications are globally available.

We do have consulting teams in different geographic regions that work with customers and look at the infrastructure and the applications. They will also help with some local tuning of the applications, improve network access to these applications, and even recommend some upgrading of the network itself if necessary. 

Where are the majority of your customers located today?

Richter: Most of our customers are located in Europe, primarily because we started with our ramp-up with most focus in this area in July of last year. This period ended in December 2008, which was fast progress in terms of business. Projects are now emerging in Asian regions, and we assume our customer base will expand into the Americas quite soon as well. 

What will be coming out of SAP and this initiative over the next six to 12 months in terms of new strategies or technologies?

Richter: We are in a young product stage in terms of accelerated application delivery. We did learn a lot during our unrestricted shipments since last year, but we are still in the phase where we have pretty agile development cycles. Right now, we are planning for the next version of our solution and its ramp-up by the end of this year, and then we plan to have a new release every year. As soon as the product matures, there will be longer and flatter product cycles.

For now, though, we want to incorporate customer feedback, establish and track more SAP-focused scenarios and use cases, and develop more best-practices—which is why we now have that shortened development cycle. 

Still, SAP is pretty early into the whole applications acceleration game. Doesn't this present a huge challenge for the company, and your team in particular?

Richter: No. We have been involved in unrestricted shipments since the end of last year, so the product does have a kind of history. We have also been using it internally at SAP since 2006 and ran early pilot phases in 2007, which provided a lot of feedback that we incorporated into the offering. So we are in good shape and have received reasonable results so far.

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