Microsoft is one of SAP’s biggest customers. The software giant has more than 100,000 SAP users, and uses SAP for all of its core financials, HR, recruiting, GRC and some supply chain management functions.
And Microsoft has the same complaint that many SAP shops have.
“We like SAP,” said Peter Loop, chief enterprise architect in Microsoft’s IT department. “We’ve never liked the user experience.”
It's a complaint that both SAP and Microsoft have sought to address in the past and one they are taking on again.
SAP and Microsoft teamed up more than three years ago to provide a way for customers to use SAP through familiar Office applications. But for many reasons, largely because the user base wasn’t on the release levels necessary to run it and because it contained functionality people didn’t want or need, thatfirst release of Duet, as the project was called, never really took off. It was only rolled out to a few hundred SAP shops, and it was not deployed at each one.
Duet Enterprise is a completely new product that leverages new technology, and both vendors are hopeful it can overcome the setbacks of those first releases. It will expose the SAP back end through the SharePoint front end using a technology called Gateway.
And early indications are that users are excited about it. At TechEd 2010 in Las Vegas, sessions on Duet Enterprise were so packed that people sat on the floor and jammed into the back of the room. Dozens of people who wanted to listen were turned away at the door because the rooms were so full.
“I think we’re going to use it,” said Kyle Wiese, an enterprise architect for Cargill Inc. “We’re such a huge SAP shop, and we’ll find a use for it for this same reason -- to keep SharePoint as the interface to the users.”
Duet Enterprise is in ramp-up now, and should be generally available by the end of the year. SAP and Microsoft representatives at TechEd would not discuss license cost, saying only that it will not be “very costly.”
Why is the new tune better than the old one?
When Duet was released more than three years ago, customers needed to be running ERP 6.0 and Windows 2008. Many simply weren’t ready to upgrade.
Because of the Gateway technology, customers of Duet Enterprise can now be on versions of SAP back to R/3 4.6c. They will need NetWeaver 7.0, enhancement packages 2, Windows 2008 and SharePoint 2010 to run it.
Gateway is an add-on to ABAP, and enables simplified access to SAP. It aggregates data from different SAP systems with support for security, authorization and roles -- including single sign-on. Through the service consumption layer, information is rolled back to SAP, SAP Chief Technology Officer Vishal Sikka said. The consumption layer is an add-on to the NetWeaver 7.0 and SharePoint 2010.
“You need a way to enable that existing system to speak that new language. And you could enable that in two ways,” Sikka said in an interview. “You could go and tell the customers that you upgrade to this new software that is already enabled. Or, you could go and tell them that we have built a Gateway system that acts as a bridge. Gateway is that bridge from the existing system to the new world.”
Another problem with the initial version of Duet was that it was built around fixed scenarios, Loop said.
Duet Enterprise, on the other hand, comes with 25 out-of-the-box services that are meant to get customers started, but they are really intended to be used as models by customers, and ultimately partners, to build their own content.
A trio of development options for Duet
That content can be created in three ways, depending on the level of complexity necessary. Users with no coding experience can create content with SharePoint Designer. More customized products can be built through the ABAP Workbench, to facilitate things like Workflow. And very advanced, customized products can be built with Visual Designer, which leverages .NET standards.
In addition to internal development by customers, SAP and Microsoft are looking to partners to develop and sell these products -- with the idea that customers will download them, leverage the basic functionality and customize what they want.
Microsoft itself is one of Duet Enterprise’s first customers, because, as Loop put it, one of Microsoft IT’s missions is to “eat its own dog food.” In 12 weeks, using Duet Enterprise, Loop built an application for trading-related functionality with two SAP developers, two Microsoft developers and two subject matter experts, in conjunction with Accenture.
The right mix of skills is essential to success, Loop said.
“You’ve got a Microsoft world and an SAP world; it’s really oil and vinegar,” he said. “Microsoft thinks technology, SAP thinks processes. People aren’t going to be successful if they give the SAP guy Microsoft or the Microsoft guy SAP. Put them together on a multidisciplinary team to really be successful on this.”
One of the best features of Duet Enterprise is the single sign-on out of the box, Loop said. An ID can be passed between the two, even if that ID is different in the two different systems. All the rules created in SAP are still enforced in SharePoint -- if the user doesn’t have access in SAP, he doesn’t have access in SharePoint, Loop said.
“I can get that stuff out of the box,” he said. “That’s a tremendous value proposition.”
But with all of these new advantages, Loop saw one major problem. Duet Enterprise goes from a browser, to SharePoint, to Gateway to the back end SAP system.
“Who do I go to if it doesn’t work?” he said.
With his team’s help, Microsoft and SAP now include a tracing tool that monitors all of these environments. Customers access that information in Solution Manager.
There are questions that remain around the initiative. Customers at TechEd asked how Gateway would handle SharePoint and SAP separated by a firewall. SAP said it’s working on enabling this through full-fledged XML.
In turn, other than speed and ease of deployment, some customers questioned whether Duet Enterprise would be any different than what they could already do in NetWeaver PI.
“I’m a PI guy,” said Erick Sick, an SAP developer for FMC Technologies. But he expressed interest in Duet Enterprise all the same. “A lot of what I see, I can do in PI, with some of the ecosystem tools tied into that already.”
But the value proposition and excitement remain strong.
“I think the ability to show up at your desk and be able to understand what to do,” is really what his users want, said a senior manager at a large pharmaceutical company.