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Notes from the Ivory Tower Part 2: ABAP as a Setup.exe

A friend is someone who knows you better than you know yourself. A friend knows your strengths and weaknesses, sees the potential in you more clearly than anyone else does, and a friend always wants to see you flourish and prosper and live up to your potential.
So in a way, I can consider myself a friend of the Web Application Server ABAP. (What a nerd!) I have seen the platform evolve for ten years, and I like it for what it’s been, what it is and what it can be in the future. I hate to see it underachieve because of obstacles blocking its path to success.

“A Web Application Server ABAP on every desktop”


Hey, why not! Everybody thought Bill Gates was crazy when he stated his vision for the Personal Computer. I am just an ordinary guy and no visionary, so I’ll settle for less. (Feel free to make fun of me five years from now, when there’s a WAS in every shirt button. ;-))
Frankly, it just breaks my heart to think about all the little businesses that could profit from quickly written business applications. My father’s real estate company, the local cinema, the hair dresser around the corner: Why on earth shouldn’t they be using individual applications written in ABAP Objects?
As a seasoned developer, I know very well how easy it is to put together powerful business applications using the WAS as a platform. With tools such as Persistent Objects, Personalization, Generic Object Services, Business Workflow, Web Dynpro, Business Application Log, Authorizations, ALE, Search Helps, and Business Partner, you can slap your applications together as quickly as you can build an MS Access prototype!

A Web Application Server ABAP on every store counter

So this is my vision for the WAS ABAP: I want to see it as a viable option for small, individually developed businesses applications for single customers. Today, many small business owners pay a guy who writes individual software using MS-Access, Visual Basic, or Borland Delphi for them. Tomorrow, I want the ABAP guy to be able to compete with the Visual Basic guys. It’s simple: When you have a skill, you want it to have as big a market as possible

Lean operations


Developing and testing individual applications are not very problematic. It’s easy to set up and operate a development system. Just download the ABAP test drive from you want to see for yourself.
The problematic part is running the server at the customer’s site. Obtaining a production license for a blank NetWeaver server, installing and setting up the server, initial configuration and deploying the application are way too complicated for small businesses. Once the server is up and running, you can’t just let it be and run your application. The server requires regular monitoring and administration by a Basis guy: check the database system’s health, look out for alerts, delete or archive logs, make sure there is enough clean disk space. Handling notes and support packages from SAP’s service marketplace from checking regularly what is new to impact analysis and applying notes and support packages is a science in itself.
That, in my view, is the biggest obstacle in the way of ABAP to becoming a lean platform for applications for small businesses.

ABAP as a Setup.exe


So what do we need? Simple: Make it as easy as running business applications on the PC. Anyone can set up a Windows operating system and deploy business applications. Download it from the internet, run setup.exe, and let the InstallShield wizard guide you through the installation and initial configuration process. Installing a WAS and deploying a small business application should be just as easy as that and I think it could well become so in the future.

Rays of hope


Firstly, the NSP people show that it can be done. The latest NSP test drive (NSP 7.01) was more smoothly and easily installable than any previous version. Installation was guided by a wizard and intuitive. Also, the system worked quite well out of the box. In previous NSP releases, many configuration steps had to be carried out before the system ran smoothly, but the 7.01 was nicely pre-configured. We’re clearly going into the right direction here. Hopefully, one day NSP or a similar system is going to be released with a free development license or, better yet, as an Open Source system to whose evolution and increased customer-friendliness everybody can contribute – especially those who understand the needs of medium and small businesses.
Secondly, SAP’s Business by Design initiative contains a hosting element, which tells me that SAP has understood an important truth. Reducing the complexity of customizing the classic ERP applications (which was the focus of previous initiatives) is not enough. You also need to reduce the complexity of operating the server if you want medium and small businesses to use it.
Thirdly, the EcoHub initiative tells me that the idea of NetWeaver as an application platform has strong supporters in SAP’s management circles. It’s important to encourage software vendors to make the investment into NetWeaver as a development platform, and the EcoHub is an important step in the right direction. But much more support for software vendors is needed to make NetWeaver and the Web Application Server a cost-efficient alternative to established platforms for individual software engineering.
Fourthly, SAP has set up a business unit for individual software development ordered by single customers. So they are finally experiencing what it feels like to be an independent software vendor in the SAP field. I am confident that this will lead to an improvement of SAP’s interface towards individual software vendors as the company improves the cooperation between its own business units.

The road ahead


(Sorry, I couldn’t resist another Bill Gates quote.) What I expect from SAP now is a roadmap pointing out how NetWeaver and the Web Application Server can benefit independent software vendors as well as medium and small businesses which consider using the platform to develop or run business applications.
Will they make it cheaper and easier to operate the platform? Will they encourage ISVs to develop new software for the platform, thereby expanding the market of potential NetWeaver users? Or will they surprise us completely? SAP, the ball is in your court.

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  • As SAP tries to address the long tail of small and medium sized businesses, it will inevitably run up against the MS-Access driven developments that ABAP could compete well against. The problem I see is one of how to sell the development into the customer: do you think that an ABAP coder who understands the technologies you list would cost the same as a Visual Basic developer? Based on a quick Google search, VB developers cost about 70% what ABAP developers cost. I know that the ABAP developer would be much more productive, but a customer might not see that.

    Having said all that, I believe that SAP has a lot to gain and nothing to lose by making NetWeaver (both ABAP and Java) much more easily available to developers and small companies. Good marketing and a retail-oriented transparent pricing model for small customers would help a lot here.

    • Hi Darren,
      Thanks for your comment! As SAP professionals, we benefit from the high market value of our skill. This is partly due to the exclusivity of the platform. If NetWeaver were as easily available and widely-spread as other platforms, more kids and students would learn ABAP and the market value of the average ABAPer would decrease. So I don’t believe that the high hourly wages of SAP professionals have to be a permanent obstacle in the spreading of the platform. (Though I like my paycheck!)
    • The costs of ABAP developers are too high in my opinion. This is due to the fact that becoming an ABAP developer meant in the past that you have to get knowledge about business processes, highly specialized ERP modules and as a side effect you learned ABAP. Of course there is another way: a system adminstrator gained more and more programming skills and became an ABAP expert.

      And this was the reason that it took long time to convice ABAP programmers to use “modern cocepts” like object orientation, test based approaches – which are common f.i. in Java and VB world.

      My conclusion is:
      In the future ABAP programmers who have only skills in software engineering & AS ABAP won’t cost that much compared to people who have additional skills in business processes, ERP modules and so on. But if ABAP programmers have those additional skills as well as the skills mentioned above they are worth their costs.

  • I think this strategy is interesting because of its side effects: If we reduce the costs for running the AS ABAP (and AS Java, too) the whole platform could be more attractive to small and medium customers.

    But AS ABAP could be more than “just” a base for netweaver and ERP. We already have necessary prerequists for this step: ABAP know how is no arcane secret any more because of the huge SCN community, lots of books and of course NSP.


    • Just think about the AS Java. If you were an ISV with many years of experience working with Glassfish, JBoss and whatnot. Your customer wants you to develop a new Java-based application.
      What would compel you to suggest your customer to use anything that would require you to set up a NetWeaver development landscape (such as Web Dynpro Java)?
      If you don’t already have an SAP landscape because you’re running ERP, there is little incentive today to use NetWeaver for new developments. I hope we can change that!
  • … I can’t see SAP giving this a lot of focus.

    Whilst everyone is talking about Cloud Computing and lowering the TCO for exactly those small and medium sized businesses that thus far have shied away from a hardware-intensive SAP deployment, doing exactly the opposite would be quite a bold move.

    I’ve worked for smaller SAP end users and what they all have in common is that SAP developers are usually Basis guy, network admin and web developer all rolled into one person. What these businesses want and need is get tasks away from their desks and looked after by a specialist. Bringing WAS onto each desk would increase their workload even more. These companies want to shift workload away from the development and infrastructure landscape (=SDN) and onto defined processes (=BPX arena), because that’s where their weaknesses are.

    As powerful and compelling WAS ABAP is to me – I am convinced the future for SMEs lies in a subscription-based ERP.

    Kind regards,