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Welcome back!  People often ask me what SAP is, this ongoing series is my best attempt to answer that question in plain, jargon-free English.  In Part 1, I described the need that SAP fills.  In Part 2, I’ll describe the actual structure of the software and why it’s set up that way.  Enjoy!

SAP is a family of computer programs.  It is not an operating system and it is not hardware, although it needs both of those things to function.  When people buy SAP, there are three primary elements for them to consider: NetWeaver, products, and industry solutions.

All of SAP’s homegrown products are run on a computing platform called NetWeaver.  NetWeaver isn’t an operating system, but it does provide an environment in which other SAP programs run, similar to a virtual machine.  Without getting too deep into the technical weeds, NetWeaver’s primary function is to allow the SAP products to talk to each other.  We mentioned before that the biggest benefit of SAP is that all of its modules integrate seamlessly.  NetWeaver is the technology that makes that happen. Since the NetWeaver platform is shared amongst products, it also contains functionalities that are needed by multiple programs, such as the user creation tools and the run-time environment.

Though it can be used to configure its host server and run any custom programs you might write, NetWeaver itself doesn’t serve any of the business purposes people think of when they think of SAP.  For that, you need to buy products.  I mentioned in my earlier post that modules are packages of software that automate the tasks of a particular vertical.  SAP bundles together groups of modules that are commonly used together and sells them as products.

For instance, SAP’s best selling product is SAP ERP.  SAP ERP is like a business automation starter kit.  Almost any business that’s large enough for automation to be worth the cost has certain needs: finance and controlling, sales and distribution, human resources, and production planning are just a few.  The modules that handle all these areas work best when they can talk to each other, so SAP sells them as a single product connected with NetWeaver.  ERP is just one example – SAP sells a variety of products to meet different needs, such as supply-chain forecasting or customer relationship management, and 3rd party vendors sell more niche products that are also compatible.

Once you’ve purchased a product, you’re ready to start automating, right?  Well, not yet.  The downside of any software that can handle a huge range of tasks is that you need to give it a lot of information about your specific needs before it becomes useful.  For example, SAP has a tool for automating business workflows.  It can manage anything from microchip assembly to garbage routes, but until it’s configured to process the correct inputs and outputs in the correct sequence, it can’t do anything.

You don’t have to do every configuration yourself.  SAP also sells industry solutions, which are just pre-fabricated configurations for common tasks in an industry. The Clinical Treatment and Care solution, for example, can manage patient data, bill for medical services, and coordinate multiple caregivers, which are tasks that any hospital needs to take care of.  You have to pay to purchase industry solutions and some additional configuration is required, but they are built with the latest best practices in mind and they’re usually cheaper than hiring consultants to build the same end result from scratch.

SAP and 3rd party vendors do sell other software and services, but NetWeaver, the product, and the configurations are the elements most users will deal with.  While all of these areas have a lot more specifics to delve into, this overview should help you grok the overall structure.   In future posts, I’ll describe some of the relevant characteristics of the software.

TL;DR:  SAP products automate business functions, and are available for most industries.  NetWeaver lets the products talk to each other to maximize the amount of automation possible.  The products need to be configured to work, and industry solutions are great configurations you can buy off the shelf.

Originally posted at: What is SAP? Part 2 |

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