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
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
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.
|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
leveraged for BEx
|4. BI Accelerator — Performance-boosting
capability, delivering quantum leaps in terms
of performance and scalability
||Increased end-user satisfaction, with very
consistent query response times
|5. Integrated planning — A fully integrated
BI and planning solution and support for model-driven
||End users do not have to be trained on new
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
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.