Construction supplier finds answers, hurdles in SAP mobile projects

A construction supplier ran into many issues when it launched two SAP mobility projects via the Sybase Unwired Platform. Here's what it learned.

Editor's note: This is the second part of the two-part series on Pacific Coast's mobility pilot projects. Read the first part to learn more about the projects' beginnings.

Pacific Coast Building Products' decision to orchestrate two different Sybase Unwired Platform mobile pilot projects led to a number of frustrating discoveries along the way, from problems with SAP's documentation and questions over licensing to the unexpected need for add-ons, company officials said.

Roughly a decade ago, Pacific Coast, a building materials firm based in Rancho Cordova, Calif., deployed a simple Windows CE mobile app that building crews in the field could use to access and update project information kept in the company's SAP enterprise resource planning systems, according to Melody Frinzell, the project manager that oversaw the two pilot programs.

About a year ago, the company decided to try its hand at deploying mobile applications that run on SAP's Sybase Unwired Platform. The company, which was considering the possibility of deploying SAP mobile technology on a much larger scale in the future, wanted to see how easy or difficult the technology might be to manage.

Pacific Coast decided to deploy a premade SAP timesheet application, as well as a custom sales application. The development aspect of the project didn't take very long, Frinzell said, but other challenges caused the projects to linger on for months.

Overall, deploying mobile applications on the Sybase Unwired Platform was full of challenges, according to Frinzell.

"I learned it's a lot harder than it looks," Frinzell said.

SAP NetWeaver Gateway add-ons

I learned it's a lot harder than it looks.

Melody Frinzell, SAP project manager at Pacific Coast Building Products.

Despite the SAP timesheet application being prefabricated, getting it up and running was trickier than expected, according to Frinzell.

"You can download the app free from iTunes," Frinzell said. "And we had the Sybase Unwired Platform, so we thought that [it] would be easy."

However, SAP's applications still require SAP NetWeaver Gateway add-ons to make them work, she added. "So it took us a few more hoops to get us through the standard application from SAP, but [SAP] got us through that, and it works just fine." 

Questions over licensing

There was additional confusion over the licensing aspects of mobilizing SAP processes on the SUP, she said. 

"At the time we purchased SUP, we didn't have the version of Gateway that we actually needed.  Licensing became a little bit confusing because you have a license for SUP, you have a license for SAP, then you have [the Gateway add-ons]," Frinzell said. "It was just pure licensing. How do we get the right number of licenses? How do we use those licenses effectively?"

Pacific Coast eventually met with SAP representatives in an effort to get answers to the licensing questions that kept popping up. For example, the group had to decide on a specific definition of the word "user" as it applied to licensing contracts.

"We said, 'OK, what constitutes a user?'  I know it sounds like such a basic thing, but what's really a user?  Is a user a device? Is a user a login? Can I take that login and use that license for multiple devices? We really had to take what our use case was and work with SAP to say, 'Tell me how many licenses I need [and] what it is I need to support this app,'" Frinzell said. "It wasn't a [big] problem for them, but it was an initial disconnect between SAP and Sybase around how you actually get this product integrated."

SAP has been receptive to feedback from early adopters and has worked to come up with simpler licensing around its mobility products, states Frinzell.

"SAP's timesheet app [is] free to download, but you do have an end-user license," Frinzell said.  "So that has a cost associated with it. [In terms of] just being able to understand what that looks like, we really needed a lot of help from them."

Problems with documentation

When Pacific Coast began the pilot projects, SAP had only owned Sybase for about a year and both sides were still learning about how to integrate the two companies. The documentation wasn't quite there yet, Frinzell said.

"We could install SUP perfectly, and we could have SUP upgraded and working just fabulously with no issues at all. We could have SAP working just great and perfect; no problems there," Frinzell said. "But when we got to things like Gateway and how SAP and SUP would integrate, that's where the documentation fell short. The documentation is a lot better now."

How helpful was SAP?

SAP provided critical and ongoing support and assistance, Frinzell said.

"Because it was a pilot and we were learning together, we really viewed it more as a partnership," she said. "It wasn't something where we said, 'SAP, we're going to pay you lots of money to go and do this mobility thing for us.' It wasn't set up that way at all."

SAP welcomed feedback on how things were going -- including criticisms and complaints, she said.

Frinzell said SAP visited Pacific Coast's offices on one occasion to talk about some of the challenges they were having, for which SAP brought out "a slew of experts."

"We went over the checklist of items that we needed to have installed and configured, and then it was easy enough that the [SAP] people would just go straight to our developers' desk, or our Basis team, and look at the system and sit there and actually help us figure it out," she said. "That part of it was really great."

Best practices: Get mobile before it gets your staff

Because of the challenges they ran into, Frinzell recommended that companies partner with SAP or with other companies that have been through the process and can offer their help, she said.

Frinzell also recommended that companies understand that mobility is here to stay.

"From an IT perspective, I think folks should take a look at mobility and what that means for their company," she said. "I think that if they try to shy away from it, or say 'we'll wait until it's more developed' [and] things like that, I think that's going to come back and bite them."

What often happens, she said, is that employees such as sales people will gravitate to other non-company mobile applications to do their work.  It might work and be free, she said, but in the end they're storing customer data that IT has no view into.

"There's risk associated with that. You don't want to have any kind of security holes," she said. "You don't want to have sensitive data outside of your IT [group]."

This was first published in September 2012

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