SAP takes familiar yet effective approach to SAP virtualization

SAP virtualization projects are on the rise thanks partially to SAP's long-standing and painfully simple approach to infrastructure issues, analysts say.

SAP's "platform agnostic" approach to SAP virtualization has rival enterprise applications vendors like Oracle and IBM playing catch up, according to analysts.

The German ERP giant has emerged at the front of the virtualization pack, at least from a public perception standpoint, analysts say, and it's all thanks to a rather simple and somewhat familiar strategy: Provide customers with the tools, code tweaks and support they need to make sure SAP virtualization projects go smoothly, and let the partner community handle the rest.

It's the same straightforward approach that SAP has always taken with infrastructure issues like database or operating system support. But thus far, according to analysts, the strategy has helped SAP gain a reputation for being on the progressive side of the virtualization movement.

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"There's really a lot more virtualization action taking place within SAP's partner community than there is within SAP itself," said Jim Shepherd, senior vice president of research with Boston-based AMR Research Inc. "What SAP has been trying to do is to make sure that they don't get in the way of any of that, and that they try and stay vendor neutral to the extent that they can."

SAP long ago decided to remain strictly an applications vendor -- as opposed to a platform or infrastructure software provider – and that overarching goal has been a key to the company's growing success on the SAP virtualization front, analysts said. About 40% of SAP customers have embarked on SAP virtualization projects to date, although most are using the technology in non-production environments, according to VMware.

"Oracle and IBM are both platform vendors. They are directly in the virtualization hunt. They are competing directly against [the likes of] VMware and selling virtualization technology," Shepherd said. "SAP is saying: 'We are an applications vendor, and if you want to run our applications in a virtual environment, that's great, we'll support that, we'll encourage it, and we'll provide tools to make it easier. But we aren't going to provide virtualization environments. That's what an Oracle or an IBM does."

Name the virtualization partners

Server virtualization, the process of using software to divide a physical server into two or more virtual servers, has grown in popularity in recent years as CIOs seek to cut costs and use resources more efficiently.

SAP had been relatively quiet on the virtualization front until a year ago, when it unveiled its "enterprise virtualization community," a list of virtualization partners SAP pledged to officially support going forward. Members of SAP's virtualization community include AMD, Cisco, Citrix, EMC, HP, Intel Corp., NetApp, Novell, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems and VMware.

"One of the things that SAP deserves credit for is realizing that their operating costs and their landscape costs are quite high, and making a considerable amount of effort to help people reduce costs," said Ray Wang, an enterprise applications analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "I think the virtualization community is one thing that customers are looking at as a possible opportunity to save costs."

And while members of the virtualization community are officially supported, SAP has unofficially been open to other virtualization platforms as well. Analysts say the company continually makes an effort to support customers using non-supported or homegrown virtualization technologies.

"SAP will support you or it will offer best-effort support for virtual environments, even if it's something that they're not testing internally," said Chris Wolf, a senior analyst with Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group. "Oracle, on the other hand, does not support practically any x86 virtualization environment today."

Oracle's official policy is to support only Oracle VM and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud environments, although it has negotiated individual support contracts for large clients running non-supported virtualization software. Beyond that, Wang added, Oracle licensing and support for virtual environments is clearly tied to physical rather than virtual CPUs, a practice which many believe limits virtualization flexibility.

"[Licensing based on physical CPUs] makes it quite a bit harder to try to get some cost savings from a licensing perspective," Wang said.

On the other hand, IBM has recently "caught up" with SAP in terms of progressive licensing and support policies for virtual environments, Wolf said. Big Blue now offers a sub-capacity licensing model for virtualization in ESX environments as well as a processor value unit licensing model that can be applied to virtual CPUs.

Microsoft and CA have also introduced virtualization-friendly licensing and support polices over the last year.

Provide the virtualization tools

Another key move SAP made on the virtualization front was introducing and continuing to build virtualization-related functionality within its Adaptive Computing Controller (ACC), a component of NetWeaver that lets users monitor and control SAP resources. The newest version of ACC is currently in beta and promises to offer improved virtualization functionality.

"In a virtualization world, that means [ACC will allow users to] easily or automatically move processing from one part of the landscape to another based on load and resources," Shepherd said. "They've put a lot of effort on usability in the latest release [and on] providing better support for multiple SAP instances within a single virtual landscape, whether that is a testing instance or a development instance or a production instance."

What the future holds

Analysts say that users can expect SAP to continue working to improve virtualization tools and make sure their applications run smoothly in a virtualized environment. The company will also continue offering virtualization education opportunities, such as the SAP Virtualization Week conference being held April 20-22 at the SAP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif.

It's unlikely that SAP will ever stray from its long-standing strategy of remaining platform agnostic on infrastructure issues, Shepherd said. So don't expect SAP to start selling virtualization software anytime soon.

"Applications vendors are struggling to what extent they need to be involved with virtualization," he said. "But it's not fundamentally an application issue; it's an infrastructure issue. And so SAP has always relied on its infrastructure partners to do most of the heavy lifting around figuring out and doing what is necessary to build efficient environments for SAP's applications to run."

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