Hybrid and embedded: how the future of SAP Analytics is blazing a trail for the Intelligent Enterprise

October 21, 2020 Posted by: Lars van der Goes

Hybrid. Embedded. Intelligence. If someone would ask me to describe the past few weeks of SAP’s Analytics webinars, these would be the first three words that come to mind. Although the pandemic might have disrupted our daily lives worldwide, SAP is not compromising on its vision for an intelligent organizational future.

During the entirety of the month September, SAP has hosted multiple webinars to share and illustrate their vision for the future of enterprise analytics. Even though the annual mega event that is the SAP TechEd has been postponed (and digitalised) to December for obvious reasons, customers and partners alike were able to get a pretty good idea of where the domain of Analytics is heading in the coming years. In short, SAP’s strategy for 2020 and beyond is built on the foundation of three pillars: Augmented Analytics, Analytics for the Enterprise and the Intelligent Enterprise. While these terms might be somewhat broad, their influence in the concrete developments that we will discuss in this blog will become clearly evident.

 

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A changing world

SAP has always approached organisations by analysing their core processes and tailoring its business solutions to optimally support them. Today, the experts from Walldorf seek to do so by offering their solutions in what they call the Business Technology Platform. This Platform enables customers to manage their processes with both experience and sustainability management in mind, and is divided into the fields of Data(base) Management, Application Development and Integration, Intelligent Technologies and finally, Analytics. What is instantly noticeable is the subject of data, that runs like an artery through the entire Platform. This is, of course, not without reason; SAP estimates that in 2025, the annual global datasphere (the amount of data created and shared across the timespan of a single year) will be 175 zettabytes.

Just to put that into perspective, we are talking 1021 bytes here, which is an absolutely humongous number. Another important observation is that global use of the Public Cloud as a data storage location has overtaken consumer-end storage mediums in 2020; indicating a rapid acceptance of and reliance on the technology. These developments are not expected to slow down any time soon and are among the reasons why SAP is continuing to follow its Cloud-first approach to the market. Despite these developments, far from all organisations are ready to move their entire digital landscape to the Cloud; legacy, customization, financial commitments and legislation are among the prime causes for ‘Cloud anxiety’ all across the world. Recognizing these challenges, SAP is positioning its Analytics portfolio in such a way to help these specific businesses dip their feet into the Cloud-domain.

 

Testing the waters: a hybrid approach

Here in the Netherlands, we have an annual event where people dive head-first into the icy sea on (or near) New Year’s Day; they jump into the new year, washing away their worries from the previous year and starting with a clean sheet. However, some people, like myself (I’d like to think the majority), want to make sure the water is not too cold, or even safe, before setting a single step. Now imagine that you are carrying with you a backpack containing all that you have learned, achieved and realized in the past years; this complicates the situation even more so. Are the contents going to be safe in the water? Will they still be useable after I come out the other side? Maybe the backpack is too heavy and I will drown? What do I actually need that is in there?

The takeaway here is that the above metaphor can be applied to organisations that are contemplating the move to the Cloud. For the past few years SAP customers have been struggling with questions and obstacles regarding the move of their business solutions, and both SAP and its partners have been taking these customers by the hand to help them achieve their Cloud goals. However, with the launch of the HANA Cloud Services in 2019, SAP is now offering customers the possibility to move not only their process-specific applications to the Cloud, but also their (entire) data infrastructure. The combination of SAP Analytics Cloud (SAC), Data Warehouse Cloud (DWC) and HANA Cloud makes it possible for customers to have an end-to-end data life cycle entirely setup in the Cloud. Of course, this is perhaps an even more delicate subject than moving solely business-oriented solutions to the Cloud; hence SAP has made it possible for customers to take baby steps towards this state of being. Enter, the Hybrid scenario.

The Hybrid scenario for moving data to the Cloud utilizes specific functions from SAP’s HANA Cloud Services to, on the one hand, maintain the security and central governance of organisational data, while on the other, leverage the capabilities of the respective Cloud solutions. Both Analytics Cloud and Data Warehouse Cloud are able to use live connections to virtually stream data from on-premise systems to the Cloud solutions. This means that no actual data is stored or even moved off-premise, but that the live connection functionality displays the business metadata (semantics) for the user to visualize. Streamed data from the source system can be enriched and edited in the Cloud solution without replicating any data (for more on the workings of this SAC functionality, please refer to one of my previous blogs). For example, DWC can communicate with S/4HANA (on-premise or Cloud edition) via several methods, including OData, ABAP Connectors, SAP’s Cloud Connector and, in the future, Cloud Data Integration. Moreover, both SAC’s and DWC’s integration with SAP’s BI suite is being expanded upon to further broaden the scope of the Hybrid scenario: DWC will soon be able to use the Model Transfer Connection to understand calculated queries from BW/4HANA, and SAC will be able to leverage WEBI data sources via Live Universe Connectivity 3.0. SAP will continue this course in the future, looking to close the gap between on-premise and Cloud and help customers gradually take steps to become a fully-fledged intelligent enterprise.

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Combining Analytics Cloud and BusinessObjects BI
 

Another practical example of SAP’s Hybrid approach can be found in the chemistry between BusinessObjects BI and Analytics Cloud. Where SAC is the Analytics Flagship, being a Cloud-only solution, BO BI has been the on-premise mainstay in SAP’s Analytics portfolio for over a decade. SAP states that customers who at this point only operate the latter, have much to gain by implementing the former as well. While the two products do have a functional overlap to some degree (see image below), SAC offers a plethora of functionalities in the planning, augmented analytics and application areas that BI simply does not have. The functionalities that BI does have when compared to SAC today (operational reporting and high-volume publications), are to be added to the analytics flagship in the future. The combination of SAC and BI would allow organisations to maximize the value of their data by leveraging it via new ways with SAC’s increasing feature palette. Of course, customers who do not want to move their on-premise data to the Cloud in order to reap these benefits, can utilize SAP BusinessObjects Live Data Connect (LDC) to keep their data safe without missing out. For further reference, SAP has shared one of its customer’s success stories concerning this subject.

It should be noted that while BO BI 4.3 will be supported until 2027 (and Lumira 2.4 until 2024) at the very least, SAP did state that ‘…big investments and innovations will go to SAC’. Reading between the lines; although functional support for the on-premise solution is not to be dropped for quite a while, customers would be wise to at least consider or even pilot SAC in the context for their current IT landscape. A much asked question among customers and partners alike, was why SAP is not simply copy-pasting functionalities from BI to SAC. The reason for this is that the two solutions have fundamentally different technical architectures, which is why SAP is working to enable similar use cases from BI in SAC. Even though the procedures towards the (business) goals might be different, the results should be similar and recognizable to users. A good example of this method of adoption can be found in the comparison between (end-of-life) BEx and the data explorer within Analytics Cloud.

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Analytics Cloud: Focus & Key investment areas

No strategy is complete without a course for the flagship. So it is that SAP has named four key investment areas for Analytics Cloud for the coming years: Augmented Analytics, End-to-end Analytics, Enterprise Readiness and the Intelligent Enterprise. Again, here we can see the footprints of SAP’s general strategic pillars mentioned in the first section of this blogpost.

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With Augmented Analytics, SAP is not only illustrating its focus on intelligent, automated and predictive features for SAC, but also a paradigm shift in terms of the target audience. Where traditional enterprise reporting targeted an almost IT-exclusive demographic, the trend of self-service analytics paved the way for the role of business analysts; business-oriented users who were able to independently visualize, prioritize and share relevant data. In today’s digital world, this development goes even further as SAP is now looking at the information worker as the prime SAC-user. This is reflected in SAP’s continued focus on the improvement of SAC’s Natural Language Processing capabilities as well as the extensions of the Smart-suite. Information workers expect to be able to do more with analytics solutions, and Analytics Cloud provides them with functionalities such as Smart Predict, Smart Discovery and Search to Insight. These functionalities provide users who are less at home in traditional BI-solutions or statistics with the means to leverage machine learning, predictive scenarios and advanced modelling features without the intervention of IT. While at a first glance this might be a development that would cause consultants like myself to take a step back, I applaud the way that SAP is stimulating and empowering business representatives to go hands-on with the data they need to run their processes. An additional win here is that the enablement of LoB users (through both SAC and DWC) has the capacity to counteract the formation of Shadow IT, which is often an extra layer of ‘IT-cholesterol’ in organisational landscapes. When compared to major competitors in the Analytics arena such as Microsoft Power BI or Tableau, these are areas where SAP is noticeably distinguishing itself.

End-to-end Analytics are all about SAC’s triumvirate of Business Intelligence, Planning and Predictive (last year, Application Design was positioned as a fourth key functionality). By combining these three concept and emphasizing the sequence of reporting, visualizing, predicting and planning, SAP is making clear where it wants to add value to organisational data through machine learning algorithms. Although no concrete developments were announced just yet, SAP has stated that the idea of forecasting and consecutive planning for both what could and what should happen is going to be at the core for this key investment area.

When we look at enterprise readiness, we come back to the aforementioned Hybrid-scenario. SAP seeks to stimulate a Hybrid-analytics vision by promoting the synergies between SAC and BusinessObjects BI, emphasizing the upcoming integration improvements with WEBI and proposing scenarios in which an IT landscape can be improved by combining the two solutions (for example via the Sulzer customer case).

Finally, perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest key investment area for SAC in 2021 will be the intelligent enterprise. With this investment area comes the term embeddedness, as SAP has explicitly stated that ‘SAC will be the de facto standard for embedded analytics in every SAP Application’. Note that with this embedded SAC variant, customers only get access to the basic SAC Story-functionality and can only use data from the system to which the SAC tenant is ‘embedded’. Planning, Predictive and Application Design-features are still only part of a separate and full-fledged Analytics Cloud license. As of today, S/4HANA and SuccessFactors have already been updated with embedded-SAC, and Fieldglass, Concur and Ariba are up next (see reference chart below). Enabling SAC as the embedded standard for one unified view of data has SAP’s ‘highest priority’, as it is rolling out increasing amounts of Line of Business (LoB) standardized content to support SAP business solutions across the portfolio.

 

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As SAP’s Analytics flagship, there are many more concrete developments on the roadmap for Analytics Cloud. These range from the implementation of mobile Android support (finally!) and broader Hyperscaler support (Azure) to the extension of the Analytics Catalog (a single point of access for all things analytics) and a new expression builder for smart data wrangling. The details of these and more developments can be followed here.

 

Into the future 

In a rapidly changing world where the amount of data is exponentially increasing, working from home is looking to become the new standard and shaking someone’s hand is a deadly sin, SAP is putting the words ‘hybrid’, ‘embedded’ and ‘intelligent’ at the forefront of its analytics strategy. With an extended hand and an end-to-end Cloud BI portfolio to back up that gesture, Walldorf’s giant is trying to guide customers towards their next-generation of Cloud-based analytics solutions. Even though SAP’s Hybrid scenario might not be immediately revolutionary for everyone, significant effort is being poured into the concept as the HANA Cloud Services are opening up to more on-premise-friendly options for data applications.

While I believe that standardizing the embedded analytics-experience across the SAP offerings is in itself a good idea, the sometimes significantly different embedded analytics from various solutions made a rather convoluted impression, there are challenges that come with this approach. Think of (master) data harmonization, data redundancies, administrative efforts and perhaps, even though the concept of embeddedness was partially conceived to prevent it, the creation of shadow-IT initiatives. The latter could stem from the fact that customers could see the evolution of embedded SAC as a form of (quasi) vendor lock-in. Finally, some reservations still remain with me whether SAC will be able to functionally catch up (and outperform) its peer solutions such as Lumira and BO BI in time before the latter products get phased out. After all, it’s not all about pushing next-generation solutions, but also about the fit with and acceptance of these solutions in customers’ landscapes. Although only time can tell, I have faith in SAP’s ambition and development capabilities on this front.

Despite some unanswered questions (of which there are always some), I believe that Analytics Cloud is sailing a true course that is in line with SAP’s overarching analytics strategy. By differentiating through functional diversification, SAC is tackling a broader variety of customer’s analytics wants and needs. The slowly growing Data Warehouse Cloud and the peace of mind that a long-term supported BusinessObjects BI-suite brings to the table, present SAP customers with a modern, not necessarily Cloud-only portfolio, from which to build their future data infrastructure. Whether the final choice is on-premise, Cloud or Hybrid: SAP has a roadmap to get there, and we will help you make it so.

 

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Lars van der Goes

Senior BI Consultant