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SAP NetWeaver MDM roadmap takes a few new turns, but still needs work

Since SAP acquired Business Objects, SAP MDM users have had options for integrating data from disparate sources. But the product, and the SAP MDM roadmap, still need work.

Master data management (MDM) was once a favorite topic at SAP events and executive appearances. But over the past few years, MDM fell out of favor, replaced by buzz around BusinessObjects and Business ByDesign.

Now, MDM's back on the radar. Recently, co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe said SAP wants to lead the market in master data synchronization to help customers achieve lower TCO in running SAP.

So what's changed with SAP's MDM strategy, and does the product have a future at the new SAP?

SAP still needs to solve several problems with its MDM products and strategy to make them comprehensive and affordable options for its customers, according to analysts.

In interviews, industry analysts said the main MDM platform -- NetWeaver MDM -- itself needs work in order to handle non-SAP data sources, non-product and materials data domains, and the role of data steward. It's expensive to implement, requiring a lot of custom development to overcome a weak user interface and workflow capabilities. And SAP's MDM product roadmap is confusing and unclear, no longer composed of a single product but pieces of the SAP and BusinessObjects portfolios that haven't yet been integrated.

"The biggest end user question is: 'When will SAP be ready to handle all my MDM needs?" Gartner research vice president Andrew White said. "Every customer is waiting for the day SAP can do that [at] a cost that's bearable."

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Five years ago, SAP's MDM vision was very singular, White said. One product would do everything. Then SAP acquired Business Objects – and everything went upside-down. Now, SAP's taking a multiple product approach to master data management.

What's being sold under SAP's MDM umbrella?

Currently, SAP's MDM product portfolio comprises three products.

NetWeaver MDM is the main MDM platform. It's the A2i product SAP bought in 2004 and has been architecting and re-architecting ever since -- the most recent release being NetWeaver MDM 7.1.

With the purchase of Business Objects, SAP added SAP BusinessObjects Data Services to help cleanse and integrate data from non-SAP applications. There's also a newer product called Master Data Governance for Finance that is part of the vendor's ERP software. Customers adopt this MDM product through an enhancement package.

The effort to tie all of this together and improve upon it is now being headed up by David Weisbeck, senior vice president for EIM, who came over from Business Objects.

Customers will first look to SAP BusinessObjects Data Services software to cleanse their data and stop the bad data from getting in. NetWeaver MDM is then deployed to consolidate and harmonize the data. Finally, software like the Master Data Governance for Finance provides centralized governance, and workflow is orchestrated with BPM software.

"[The strategy is] starting with data quality, to MDM and then to centralized governance and being able to use BPM to generate that workflow," Weisbeck said.

SAP recognizes that there are areas it needs to improve, he said, and the company is planning several improvements to its MDM portfolio this year. For one, customers say it's too difficult to integrate data from disparate sources in the BW database. The plan is to leverage technology from the BusinessObjects side to help solve these problems – such as SAP BusinessObjects Data Services.

In the short term, these services, which customers currently have to buy separately, will be packaged for those who want to buy them with the MDM product at a "good price point," Weisbeck said.

In turn, SAP will release an updated version of its NetWeaver MDM 7.1 product sometime this year, though Weisbeck couldn't confirm the timeline. SAP is also planning to get products to market faster, realizing that there was a fairly long cycle between NetWeaver MDM 5.5 to 7. The new release will include several improvements (see SAP MDM product roadmap below).

Click here for a look at SAP's MDM product roadmap

There have been several improvements in the SAP MDM product, but there are more weaknesses to correct, analysts agreed.

"The problem is the management has changed much faster than the product strategies, and I don't think the product strategies have truly solidified as far as each product changed," said Bill Swanton, research vice president at Gartner. "Since Shai [Agassi] left, we haven't seen that kind of clear set of goals and direction for this stuff."

What needs work in SAP's MDM products?

For one, there are the problems with NetWeaver MDM.

A2i, the software upon which NetWeaver MDM is based, collected information about a product from a lot of different systems, pulled it together, validated that it was complete and published it, Swanton said. The classic use case was something like a food company that had a new product and needed to pull together new product information to publish to the retailer – i.e., marketing descriptions, ingredients, size and weight of the information, pricing, and so on.

But the problem most ERP users have is not collecting a bunch of data and publishing it, Swanton said. The problem is data stewardship.

SAP has been re-architecting that platform for the last five years trying to fix this – trying to add other product domains (its strengths lie in product and materials data) and more validation capabilities and link in data quality tools – some of which was accomplished in the NetWeaver MDM 7.1 release, Swanton said.

When SAP acquired Business Objects, the first thing it did was to create integration points with Business Objects data services and MDM, according to Rob Karel, principal analyst, Forrester Research.

But that seamless integration is still lacking, Karel said – there aren't true embedded data quality and heterogeneous capabilities in the platform. This would add a whole lot more credibility to SAP's ability to support multiple data domains, he said.

NetWeaver MDM 7.1 was an important release for SAP, and it added a lot more credibility about its ability to support different data domains, Karel said. "But it's still lacking a lot on the connectivity and data quality side."

SAP points out that its products can handle multiple product domains – and that there are customers doing it, like Kraft and Lexmark, which both use it for NetWeaver MDM for customer data.

And that's correct. SAP has made and can make the product work for its customers -- it's just that it's a lot of work and money, analysts said.

SAP MDM doesn't really have a data model that will completely represent data in the SAP system, Swanton said. It has a single user interface geared toward "data geeks," and it has a very primitive workflow capability.

Users wind up having to do a huge amount of custom development in the Enterprise Portal to create user-specific interfaces, he said. It's a lot of work and it's very expensive.

"What you really need for that is some kind of workflow, some kind of more sophisticated data validation, and you need ideally some kind of a role-specific user interface so people don't have to look at an SAP screen with 10 tabs and 400 fields and find the three they're responsible for," Swanton said.

With the Master Data Governance for Finance product, SAP is aiming at better supporting the role of data steward. That is the kind of data stewardship that organizations want, he said.

Should SAP's MDM portfolio be in your evaluation?

Whether SAP NetWeaver MDM is the right product depends on the problems the organization is trying to solve, Swanton said. People are still doing basic product information management with success with NetWeaver MDM, he said.

And customers with heterogeneous IT environments can invest in SAP BusinessObjects Data Services or another vendor's data integration and data quality tools to overcome some of the weaknesses there, Karel said.

But chances are that NetWeaver MDM will be in any evaluation simply because SAP customers already have it, Karel said. For many customers, NetWeaver MDM was bundled as part of a NetWeaver agreement or another enterprise software purchase, and it sits on the shelf, he said.

SAP claims 500 plus MDM licenses, according to White. But Gartner believes the number of active implementations is much smaller, running at about 50% to 60% of that.

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