The other reason SAP bought Sybase

Sybase's deep roots in financial services could mean more to SAP than the promise of mobilizing enterprise apps

Most of the buzz about SAP's acquisition of Sybase has emphasized the mobility angle. For years now, Sybase has identified itself as the "unwired enterprise" company. It must be weird for a vendor with a long and storied history as a major data management player to be best known for its iAnywhere Mobile Office for workflow and secure email on the iPhone and Windows Mobile devices.

Of course the mobile angle goes deeper than that. Sybase works with telcos to process huge volumes of messages, creates tiny embedded databases for smartphones, and specializes in managing and analyzing mobile data. SAP, as a major enterprise application provider, can certainly use Sybase's expertise in mobilizing its enterprise applications. The core ERP business is not, shall we say, booming.

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But there's another, more conventional reason for the merger: Sybase has some awfully attractive customers.

A healthy chunk of Wall Street has stuck with Sybase. In an interview before the rumors about SAP and Sybase surfaced, Sybase CEO John Chen told me that "our customer base has always been enterprise, particularly government as well as financial institutions, the banks, and the insurance companies."

Chen freely admitted that Sybase went through a near death experience early in the last decade -- and that large customers, particularly those in the financial industry that built applications on his database, were what had kept Sybase going. Once a financial services company has built, say, a trading application on your database platform, "that is very, very sticky," said Chen.

The relationship with Wall Street goes deeper than that. Irfan Khan, CTO of Sybase, told me that Sybase has delved into providing the technology for souped-up risk management and ultra-high-speed trading. Khan spends a significant amount of his time gathering requirements for the high-end features his financial customers need -- and turning those requirements into product.

In the tech press we like to complain about vendor lock-in. If only software vendors adhered to standards, we say, then customers could replace enterprise software solutions without ripping them out. Instead, you could sort of snap out the old solution and snap the new one in.

This ignores the fact that the enterprise software business is a lock-in business. Especially at the high end, you need specialized capabilities, and once you've invested in developing them or licensing them or customizing them, you're not in much of a position to swap out anything.

SAP certainly hopes to sell Sybase's elite financial customers other things. Meanwhile, odds are Sybase will keep pushing the envelope and stay embedded in Wall Street.

This article, "The other reason SAP bought Sybase," originally appeared at Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter and on your mobile device at