By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. November 5, 2014
IT solutions seldom follow an entirely linear path, either technologically or commercially. Instead, they proceed in fits and spurts – overcoming points of resistance, adding key new features and innovations, adapting to marketplace dynamics and pursuing new opportunities when and where they emerge.
These points were on clear display at SAP’s recent TechEd 2014 conference, the company’s annual get together for technically-inclined customers, partners and IT professionals, where improvements to and presentations concerning SAP’s HANA technologies abounded. But what was particularly interesting about the gathering was a significant shift in how SAP is talking about HANA and explaining its capabilities and value to businesses.
Let’s take a closer look at that.
In-Memory in focus
For anyone who isn’t aware, HANA is a SAP solution based on an in-memory database architecture. From a hardware perspective, rather than holding database assets in a dedicated data warehouse where they can be accessed by various applications and analytics tools, SAP HANA compresses the information and stores it directly within the memory of a system or cluster. Why? Because doing so removes physical system “roadblocks,” like network latency and storage read/write limitations, from the equation, thus supercharging application performance by an order of magnitude or more.
In-memory concepts aren’t unique, and virtually all of SAPs direct competitors (along with some that aren’t so direct) are developing and delivering similar solutions. But from the beginning, SAP has used interesting efforts and strategies to help HANA capture market- and mind-share, including:
- The company made a major bet on HANA and in-memory technologies early-on. Arising from assets SAP acquired in 2005 and refined with additional R&D, the first commercial iterations of HANA were shipped in November 2010. In contrast, Oracle’s Exalytics in-memory solution was announced at OracleWorld 2011 but wasn’t commercially available until the following year.
- Unlike many other in-memory solutions, SAP HANA is not limited to running on a single vendor’s proprietary hardware/middleware/software stack. Instead, HANA is designed to run on industry standard Intel Xeon-based systems, and SAP licenses the software and validates solutions that system partners build based on the company’s guidelines. Cisco, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Hitachi, Huawei, Lenovo, NEC and Silicon Graphics are currently building HANA appliances and systems based on Intel Xeon processors. In addition, IBM is working with SAP to validate HANA for its Power Systems platform.
- Finally, SAP has a far more expansive view of in-memory use cases than do most other vendors. Though the technology can certainly support rapid and real-time analytics processes, SAP is adapting its entire portfolio of business applications to run on HANA, and is also using the platform to support cloud-based services.
These points are also notable in highlighting the way SAP leverages IT market dynamics. When HANA was launched in 2010, some critics derided the company for promoting a solution that, while remarkably powerful, was based on painfully expensive memory technologies. That may have been true to begin with, but entering the market early helped SAP establish a leadership position around in-memory technologies.
Similarly, SAP and its HANA customers have benefited from continuing price/performance improvements in memory, CPUs and other system components. HANA may be a premium platform for running day-to-day business applications today, but those same price/performance dynamics should pay off for the company over the long term. That point is also well-recognized by hardware vendor partners who see HANA’s value as an entry point to valuable analytics markets but also understand its longer term potential.
So what happened at TechEd that caught my eye? A couple of things. First, during a 1:1 meeting, Ken Tsai, VP and head of data management for SAP Product Marketing told me about significant new features related to HANA Service Pack 9 (SP9) that should all help to extend the potential use cases for SAP’s solutions. These included support for multi-tenancy (so specific workloads can be isolated to specific CPUs, cores and memory assets, a critical point for cloud services), dynamic tiering (separation of “hot” vs. “warm data, so customers can run HANA on smaller systems and still gain valuable insights), support for streaming data for real-time analytics and integration with Hadoop (so HANA can directly access information contained in those data stores).
Those capabilities are certainly important to SAP customers (and of great interest to the TechEd audience) but the company’s manner of speaking about HANA has also changed dramatically. Rather than presenting HANA largely in terms of highly technical “speeds and feeds,” SAP representatives, from the executives featured in conferences keynotes to experts running technical sessions, discussed HANA in terms of core business values that anyone can understand.
How so? By inviting key partners and customers onstage to discuss their experiences and successes. SAP certainly isn’t alone in this regard. At other industry events I’ve recently attended, IBM and EMC both followed a similar strategy. The fact is that customers and partners willingly evangelizing a vendor’s products and strategies makes for powerful, compelling commercial theater, especially for an audience facing similar circumstances and challenges in their day-to-day jobs.
As SAP’s chief marketing officer Jonathan Becher told me during a 1:1 meeting, placing business value ahead of speeds and feeds is nothing new for SAP. A decade ago, the company was primarily known as an ERP vendor, but its “value engineering” approach – the ability to accurately predict the ROI of specific customer solutions and implementations – allowed SAP to gain and maintain a market leadership position.
According to Becher, detailing HANA’s unique features and capabilities was important when the technology was new and largely unknown, but HANA’s commercial success means that SAP can shift gears and go back to its value engineering roots. In that case, enlisting customers and partners to share the good news makes perfect sense.
That is more within the comfort zone of the company’s traditional marketing strategy, but it also reflects another critical point: the growing influence of non-technical line-of-business (LOB) managers in IT purchasing decisions. In other words, shifting its rhetorical focus should allow SAP to effectively reach out to and engage increasingly important, non-traditional customer constituencies.
Good enough, but why would SAP decide to highlight business-friendly messaging, along with its related new “One Truth” and “Try, Buy and Run” HANA marketing mantras to the IT professionals and experts at TechEd? At least in part to provide them a glossary of terms and positive examples to use with their non-technical managers and co-workers. Practically speaking, it’s a bit like the language training religious organizations offer young missionaries. Give evangelists the tools they need and the words that matter, and all manner of positive results can flow forth.
This is not to suggest in any way that SAP’s efforts at TechEd 2014 were a simple exercise in marketing speak. Instead, the company’s messaging shift reflects substantial changes in both HANA and the customers, partners and markets it serves. Just as SAP pursued in-memory development well ahead of its peers, at TechEd 2014 the company demonstrated its intention to proactively educate customers and markets about HANA’s growth and evolution. As a result, I expect SAP HANA’s momentum as both a core business solution and a key technology will continue to accelerate.
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