SAP CTO Sikka: SAP's innovation gets overlooked

SAP CTO Vishal Sikka discusses trends in SAP software development, SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, SAP in-memory database technology, SAP ERP software, social media and SAP mobile applications in an interview with SearchSAP.com editors.

Vishal Sikka is the first SAP executive to have the title of chief technology officer (CTO). (SAP co-founder Hasso

Plattner was for years SAP's unofficial CTO, and Sikka worked closely with him after he joined SAP in 2002.)

At SAP, Sikka's CTO responsibilities include overseeing the company's technology strategy, product standards and software development efforts.

On Oct. 13, after delivering the keynote speech at SAP TechEd 2009, Sikka sat down with SearchSAP.com to field questions related to trends in SAP software development, SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, SAP in-memory database technology, SAP ERP software, social media and SAP mobile applications. The Q&A below is an edited transcript of the conversation during that session.

Before joining SAP, Sikka he founded two companies, IBrain Software Inc. and Bodha.com; headed up research for Xerox (Fuji) Palo Alto Labs; and taught computer science at Stanford University (he also holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford).

SearchSAP.com: Which trend do you see that you think SAP needs to respond to?

Sikka: The convergence happening between social media, mobility and real time is leading to a new set of paradigms, a new set of business activities that SAP needs to go after next. There are entire economies going mobile, and we need to connect to them in real time with social media, analytics and search technologies.

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SearchSAP.com: There's been a lot of talk this morning at TechEd about social media applications. Is it fair to say that companies like Facebook and Twitter have become the leading innovators today?

Sikka: Those companies do a great deal of innovation, but you have to keep in mind that innovation in large companies is not always easily visible. If you talk about a startup going from zero to 1,000 customers, you'd be impressed. When SAP gains 1,000 customers, to us, that represents a small gain.

SearchSAP.com: Since you mentioned Hasso Plattner earlier, I'd like to follow up on his keynote from Sapphire. It was titled "The Power of Speed" and in it he discussed how software development needs to change in relation to hardware advances, particularly in regard to CPUs and servers. What are your thoughts on his message?

Sikka: There's been a phenomenal shift in how we build software and how we deliver software. In 2003, there was this basic notion that CPUs had hit a wall and that Moore's Law was no longer valid. But instead, CPU technology at that point began to expand horizontally, with multi-core technology.

Today's software can take advantage of multi-core technology, and when you add putting data in memory rather than disk, you get a thousand-fold performance improvement [in user query times]. This technology to manage data in-memory, which we're shipping in BusinessObjects Explorer, will have a revolutionary impact on data access. It's already the right way to go for analytics applications.

There are a lot of advantages to designing in-memory applications. First of all, with database applications working with multi-core, you don't have to hold or create aggregates in memory -- you can calculate them on the fly. And that means a dramatic reduction in the amount of code that needs to be written. Second, it's much easier to add more columns. Third, and most important, end users can ask any question they can think.

SearchSAP.com: Do you see the relational database going away?

Sikka: The relational database management system won't go away, but for analytics applications, you don't need it. The RDBMS just becomes a storage facility. We manage data in memory, in columns, still relational, the language is still SQL, but things are organized differently.

SearchSAP.com: What's the key software development trend you're seeing?

Sikka: That large-scale software development must be done by small teams. The notion that you can create a large development plan that will last you for three years is outdated. You have to have small development teams working with agile methodologies. Small encapsulated development projects -- that is the new reality, and we have embraced it.

SearchSAP.com: When it comes to ERP, is there a next new big thing, or just more of the same?

Sikka: With ERP, we are expanding into new areas and new industries. Another trend that will affect ERP is the convergence of social media and mobile. Also, I see us doing more with collaboration technologies. Now the question is: Is that a new silver bullet when it comes to ERP?

The manufacturing world is evolving in two fundamental ways. You have these new real-time applications, like JIT [just-in-time], where if you can see the inventory level, you can use our in-memory technologies to remove aggregates from financials or to remove them from inventory calculations on the fly.

The other change is in the way manufacturers themselves work. A lot of manufacturing has become outsourced, and the ability to do real-time collaboration across channels, across suppliers, has become much more mission-critical.

SearchSAP.com: Would SAP ever buy a hardware company, as Oracle did with Sun?

Sikka: We work with hardware companies like HP, Intel and IBM. Less than 10% of our customer base is on Sun hardware. We believe we can achieve competency across all the layers of the stack without owning all the layers of the stack.

SearchSAP.com: What are your thoughts about appliances – systems that combine hardware and software?

Sikka: Appliances have been around for a long time, and there are cases where they are good. But the presumption that a large vertically integrated stack cures all ills is nonsense. We don't need to own the layers of the stack.

Customer landscapes are always heterogeneous. The right answer is to work together with partners to bring out optimized products that work across that heterogeneity. It takes an ecosystem of partners.

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