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Choosing and Infusing SAP NetWeaver: What to do with overlapping technologies

by Joshua Greenbaum

August 11, 2009

Many SAP NetWeaver implementations will have to coexist with other platforms such as Microsoft's .NET or IBM WebSphere. Is this a bad thing?
 

For most SAP customers and prospects, SAP NetWeaver represents an opportunity wrapped inside a problem. The opportunity is clear: Build, deploy, and manage mySAP Business Suite, xApps, and the Enterprise Services Architecture (ESA) on which they're based. The problem is less clear: If your company is like most companies in the crosshairs of the SAP NetWeaver marketing push, you already have a lot of the tools and technologies that are similar to what SAP has bundled into SAP NetWeaver.

For your company, the question of choosing SAP NetWeaver comes with a question about what to do with your overlapping technologies. Choosing right is essential; choosing wrong is expensive and, for the decision maker, potentially career limiting as well. The problem of choosing what to do about overlap and redundancy becomes particularly thorny when a strategic focus on Microsoft's .NET or IBM's WebSphere is at stake.

The degree of overlap does play a role, but even in limited deployments, the problem is a difficult one. In some cases, the overlap may be in the form of a project or departmental deployment. In other cases, .NET or WebSphere may constitute a strategic platform with a substantial investment in time, energy, people, and, perhaps most importantly, political capital. Either way, the decision to deploy SAP NetWeaver begs the question of what to do about these erstwhile products, and for most companies, the answers are less simple than anyone would like them to be.

Complicating the picture is the complex relationship that SAP has with its two largest competitors, each of whom also legitimately vies for the honor of being SAP's largest partner. This has made it necessary for SAP to step gingerly into this strategic minefield, with the result that a lot of customers are struggling with conflicting messages from the partners and their sales reps, and they are still uncertain about how exactly to proceed.

Just to make sure everyone knows there's no easy answers, two other problems loom for decision makers. The first is the fact that SAP's promised integration with .NET and WebSphere are ongoing projects that will have an evolving result set over the next few years. Both sets of partners have committed serious resources to the issue, which means that the dotted lines you see from SAP NetWeaver to .NET and WebSphere will become more solid over time. How fast and how solid they become is a moving target, and that makes it hard for customers to commit one way or the other.

The other problem facing decision makers is internal politics, almost regardless of how fast and furiously SAP makes SAP NetWeaver play well with its partner/ competitors. This is the age-old problem of entrenched interests and die-hard preferences, and perhaps nothing entangles IT decision making more than the choice of a strategic technology platform. Most certainly, nothing threatens open warfare more than the prospect of making a strategic platform change.

While the decision of what to do about .NET and WebSphere in light of SAP NetWeaver may not constitute a life-and-death choice, it's a thorny one nonetheless for most IT shops - and one that begs a good answer that will be admittedly hard to give. Nonetheless, three options have begun to emerge that provide a reasonable basis for action, or inaction, as the case may be:

1. The first option is what I call the SAP sweep. An energy company I spoke with recently with a long history of SAP use decided to mandate SAP NetWeaver across the board and dismantle its .NET development projects. This was a part of a rationalization process that included major changes in the enterprise software stack as well.

The CIO's decision to give SAP the major role as a strategic partner was predicated on a long-standing partnership and a long-standing focus by SAP on his industry and its needs. For this CIO, the internal .NET project represented an interesting development that could be translated over to SAP NetWeaver and its tools with some loss in terms of time and effort but with significant gains in cost-effectiveness and standardization. It was a major bet on this individual's part, but one that was consistent with a long-term relationship that helped minimize his political exposure.

2. The second option is the active coexistence strategy. I have seen a number of companies with significant investments in both WebSphere and SAP NetWeaver decide to move forward simultaneously with both platforms. The strategy has pluses - it keeps both technology partners on edge and especially eager to please - and it has minuses, in that having to pick which technology (applications server, master data solution, integration layer) to use on what is often on a project-by-project basis.

My opinion is that this coexistence strategy makes more sense for WebSphere than .NET, insofar as the prevalence of WebSphere's applications server technology in large SAP enterprises is widespread. However, .NET and SAP NetWeaver can be effectively run in a coexistence strategy in some cases, with the attendant advantages and disadvantages. Either way, the ability to leverage ongoing expertise and investments in both technologies, coupled with the leverage of playing SAP and its partners against each other, can make for a more complicated but very successful strategy.

3. The last option is the wait-and-see strategy. For those without the political capital for the "sweep" or the stomach for active coexistence, wait-and-see is probably the best solution. The benefit to this nondecision is that time is on your side: SAP and its partners will make it easier for customers to work with all three environments, and by sitting tight you'll minimize the pain associated with pioneering and reap the benefits of implementing a more mature solution. The downside, of course, is that if a competitor can afford to dig in deeply with one of the other two strategies, you risk falling behind on a key technology that may provide a decisive competitive advantage, or disadvantage.

In the end, if you're using SAP products, the basics of SAP NetWeaver - ESA, the plug-and-play integration with the rest of the SAP stack, the development and deployment technologies - need to be part of your IT planning, regardless of whether SAP, IBM, or Microsoft is your strategic provider. Getting the right mix of SAP and non-SAP technology has always been a challenge - and the arrival of SAP NetWeaver only complicates the matter. But then again, who said IT decision making was supposed to be easy?

Joshua Greenbaum is a market research analyst and consultant specializing in the intersection of enterprise applications and e-business. Greenbaum has more than 15 years of experience in the industry as a computer programmer, systems analyst, author, and consultant. Before starting his own firm, Enterprise Applications Consulting (www.eaconsult.com), he was the founding director of the Packaged Software Strategies Service for Hurwitz Group.

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