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Take a look at any complex systems application landscape and you will quickly come to the realization that nothing about a functioning set of IT solutions is pure.  If you look at your hardware, a lot of your time and effort is likely spent on finding cost effective ways to get the work done with the most frugal of possible budgets. For this reason, most companies don’t stick with just one vendor as a one-stop solution provider for all their IT needs. You may use SAP software to run your ERP systems but you quite possibly use a 3rd party solution to do your WMS, another to do your Sales Tax calculations and yet another to run your payroll. You may even have a couple of home grown widgets that keep your business processes running in top form. This kind of situation is not unusual and when you get down to studying the hardware that you use to run your IT solutions it is possibly even more eclectic. Your SAN may be from one company, the fabric switch from another, the servers from another and some of the components inside the hardware from a variety of OEM and non-OEM manufacturers. The combinations of things that you are using to run your systems are potentially limitless.

 

When looking at your high end solutions and you would not limit your view of opportunities to one sole vendor, your purchasing department probably doesn’t even allow it. You generally look more widely at “who has what” on offer. The decision to go with a solution is generally driven by cost, functionality, ease of implementation/supportability, confidence in the vendor and the long term operational cost and return on investment (ROI).

It has always struck me that open source is somewhat hazardous though, but some recent thoughts have made me question this view.  BizTalk, XI/PI and the leading UNIX operating systems and Microsoft Windows have been available for some time now and all are considered robust viable solutions for stable solutions in the SAP space. Products like Tibco and LINUX and other open source solutions that promote the open source stable are of course significant contenders and many large-scale implementations of these solutions running and interacting with SAP systems are well documented.

 Tibco and LINUX bring an interesting dimension to any large scale systems implementation. They are favored by technologists for a number of reasons, but not least of them is the fact that as an open source solution technologists can get “under the covers”  so to speak and tweak the system according to their specific needs.   For purists, this is some cause for concern; essentially purists see tremendous risks associated with the ability to mess with the source code of any application in an uncontrolled way. As an SAP customer, when you purchase a license to use SAP software you essentially land up with the same opportunities; you can repurpose existing SAP code for your own transactions and manipulate them to achieve your business objectives – it is not recommended, but sometimes it is necessary. Consider that some Industry Solutions (IS) have only arisen as a result of repurposing existing SAP code to meet specific needs of industry segments.  As pointed out at GNU.org, open source is not the same as free source.  “Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.”  For people who have been in the industry for a number of years this is an important distinction to make to them, just because the software source code is available for tweaking and hacking at, doesn’t make it any less viable for enterprise use. If it were, some of the most innovative and most powerful solutions in daily use would not be what they are today.  Some providers of  open source software will even tell you that by having the source code available for inspection, sometimes support issues are resolved faster!

 

The same has to be said for 3rd party applications and how purists view them. Though they may not necessarily be open source, their raison d’être is to help improve business operations or improve on some existing proprietary solution. For some, these third party solutions are consider best-of-breed, best-in-class or premier solutions for very specific and narrow activities. Consider for example, that you could build your own integration objects to upload and download data from your SAP system and Microsoft Excel. This would take some research, some development of SAP objects, perhaps some customizing and/or tweaking of existing functionality and of course potential changes to SAP objects. All this could be done, but it does potentially involve changes to your SAP landscape also and the risks associated with that, particularly for upgrades, may make that an unattractive solution.  3rd party applications are tested for fitness for purpose and if they are SAP certified for integration there should be less concern about connecting such solutions to your system.  Credible and vocal customers who are prepared to provide product references speak to ease of implementation and functional fit. Consider also, that businesses that develop these 3rdparty add-ons to enterprise solutions also generally have long term support and business continuity plans and consequently you’re not buying something today that in a year or two will no longer work because the developer has legged it and started working on something completely different or reinvented himself as a developer of a completely new product.  Hopefully if you are developing your own solutions in house, they are well documented and the developer that is responsible for them is supported by others who have the same knowledge and skills.

Developing customized solutions, leveraging third party products and tweaking your applications, be they open source or not,  is part of the differentiation of your business from your competitors.  Implementation partners will encourage you to implement the standard solution because that is the easiest way to get the project done on time and within budget. This is often because you need to become comfortable and familiar with the solution before embarking on an ambitious enhancement or customization initiative. While the SAP technology that supports your business processes tries to shoe-horn your business activities into an optimal business process model, remember that one size does not necessarily fit all and sometimes you really do need to consider changing your base application landscape to better meet the unique nuances of your business, your industry and your customer base and you should not be too scared to consider how you want to differentiate yourself in the competitive landscape by leveraging technology to better effect.

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