Early SAP HANA customers separate reality from the hype

SAP's claims of the in-memory database's speed and power are valid, but it still has a new product's growing pains, users say

Anyone even loosely following SAP lately should know that the company's goal is to reorient its entire product family around the HANA in-memory database, which first became generally available last year. According to SAP, HANA provides a level of performance improvement that can be nothing short of dazzling.

During the Tech Ed conference in Las Vegas this week a number of early HANA customers generally affirmed that claim, but some noted that the product still remains fairly new and prospective users should expect some challenges and kinks.

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"The speed is awesome," said Stephen Burr, business intelligence lead at the University of Kentucky, in an interview. The school is using HANA along with SAP's Business Objects BI software to analyze topics such as student retention, tuition and physical space utilization.

The first category "is a hot spot right now," said Adam Recktenwald, enterprise architect. Using scores of variables, such as high school GPAs, test scores, as well as "student engagement" metrics such as how often a learning management system is used, school officials can try to figure out what is working, and what isn't. "It's a lot like customer retention," Recktenwald said. "From a sales perspective you have to recruit new customers, and you want repeat buyers. Once [students] are in there, we'd like to keep them."

HANA's speed is valuable not only because it returns results faster, but for the way it alters how a user can interact with the system, according to Burr. "It changes the nature of questions you ask when you don't pay a penalty for wide-ranging questions," Burr said. In other words, rather than submit a query and grab a coffee while waiting for the results to turn up, users are able to explore data much more fluidly and iteratively, he added.

The university started its implementation in March, and had a proof-of-concept ready just before May's Sapphire conference. While the school hired SAP to help with the effort, it only amounted to five weeks of consulting time, and there was never more than one SAP staffer on-site at a given moment, Burr said.

Now that HANA is in place, the university is going to decommission a number of BI assets, including an Oracle data warehouse and an Informatica ETL (extract, transform and load) tool, which will generate savings.

Recktenwald offered peers who haven't purchased HANA yet one piece of advice: "Don't be afraid of it. It's similar enough to other database technologies that it's approachable." However, "the caution, maybe, is to understand it's still a new product," he added. There are frequent patching cycles and when SAP finds new bugs that means the school has to arrange for time to apply them and perform testing. Users should also temper their performance expectations, as not every query is necessarily going to run faster, he said.

With any new product, there will be a smaller group of early adopters closely watched by a much larger subset of the potential customer base, who either wait to see how the first group fares and the technology matures before making an investment or make only small steps toward adoption.

"We're in an information-gathering mode" regarding HANA, said an employee of a large energy company who attended Tech Ed, in an interview. "We have a small project on the books for next year," added the employee, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The company will search out potential use cases for HANA and look to perform a proof-of-concept, he said.

But other users are already convinced that HANA will provide broad value, and have invested accordingly. Building materials supplier TAMKO implemented HANA to do operational reporting on its ERP (enterprise resource planning) system data, said Chuck Martin, director of application development, during a Tech Ed presentation.

After implementing SAP ERP software in 2007, accessing data within it began getting more complex and time-consuming, he said. "We couldn't get the reports out fast enough." The company also wants to give business users access to their own data and the ability to develop their own reports with the support of HANA, he added.

SAP was offering a Rapid Deployment Solution package for operational reporting on HANA, with "near real-time" data access, which the company decided to purchase, Martin said. SAP sells a series of RDS packages, which bundle up consulting services and specialized content with the goal of fast but targeted implementations.

In TAMKO's case, the HANA RDS didn't include the development of a security model, so the company had to bring in a security consultant at additional cost.

It's recommended that HANA customers think about security at an early stage of data model development, he added. "If you don't, you'll need to redesign your model later on."

The fact that TAMKO had to apply upgrades to HANA during the implementation process also proved very challenging at times. Still, TAMKO got some positive results, including a 15-times improvement in SQL performance without any tuning.

It's wise to contract with SAP for consulting help on a HANA project at this stage, according to early customers. In addition, it's possible to get direct feedback from SAP's product development team when issues crop up, users said. That may be harder to obtain over time if HANA sales ramp up as much as SAP hopes they will.

SAP has acquired just over 600 customers since the product's launch, executives said this week during Tech Ed. However, "we should do better," co-CEO Bill McDermott said in a session with press and analysts at the event. "I think we are doing better every day." The first 500 or 600 customers are "always the harder ones," he added. "Then when you have the early adopters and success stories, you can scale on a rapid basis. I think you're going to see HANA soar. The hard part is over."

TAMKO could end up serving as just the sort of success story McDermott cited.

"We're looking at HANA not so much from a [profit-and-loss] perspective, as a quick return on investment, but as a long-term foundation for the future," Martin said. "A couple years down the line, we see HANA as a central reporting tool for us."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com.

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