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.