With a complex organizational structure — 11 different companies spread across four divisions — SHS Group Ltd, a privately owned SME headquartered in Belfast, Ireland, was experiencing issues with growing data volumes across its portfolio. And with an active acquisition program, these volumes only continue to grow. “It’s no secret that our group board members are continually and actively seeking the acquisition of new companies,” says John McLarnon, Head of Information Systems and Technology at SHS Group Ltd. “The last few years have seen SHS Group acquire two new companies, and it is widely acknowledged that the business will continue to pursue further acquisitions.”
In addition to acquiring brands, SHS Group contracts with more than 30 brand owners to market and sell their products for them, which also adds to the data growth. “Our business model focuses on planning and promoting, capturing orders, delivering the goods, and settling invoices with the customer and brand owner,” says McLarnon. “Every time we bring on a new brand — for instance, a recent new brand brought in excess of 200 different stock keeping units (SKUs) — we trigger a whole new order cycle for those SKUs, new prices, and new customers that procure those through our sales. And that can considerably lift our data volumes right across sales, promotion, invoicing, reporting, and so on.”
While accumulating data is a good thing, as it means increased business, managing all that data and reporting on it to make smart and timely business decisions can become a challenge.
Dealing with the Data Growth
An SAP customer since 2006 — more than half of the SHS Group companies are fully on a single SAP instance, with the others likely to follow over the next few years, according to McLarnon — SHS Group’s previous reporting infrastructure involved SAP Business Warehouse (SAP BW) 7.41 and a range of SAP Business Explorer (SAP BEx) query reports presented to users via SAP Enterprise Portal 7.4. As the data volumes increased, issues began to arise with this infrastructure, such as long-running report times and long data-loading times.
“As primarily a sales and marketing company, our salespeople are reliant on accurate and timely data as they discuss promotional campaigns, the effectiveness of these activities, and the status of recent sales.”
— John McLarnon, Head of Information Systems and Technology, SHS Group Ltd
“As primarily a sales and marketing company, our salespeople — who are out on the road liaising with the customer base and the brand owner base — are reliant on accurate and timely data as they discuss promotional campaigns, the effectiveness of these activities, and the status of recent sales,” says McLarnon. “There is certainly a big drive within our business to get salespeople out on the road more frequently during the working week. Historically, they continually had to return to the office to run reports that were very time-consuming. We had to run multiple sessions with different variants to get different views of the data, and the result was quite long-running and low-performing reports. Because of this ongoing struggle, pressure was mounting within the organization that we absolutely had to address this area. We also wanted to eliminate the repetition that would occur when high-volume reports would crash or take a huge amount of time to run, and we knew we were pulling data from too many sources, which would put considerable stress on the system.”
To address these challenges, SHS Group decided to implement SAP BW powered by SAP HANA — and established itself as a trailblazer, being the first company in Ireland to deploy the technology. By moving to an in-memory solution, the organization was aiming to not only fix the data and reporting issues, but also attract more brands and continue to grow and increase profits.
Building a Business Case
The interest in SAP HANA began when McLarnon and Nigel Lyons, Operations Manager for SHS Group, attended a user group where they saw demos of reports with multi-million rows of records that were displaying almost instantaneously. “We were aware that SAP HANA was evolving, but we didn’t fully appreciate the potential until we attended that user group. Seeing the ability to slice and dice and to rerun under different scenarios was extremely interesting,” says McLarnon. “We had a number of conversations with various suppliers and partners who were starting to get in on the act, and we tracked many customer use cases. We built up quite a wealth of knowledge, and ultimately came to the conclusion that, from an IT perspective, SAP HANA absolutely needed to become part of our strategic roadmap.”
The financial director at SHS Group challenged McLarnon and Lyons to build a business case for SAP BW powered by SAP HANA that he could present to the SHS Group board. Within four weeks, McLarnon and Lyons delivered and showed proposed savings that would come with improved reporting and query runtimes, reduced data-loading windows, and enhanced data availability. “We pulled together a solid business case that examined our need to increase graphical visualization, increase productivity, reduce our maintenance in terms of our Basis and business intelligence (BI) team, and reduce complexity within new reports. Equally, we were looking for a means to increase our mobile strategy and general usability and user empowerment,” says McLarnon. “We looked at some of our frequently run reports, how long it took to run them, and how many users ran them in a typical day, week, or month. We converted that to cost savings in terms of manpower, which we then translated to salary savings. And so we were able to forecast both tangible and intangible benefits.”
The search then began for a hardware vendor and a partner to help with the SAP HANA migration.
Together with the IBM Business Partner Centiq, SHS Group deployed the IBM Systems solution for SAP HANA, based on IBM System x3950 X5 workload-optimized servers. Not only was this hardware solution the best fit for the organization’s current and future needs, but Centiq and IBM also have a longtime partnership with SAP and the ability to deliver on a rapid installation of the pre-packaged IBM General Parallel File System (GPFS) solution, which allows for expanding a database without external disk storage and can scale to support up to 16 terabytes. (For more information about IBM’s involvement in the project and its solution offerings, refer to the sidebar at the end of the article.)
“Centiq absolutely knew the hardware, the sizing requirements based on our current volumes, the scalability, the size of the SAP HANA nodes, and where we might scale up in the future when our volumes grow sufficiently,” says McLarnon. Equally attractive to SHS Group was Centiq’s web-based monitoring system that would be hosted remotely in Great Britain but accessible from SHS Group premises. This system would constantly monitor the growth patterns, day-to-day dialogue, usage, and activity on SHS Group’s SAP HANA server and immediately identify and respond to any issues. For its migration partner, SHS Group chose AgilityWorks, which provided a complete delivery model that included full project management, project governance, and the skills to deliver the full end-to-end migration — including certified database migration, Basis, SAP BW, and SAP HANA resources.
SAP supported SHS Group during the project in making sure that the customer engagement program was triggered, thus ensuring that a governance model and migration checkpoints were in place throughout the 12-week migration. “From day one, the feedback was that SAP HANA was life-changing. We no longer need to run six different sessions with six different variants, knowing that half of those would complete and the others would fail. And the pressure on the systems department vanished,” says McLarnon. “The salespeople are out on the road more often because now they can run reports right away from remote connections, in near real-time, and glean the data there and then, with less administration effort required back in the office. That’s been a huge win.”
Report times have improved considerably, with users now able to run their daily reports in seconds rather than minutes. The IT department has equally realized enormous benefits from SAP HANA, with data-load times reduced by more than 60% with zero disruption to the business, data availability guaranteed by 8am each day before users are even at their desks and ready to generate their critical daily activity reports (across all areas of sales, logistics, finance, supply chain, and so on), and the burden of performance resolution eliminated. “Where historically, one of our BI team members would have to spend at least half the day rectifying a load failure, now he or she can do it in minutes and get on with business as usual,” says McLarnon. “Despite being an SME company, some of our SAP BW Infocubes are in excess of 100 million records — to reload that in the past could take from mid-afternoon Friday to mid-afternoon Monday, which was a huge inconvenience to our reporting users. Now, if we need to change a cube structure, we simply plan a two-hour window on a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon, and it’s done there and then. And the users are oblivious to any reloads having taken place.”
On the hardware side, performance enhancements have been realized through improved scalability and increased memory and I/O capacity. Application availability is guaranteed as well as reliability, security, and data integrity. Data compression has reduced data volumes by four times, freeing storage space, saving on costs, and increasing IT productivity. “Our Basis team does not have to set aside additional volume and space to allow this to happen, which they would have had to do in the past,” McLarnon says. “So there’s the FTE savings from a Basis perspective as well as from a BI team member perspective, which is a big benefit.”
Given the success of the SAP BW on SAP HANA project, and the positive feedback from directors across the SHS Group companies that sit on the single SAP instance, SAP HANA could be powering other applications (such as SAP ERP) for SHS Group in the near future. “We will absolutely start to think about and cost out other areas where we might be able to extend SAP HANA,” says McLarnon. “For example, if our finance teams could start running their financial reports all within SAP ERP, instead of having to extract the data on a daily basis and move it to SAP BW powered by SAP HANA, that would bring significant savings.”
SHS Group will be looking at evolving its senior management reporting capabilities also. “We will capitalize on SAP HANA as much as we can by using the platform with SAP BusinessObjects BI solutions, so that we can start building dashboards that will be timely, high-performing, and deliver users the information they need,” McLarnon says. “This all needs to be built into an overall strategy, and once we get the buy-in from the Board of Directors, we can start looking at how we can facilitate our salespeople on the road to use their mobile devices as full working desktops. That’s an area that is of extreme interest to us that we’re tracking closely — bringing together our investment in SAP HANA, dashboards, and mobile devices — as we determine if there are any applications that we could build to address the challenges that users face and make their lives easier.”