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Look beyond the hardware when choosing servers for SAP environments

Issues like support matter more than technical differences among actual hardware servers, experts say.

When it comes to choosing servers for SAP environments, issues like support, licensing deals and IT skills can matter more than subtle differences in the server hardware itself.

"Hardware is reliable, and operating systems are stable compared with what they were 10 or 15 years ago," said Jim Spath, a technical architect with the New Britain, Conn., tool company Stanley Black & Decker Inc.

"Differentiators tend to come in for the actual contract and negotiated prices of support," Spath said. "It's often more of a judgment call as opposed to 'this is a Porsche and this is a Volkswagen.'"

It's the same for Ed Lawson, IT manager for Pacific Coast Building Products Inc., a building materials company in Rancho Cordova, Calif.

"Any of the major hardware vendors are going to be able to offer you a solution," Lawson said. "They'll have their twist, their flavor of it, but they're going to be able to offer you the same hardware capabilities, the same processing and memory power."

For Pacific Coast, the quality of support has been a key criterion in evaluating a hardware vendor.

"With IBM, they've continued to jump through hoops for us in order to ensure that we've got the hardware that's meeting our needs and [to provide] additional support and training," said Lawson, referring to the virtualized IBM System p servers the company uses to run its SAP ECC 6.0 ERP and Business Warehouse software, as well as the IBM XIV SAN servers it uses for storage.

"That kind of track record, post-sales support, is very valuable," he said.

What's in-house?

According to Wade Walla, a co-founder of Oak Creek, Wis., consultancy group:basis, the choice of server vendor should be influenced by a company's existing skills and software.

For example, he recommended starting with the database platform that is the best fit. "Sometimes people will have Oracle skill sets in-house or maybe own [Microsoft] SQL Server licenses," Walla said. "It makes a lot of sense to proceed from the database to the hardware because the SAP system is all about the database."

Determining the database -- and the operating system -- will help define what hardware server vendors are possible. "If you're using Oracle on Sun Solaris [operating system], then you're going to obviously have to go to Oracle to purchase the hardware," Walla said.

Businesses should also evaluate how good a vendor's support team is at providing answers and expertise for the project.

All the major hardware vendors have benchmarking resources to tell companies how well a given environment will run, and at what speed, on a given server configuration, Walla said. "They can take all the input from your exercise with SAP, with SAP telling you how many licenses you need, how big an implementation it's going to be, what module of SAP you're implementing, and in what order, and present that information to the hardware vendor. And they will take it back and come back to you with a quote for an environment based on the SAP implementation you're going to do."

For its part, SAP does not make specific recommendations regarding any of its hardware vendors.

"We are confident that all of the solutions will meet our customer's needs," said a company statement. "We would recommend that our customers take time to understand the differences in the platforms and make an educated decision on what will work best for their organization."

Growth, availability matter in SAP environs

For more on SAP and hardware:

Take it easy when virtualizing SAP, some say

How does SAP HANA compare with Oracle Exalytics?

SAP HANA a new baseline for innovation, says analyst

Often, challenges like planning for data growth and scaling the infrastructure are more important than the actual choice of server.

"[Businesses must] think about capacity planning, how fast the environment is going to grow, what kind of trajectory [they] are anticipating as far as the database size goes," Walla said. "People start storing records of records and inventory movements and all that. The database just continues to grow."

Companies should also consider factors like availability and disaster recovery scenarios. "These are all still pieces of the puzzle that impact your project," Walla said.

Hardware for HANA

Companies have a range of options for running SAP environments, including hosting services and Software as a Service (SaaS) ERP applications, even when it comes to HANA, SAP's in-memory platform. SAP recently announced the new SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud, which allows companies to run their SAP Business Suite software on SAP HANA in a managed cloud environment from SAP.

For on-premises environments, there are nine certified HANA hardware vendors -- up from seven just a few months ago. Customers can only run the SUSE Linux operating system in conjunction with the HANA database. "Those two pieces are taken off the table for you," Walla said.

Another thing to keep in mind: Vendors that were only recently certified might not have the depth of experience that other, more experienced sellers might have. Companies should also ask the vendor about data replication for high availability and other features that might make their product unique.

"Make them articulate their value proposition," Walla said.

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