What SAP says about ABAP's future

With Java and global outsourcing becoming more prevalent, what does the future look like for ABAP developers?

The future of ABAP (advanced business application programming) is seemingly on every SAP developer's mind. It's understandable -- no area of SAP has been harder hit by technical changes than ABAP development, but ABAP is far from dead.

Developers point to ominous signs: All new SAP programs are written in Java (not true), the NetWeaver CE (composition environment) is an exclusively Java-based environment (true), the NetWeaver Developer Studio is also almost exclusively Java-based (true). When we take the impact of global outsourcing into account as well, we can safely say that it's been a rockier road for ABAP programmers than for any other SAP skill set.

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True to form, one of the hottest topics at TechEd 2007 was the changing nature of the SAP developer skill set. It's easy to see why people care so much about this topic: SAP customers don't want to find themselves with a development team that lacks the skills to implement the latest SAP functionality, and SAP programmers are facing enough challenges without having to worry that their skills won't be needed on project sites.

So what's the latest on the future of ABAP?

ABAP is not as dead as some might think. At TechEd 2007, Vishal Sikka, SAP's chief technology officer, said that there are still 238 million lines of ABAP code in SAP. The message? ABAP is still entrenched in SAP, and SAP is still entrenched in ABAP. He also noted that while some new SAP programs are written in Java, some are written in ABAP too.

Some of the new NetWeaver PI (process integration) functionality was also written in ABAP. You may not see it when you work with PI, but the ABAP is there underneath, keeping things humming along. I did talk to some SAP representatives who didn't even know whether ABAP was part of NetWeaver at this point, but the SAP Labs team assured me that it is.

Thomas Jung of SAP Labs, who writes a developer's blog on SDN (SAP Developers' Network), said some of the underlying NetWeaver functions were written in ABAP, and of course there is the Web Dynpro for ABAP. Jung also said that the ABAP Workbench is indeed part of NetWeaver and is being equipped with many of the bells and whistles that the Java side of NetWeaver is receiving.

So, although it's not going away anytime soon, we can't say that the SAP ABAP outlook is dreamy. ABAP is still a valid part of the landscape, but there's no question that when it comes to designing new enterprise services, Java is the language of choice in most cases.

On the other hand, we must remember the warning Sikka gave me during our interview: The entire SAP landscape is changing, and the emphasis on ABAP versus Java is not the right way to understand the transitions that are under way.

The design of the new enterprise service-oriented architecture (eSOA) NetWeaver development platform is specifically intended to make the programming language used irrelevant. The eSOA layer is designed to work with any open standard, so between eSOA and PI, programmers should be able to use their environment of choice and be interoperable with SAP.

Sikka went further, as did many executives, to stress that SAP's modeling tools (Visual Composer, the upcoming Aris for NetWeaver, as well as a new Eclipse modeling environment) are all designed to change the development process and emphasize the design of reusable components over arduous hand-coded customizations.

Soon, these modeling environments may even generate enough automated code to make it possible for the "Business Process Experts" of the future to do all the development work. Some have suggested that as much as 70% of all hand-coding will go away once these tools are fully realized.

That goes beyond the ABAP-versus-Java debate to a much broader debate on the future of development work in an SOA and visual modeling world -- inside and outside of SAP. My advice for developers is to try to get their hands on all the new modeling tools and to check out the new composition environment on SDN and the BPX (business process expert) community in order to get a better feeling for the convergence of IT and business.


Jon Reed is an independent SAP analyst who writes on SAP consulting trends. He is the President of JonERP.com, an interactive web site which features take on SAP career trends. Jon is also the author of the SAP Consultant Handbook, and he serves as the career expert for SearchSAP's "Ask the Expert" panel.

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