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Demystifying SOA in SAP NetWeaver

Upgrades are a fact of life in enterprise IT, but the benefits of SOA make a convincing case for NetWeaver adoption.

I like to say, with apologies to Mark Twain, that just as death and taxes are the two certainties of life, so are...

upgrades in the life of a software application. You can delay death and upgrades, but you cannot completely evade them.

In late 2002, SAP released SAP R/3 Enterprise (Version 4.7). Knowing they would have to upgrade to the latest version someday, many customers went ahead and did just that.

But before the dust settled on that Enterprise release, a new paradigm called SAP NetWeaver 2004 was introduced. While common sense dictates upgrading to the latest release, especially if that release has multiple value propositions as NetWeaver 2004s does, thousands of customers are not in a position to contemplate an upgrade from R/3 4.6C, R/3 Enterprise 4.7 or earlier releases. So, should you keep pushing off an upgrade, or should you bite the bullet and upgrade to NetWeaver 2004s soon in order to take advantage of its features?

If I had to recommend just one feature that is worth upgrading for, it would be the ability to build applications in the form of services that can be exposed to the external world and reused by adopting standard industry protocols -- service-oriented architecture (SOA).

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Along came SOA and Enterprise SOA

SAP was not the first major software company to jump onto the SOA bandwagon, and it certainly will not be the last, but it has been very successful in providing a concrete framework to deploy an enterprise-based SOA. Most of you are probably familiar with the SOA concept -- architecture based on services that encapsulate business rules and processes and can then be exposed for public consumption and reuse. When this architecture is incorporated at the enterprise level, the extended concept becomes Enterprise SOA (ESA). Using enterprise services, SAP and its collaborators, such as customers and partners, can build reusable services that encapsulate business processes and rules and can be leveraged to build new ones.

In the early 2000s, several factors converged: SAP's anemic revenue and profit growth; the need to stay competitive with the likes of Oracle, which was gobbling up competitors and gaining market share; the need to streamline product offerings and reduce the cost of owning and maintaining SAP; a move from proprietary to open standards; and the rise to prominence of imports and visionaries such as the former president of SAP's product and technology group, Shai Agassi.

NetWeaver is what came out of this cauldron of needs and ideas, and Enterprise SOA is one of the main value propositions of the NetWeaver suite. To its credit, SAP -- instead of letting style and hype dominate the content -- kept its eyes on the ball and delivered a technology paradigm with true potential.

What are SOA and ESA?

There is no single definition of SOA beyond the "applications as services" concept. But the concept is not terribly new -- using open standards and technologies such as XML, SOAP, WSDL, and UDDI to bind, expose for external consumption and communicate between business functions that are structured as services. NetWeaver enables this by supporting all these protocols in its Web Application Server 6.40 (Web AS), the back-end server and technical foundation of NetWeaver.

These protocols are not new, and there's a good chance your enterprise has been using them for your Web-based applications. If you take an inventory of your enterprise's core competencies in IT, you are likely to find that these skill sets exist and, more importantly, these technologies and concepts have a fair degree of acceptance.

Agassi blogged about the connection among ERP, NetWeaver and Enterprise SOA soon after he announced his resignation from SAP. Freed of the shackles of having to toe the company line, he gave a candid account of this relationship in a post entitled "Does ERP Matter?"

Customer reaction

Most customers of SAP and other major SOA vendors I have spoken with feel the notion of SOA and ESA is too abstract. Some believe they can't go to bat for a NetWeaver 2004 or NetWeaver 2004s upgrade with a concept as seemingly nebulous as SOA.

Here are the some of the most fiercely debated topics:

  • Will all our configuration and development become obsolete?
  • Is the building of enterprise services analogous to implementing new modules in SAP?
  • Are our competencies in ABAP meaningless now? Should we start looking for Java developers?
  • Will we be charged extra for implementing an SOA through NetWeaver?

It is not surprising that these questions show a low level of NetWeaver and SOA awareness. In the very early stages of NetWeaver, there was too much theory, hypothesis, and high-level thinking -- and very little concrete information. I was in the camp of SAP professionals who were reeling the first time they were exposed to the SOA and ESA marketing machine. Thankfully, SAP has provided customers with a viable framework and various resources that are designed to help transform this vision into reality.

Recommendations

If you are new to Enterprise SOA from an ERP standpoint, do not despair -- you are in the majority. Do not, however, let your relative unfamiliarity with these technologies and/or NetWeaver be a deterrent to upgrading to NetWeaver and adopting them.

SAP NetWeaver resources
SAP provides a plethora of resources to bring you up to speed on SOA. Most are available on SAP's Service Marketplace (a valid user ID is required). Here are some of the most useful resources and references:

Check here for a solid understanding of SOA standards and protocols

The Enterprise SOA forums on SDN

The Enterprise Services WIKI

The Enterprise Services learning page containing several eLearning courses

The SAP Discovery system for Enterprise SOA

There is an Enterprise Services community that enables you to collaboratively develop enterprise services within SAP

The transition to Enterprise SOA is not an easy one; my own experience and those of fellow professionals shows that challenges will abound. But SOA has great potential for making businesses more agile in today's hyper-competitive global environment, and SAP provides the necessary tools and technologies to implement this vision -- SOA works in tandem with other powerful features in NetWeaver such as Visual Composer, NetWeaver Developer Studio (NWDS), Composite Application Framework (CAF) and Adobe's Interactive Forms technology.

It is time to give Enterprise SOA a serious look. With patience and commitment, your enterprise can benefit. Here are some recommendations to ease SOA adoption:

Don't treat SOA as a paradigm shift. If you do your due diligence and analyze your organization's IT competencies, you may realize that it could simply be an expansion of scope and therefore easier to adopt than you thought.

Don't drown key stakeholders in technological jargon, buzzwords and acronyms. The value propositions of SOA are increasing ROI on your SAP investments and reducing the total cost of ownership. Your chances of securing funding from executive management for SOA initiatives will be higher if you use this line of persuasion. Remember, SOA is not so much about implementing a whole bunch of technologies as it is about technology helping today's businesses meet their challenges.

Don't go for too much, too fast. Try to secure a quick win and convert the cynics and skeptics by going for the low-hanging fruit. In other words, build services based on relatively less complicated business processes at first. Quick wins can have a positive psychological effect on both detractors and pioneers and facilitate more widespread adoption.

Seek help if you feel overwhelmed. One of the best places to look is in the Software Developer Network (SDN) -- SAP's Service Marketplace. See the sidebar for more resources.

Anurag Barua manages an SAP Competency Center for a major media company. He has 15 years of experience conceiving, designing, managing and implementing complex software solutions, with nine years focused in SAP. Barua is a frequent speaker at various SAP conferences and contributes to several publications.

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