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What's Under the Hood of the New SAP NetWeaver BI?

by Nimish Mehta | SAPinsider

July 1, 2006

With the 2004s release of SAP NetWeaver, SAP BW is now known as SAP NetWeaver BI. Nimish Mehta, senior vice president of enterprise information management at SAP, explains how the latest version of the BI component further delivers on two key customer business drivers: more transparent enterprise data for faster decision making, and consolidated BI and reporting systems to lower costs and resolve security and compliance issues.
 

Q&A with SAP's Nimish Mehta

As of the 2004s release of SAP NetWeaver, SAP Business Information Warehouse (SAP BW) is now known as SAP NetWeaver Business Intelligence (SAP NetWeaver BI). In this interview, SAP's Nimish Mehta explains what differentiates the latest version of the BI component, and why customers who rest on their BW laurels may lag behind the competition.

Nimish Mehta
Senior Vice President,
Enterprise Information Management, SAP

Q. The number-one pain point we hear from our readers is reporting and analysis against their various transactional systems. How is SAP helping customers address this and other BI challenges?

Reporting against transactional systems is exactly the reason SAP BW was created in the first place. You don't have to look any further than the success of SAP BW — 11,000 installations with more than 6,000 customers running it live — to see its criticality to an SAP implementation. This has been one of SAP's fastest growing and most successful product lines, which continues to grow and expand with each release.

With the 2004s release of SAP NetWeaver, we renamed SAP BW as SAP NetWeaver BI, not only because Business Intelligence more accurately describes the component's role within the enterprise, but also because it is now an integral part of the SAP NetWeaver platform.

Listening to our customers, we learned of two primary drivers they want their BI system to address: The business side is telling us it wants more transparency of enterprise data for faster decision making; IT teams tell us they want to consolidate their BI and reporting systems to lower costs and resolve any security and compliance issues. We have taken these two business drivers to heart and made them tenets of SAP NetWeaver 2004s, which started shipping at the end of 2005 and will be generally available in summer 2006.

Q. Let's start with the improvements aimed at business users. Is SAP still committed to BEx Analyzer, or are you going in another direction?

From a UI standpoint, we've greatly improved the user experience of BEx functionality, which enables the use of Microsoft Excel as the front end of BI, among other capabilities. It's no secret that Excel is the tool of choice for most financial planners. By making BEx work like native Excel, customers will reduce their training and ramp-up costs.

With SAP NetWeaver BI's BEx Analyzer Excel add-in, business users can access enterprise-wide business data in Microsoft Excel and perform calculations using Excel's native formulas. Users can drag and drop filter values, reconfigure each cell, or apply pivot tables to support a complete restructuring of data. They can add Excel graphical elements or apply the traditional financial formatting required for a financial budget plan or modeling spreadsheet. Business users can even merge SAP data into their own Excel-based business models and then use that combined data to produce reports based on existing forecasts, financial metrics, or KPIs from their own model. More importantly, when the data in SAP changes, users only have to refresh the Excel spreadsheet to see the updates.

Excel hence remains a key client for SAP NetWeaver BI, and the interface has been enhanced significantly. Having said this, SAP has also been investing strongly in zero footprint clients, which do not take up any space on the client PC. You can see this in our latest offerings with BEx Web, formatted reporting, and a rich Web-based user experience through Adobe Flex technology. SAP xApp Analytics composite applications, for example, are built using SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer and deployed in SAP NetWeaver Portal — entirely with such a zero footprint client.

We've also introduced the SAP NetWeaver BI Accelerator. It's a package of dedicated perfomance-boosting functionality that provides almost instant response times from any data stored in the system, whether the query is preprogrammed or not. In the past, business users were constrained to using preprogrammed queries (aggregates) that had been developed by business analysts in IT. The alternative, reports generated using free-form queries, usually resulted in poor response.

Our customers were telling us that if you have to prepare every query in advance, that is not business flexibility. Now, thanks to some innovative indexing technology invented in SAP Labs, business users can drill down any way they want without having a performance penalty. This meets the requirement for transparency and faster decision making, especially if you no longer need to wait for IT to run a report.

Q. What about your IT-focused customers? How are you delivering on their need to consolidate systems?

Our IT-focused customers want to consolidate systems, mainly to reduce TCO and meet requirements for security and compliance. In order to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley and other standards, for example, you need to unify your data or else you will have gaps. Our customers can now run all data through SAP NetWeaver BI and generate reports in a holistic way.

We've made SAP NetWeaver BI more scalable, more user-friendly, and more flexible so that our customers will not require additional investments in hardware or headcount — in fact, they will be able to reduce system and staffing costs with this newest iteration of Business Intelligence.

Equally important is that SAP's focus is on making all of its components complementary to an enterprise SOA (service-oriented architecture). This means that everything, including SAP NetWeaver BI, is service-enabled so that components can be called in myriad ways by invoking a Web services interface. The result? Significant accessibility and flexibility, as well as enhanced scalability and performance.

Think of an order-to-cash application that is being streamlined as a result of the acquisition of a key supplier. Using an SOA-based approach, it is now fairly straightforward not only to swap out an external supplier for an internal one, but also to simplify that process further by removing viability checks that are no longer required, for example.

Top Six New Features of SAP NetWeaver BI
Feature Benefits
1. Formatted reporting — Business users can create functional and attractive standard reports in PDF and other formats Ability to send detailed, personalized reports to internal and external customers; imagine a pick list sent to an inventory manager or an invoice with a corporate logo sent to a key account
2. Enhanced ad hoc analysis — Broad range of functionality to create and analyze ad hoc queries with SAP NetWeaver BI Very easy to use and provides high interactivity and increased user activity
3. Enhanced Excel integration — BI application-building is supported in Excel Excel formulas and formatting options can be fully leveraged for BEx
4. BI Accelerator — Performance-boosting capability, delivering quantum leaps in terms of performance and scalability Increased end-user satisfaction, with very fast and consistent query response times
5. Integrated planning — A fully integrated BI and planning solution and support for model-driven application building End users do not have to be trained on new tools to build planning layouts and queries
6. New transformation concept — System architects can use graphical capabilities — just drawing an arrow from the source to the target field, for example — to generate a transformation Provides additional flexibility for data modeling, improved usability, and simplification

Q. What advice are you offering customers who are not currently using SAP NetWeaver BI? What can they expect if they commit to an upgrade?

SAP NetWeaver today integrates seamlessly with any data source within and beyond the user interface. In the past, SAP BW had been known for its strong integration with SAP applications but was considered to be "for SAP data only." With the latest releases of SAP NetWeaver, it has become a truly open solution for any type of data. For example, one of our customers who just went through a merger decided to first integrate disparate systems with SAP NetWeaver BI, even before integrating the different systems onto one central ERP system. The consolidation was met with great success.

Q. Is SAP NetWeaver 2004s, then, the definitive version for BI? What does the future hold for SAP NetWeaver BI?

SAP NetWeaver BI will continue to evolve, although most of the changes over the next few years will be add-ons, not overhauls or massive upgrades. Doug Merritt has already told you about how we are combining analytics with action, embedding analytics into SAP transactional systems, and thereby linking corporate strategy with business decision making.1

Ease of access to analytic information is vital, and we see our partnership with Microsoft through Duet software, the official name of the software product formerly known as Project Mendocino, as pivotal here. With Duet, we will embed a host of our analytics and transactional capabilities into Microsoft applications such as Outlook. Imagine that you receive an Outlook email containing an approval request and you are able to approve it within that same email message instead of switching to a portal. Not only that, but in that message you will receive the analytic information needed to help make your business decision.

In the coming years, IT shops supporting SAP are going to be able to prototype applications faster, assemble applications faster, and merge or consolidate core existing applications faster. SAP NetWeaver BI will get more and more granular, enabling customers to build analytics and transactional capabilities at high speeds.

The real future, though, is in intelligent processes. Imagine how existing business processes would benefit if users could access an associated analytic score. For example, imagine a call center where agents receive guidance from the system based on customer demographics, loyalty score, and shopping behavior, all as they talk to customers in real time. Or consider a financial services company where an agent is talking with a customer about a mortgage. The customer offhandedly asks about the annual fee of a credit card they have with the company; when customers ask such a question, they are considering a switch. So imagine a BI system that evaluates the customer's loyalty, and if it finds it favorable, recommends that the agent offer a card with no annual fee. That's not science fiction; furthermore, it's not that far away.


1 See Doug Merritt's executive interview "Test Your Analytics Aptitude" in this issue of SAP Insider (www.SAPinsider.com).

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