This is part 1 of a blog series on implementing and sustaining interfaces in SAP ERP applications. At this point I do not know how many parts there will be. But I hope to share as much as I can from my experience in dealing with interfaces. I’m starting with an introduction on why interfaces matter as much and why it is important to provide them key consideration. In my future blogs I will write about the key qualities that make interfaces reliable, how to build a strategy, some key pitfalls to watch out for, certain design time constraints, duplication, serialization, parallel processing, error handling techniques, security, methods (file, idoc, rfc etc.), middleware, web services, techniques, balancing between synchronous and asynchronous modes, building interfaces, testing them, tuning them and much more. I will update the links to the following parts as and when they are posted. The complete list of blogs in this series can be accessed from my weblogs.
Part 1 – Essence of Interfaces
Although SAP ERP systems offer extensive range of functionalities, they hardly ever exist as a monolithic IT solution of an organization. Typically, they are required to interface with other IT systems in the organization and that of their customers, vendors, partners, banks, carriers etc. Application interfaces, thus, become essential for an SAP ERP system and vital in any SAP ERP implementation project.
Figure: Application Interfaces in an SAP ERP System – An Illustration
Application interfaces are omnipresent in SAP ERP systems. They bring in and take out vital master data, voluminous transaction data, key financial data and time sensitive configurations. Any errors or delays in the synchronization of such data and information will directly impact the dependent business functions.
- When master data like customers, vendors, general ledger account, materials etc. are interfaced into SAP, they are crucial for the creation and processing of transactional data like sales order, purchase order, delivery, goods issue, billing, accounting etc.
- Transaction data like purchase orders, sales orders, advance shipment notification, invoices etc. that are often exchanged with customer, vendors, carriers etc. are critical to the execution of the business
- Vital financial information like electronic payments, payment advices, check information, payment confirmations, payment receipts, electronic account statements etc. that are exchanged with banks and financial service providers, directly impact the cash balance of a business
- Information like pricing, material configuration, inventory data etc. are shared by SAP ERP with other IT systems such as manufacturing, inventory, CRM systems etc. both as a source and target are decisive for the correctness of business transactions
- In the public sector, interfaces may bring in tax forms or tax returns data which are the key transactional data of the organization
Figure: Frustration meter of an interface developer
As essential as they are, interfaces also bring in their own complexities, risks and constraints, not only to the functions of an SAP ERP system but also to the dependant organizational processes.
Interfaces by their very nature, bring complexities, that dont exist in other blocks of the application. The involve data transmitting, translating, encrypting, decrypting, formatting through multiple hardware, network and applications. More importantly, interfaces are bridge heterogeneous data, systems and people. Interface data flows through without a user’s presence or user’s direct entry which complicates the error handling behaviour of the application. Interfaces also handle large volume of data typically. Add to it, time sensitivity, privacy and confidentiallity, they are more than a handful.
More often than not, malfunctioning interfaces will destabilize the system, jeopardize implementations and devastate the project, causing significant impact and damage to the organizational functions. Taming interfaces can consume enormous effort from IT and the relevant business functions.
Interfaces, thus, need special attention and should be to be given the due importance not only during the design and implementation of a project but also post go-live, during stabilization, operations, enhancements, upgrade and maintenance. It is crucial to have a strategy in place for the design and operations of interfaces in SAP ERP systems.
Do you have a strategy to ensure the reliability and manageability of your application interfaces?