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SAP reaches out with xApps

by Keith Rodgers
March 3rd, 2003

Just how easy is it to snap on SAP's 'snap-on' xApps? The product family is seen as a new departure for the enterprise software vendor.

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SAP says its new xApps provide 'snap-on' business process agility across multiple environments — but they require more behind-the-scenes investment than the hype suggests:
  • xApps automate business processes across and between applications
  • The first products in the family have begun to emerge
  • Implementation requires prior installation of various SAP components
  • SAP is closely supervising third-party xApp developers

Glossary terms: ERP, business process, customization, EAI, lookup tool

xApps are designed to support business processes that span multiple departments, linking separate software modules in functions such as finance, sales or HR. This new breed of application is being hailed by SAP's third party partners as a major step-change in the company's development history — as significant as the earlier shift from its mainframe-based R/2 enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite to its R/3 client-server successor.

Reflecting today's obsession with business agility and real-time responsiveness, the talk in the xApps arena is about improving existing processes and allowing companies to do new things — all at a lower cost and a faster pace. But amid the hype, customers shouldn't forget the practicalities of implementations. Yes, xApps deliver speed and flexibility — but they're not a silver bullet.

Designed to sit on top of multiple applications in mixed computing environments (or "snap onto" them in SAP parlance), xApps fundamentally provide two key benefits — cross-functionality and "composite" functionality. Because they run across multiple environments, they reduce the need for the costly integration and customization work that's typically required to tie disparate systems together in an end-to-end business process.

As well as pulling data together, each xApps application also contains its own software capability to enhance these automated workflows and processes. That takes xApps from a pure integration play, focused on extracting data, to an added value play that delivers meaningful business benefit. As Sami Muneer from the xApps market strategy team at SAP puts it, "getting information is useless unless you can act on it".

First example
The specific business processes that will be targeted in the first wave of xApps include product portfolio management, plant maintenance management and post-M&A integration. Muneer gives an example of how SAP's first application, xApp Resource and Program Management (xRPM), might work in a pharmaceutical company. Whenever there's a major problem with a development project, R&D teams typically need to draw information from a range of different systems to figure out project status, who's working on what, where additional skills can be accessed from within the organization and so forth. With data stored in anything from specialist project management applications to a finance system or an Excel spreadsheet, often the best way to amalgamate information is simply to sit in the same room with the various VPs and talk it through.

xRPM, however, sits on top of these different applications and collects the relevant data in one place for R&D to access and interpret. It then helps the organization act on that information, assigning people in realtime, updating skillsets and so forth — in other words, it's the engine for a new automated business process. And because the xApp is an application rather than merely a technology enabler, it has what Muneer calls "persistence" — the ideas associated with each activity are business objects that remain identifiable to the R&D team in the future.

Clearly, speed of rollout in this kind of environment is essential. In its ERP heyday, SAP was associated with enormous rollout timescales, where projects ran for months or years and the cost ratio of implementation services to license fee could be 5:1 or even higher. In the xApps environment, the emphasis is on rolling out in weeks — as Muneer says, if it takes too long, the value proposition simply disappears.

SAP backbone
That said, there is one important caveat for SAP shops. Although xApps operate across multiple IT environments, they're effective in part because of their power in leveraging the SAP backbone. In order to enjoy the claimed benefits of this tight integration, therefore, you need to have certain SAP components. What that means for users is that the total implementation timescale will be determined by what's already installed — if the xApp leverages particular supply chain functionality, for example, those supply chain components will need to be in place.

As William Grasham, SAP technology leader at Deloitte Consulting, points out, "the ability to extend functionality means that you're also linked to it. There may be another smaller SAP project that needs to be done to get the most out of the xApp." Or as another systems integrator remarks: "This is not the silver bullet that solves all your problems — it does have to have a sound base to 'snap onto'".

Grasham stresses, however, that any additional work would be limited — "you don't have to create a whole load of code" — and the implementation timescales will still be significantly shorter than the extensive customization that would otherwise be required. Moreover, he adds, xApps enable a whole host of new opportunities that extend the functionality of the ERP backbone. While the collaborative focus today is primarily on the internal corporate environment, "the vision is to go beyond the firewall" with applications that work with customers and suppliers.

Third party process
So far, it's early days in terms of development and real product is in short supply — in fact, at least one of SAP's key development partners has yet to finalize exactly what its first batch of applications will actually be. That said, xRPM was released in the fourth quarter of 2002, and one or two third-party products are already being used in anger. In January, SAP formally unveiled NetWeaver, the integration and application platform that supports its Enterprise Services Architecture blueprint, and it sees xApps as a key example of its ability to deliver against that plan.

SAP appears to be keeping a close involvement in the third party development process, which is no real surprise — the company has long protected its own tightly-knit code, and historically preferred to rebuild acquired functionality rather than integrate third party code. But the joint development effort means that user case studies will emerge quicker — there's already a reference site in the shape of Canadian energy company TransAlta, which has rolled out xApp Visual Information for Plants (xVIp), developed by independent software developer NRX. Ultimately, it will be these customer experiences that, over the coming year, will demonstrate the validity of xApps' promised benefits.

More on this topic


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