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SAP TechEd focuses on easing app development complexity

At the virtual event, SAP unveiled low-code/no-code development tools and announced free SAP Cloud Platform access for developers to reduce the complexity of building SAP apps.

SAP application development is far too complex, the company acknowledged at SAP TechEd 2020. This week at its virtual event, SAP unveiled new tools and programs designed to change that.

"From a developer's perspective, there's still too much complexity in the system, it's a roadblock," said Juergen Mueller, CTO at SAP, during the TechEd opening keynote. "We are not yet the most developer-friendly company, and we want to change that."

Modern-day developers have to juggle different personas such as cloud-native developer, data scientist, enterprise architect, application developer, integration developer and UX designer, Mueller said. SAP wants to deliver tools that fit the needs of all those personas.

Juergen Mueller, SAP CTOJuergen Mueller

"All developers have one thing in common: They are makers," he said. "We want to create a future where SAP caters to all these and more developer roles."

To enable a more developer-friendly environment, SAP introduced new products and initiatives, including three new development and process automation tools in the SAP Cloud Platform Extension Suite, the development environment for the core SAP Business Technology Platform. They are as follows:

  • SAP Cloud Platform Workflow Management, a low-code tool to provide the visibility and management of application development process workflows.
  • SAP Ruum, a no-code development environment aimed at enabling nontechnical developers to quickly build, run and manage department-level processes.
  • SAP Intelligent Robotic Process Automation 2.0, an enhanced tool that enables developers to automate repetitive manual tasks with prebuilt bot templates.

Multi-tenant free tier development coming

In a bid to help make it easier for developers to experiment on applications, SAP will offer a multi-tenant free tier development model for the SAP Cloud Platform in 2021. As a bridge to the free tier offering, current free trial access to the SAP Cloud Platform has been extended from 90 days to one year.

The multi-tenant free tier development environment allows developers to build applications in the SAP Cloud Platform without time restrictions and then transfer the apps to production environments, Mueller said.

The core of SAP's technology strategy is the SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP), Mueller explained, which serves as the foundation for the core Intelligent Suite applications, the Industry Cloud and the SAP Business Network.

"The goal of the BTP is to empower developers to do things like accelerate a move to the cloud," he said. "There are three scenarios that help do things like build extensions to an SAP environment, create value from various data sources and build integrations across SAP and non-SAP systems."

Among all of the talk about modernization and low-code/no-code developer tools, Mueller also made it clear that SAP was not going to abandon the investments that customers have made in the venerable Advanced Business Application Programming (ABAP) development language. ABAP has been around since the 1980s but has been modernized for cloud applications with an ABAP development environment on the SAP Cloud Platform, known internally as Steampunk.

At TechEd, SAP introduced multi-tenancy to its SAP Cloud Platform ABAP Environment, which allows customers to host multiple tenants with a shared ABAP code base within a shared Steampunk instance. This results in a more open development environment for building applications.

"This reduces TCO for ABAP deployments," Mueller said. "ABAP is still at the heart of the intelligent enterprise. We're protecting your career and your investment in all the ABAP know-how by bringing ABAP to the cloud."

SAP acknowledged that not all SAP developers are ABAP experts. So it provides tools like SAP Cloud Platform Enterprise Messaging, a cloud service that enables developers to build extensions to foundational products such as S/4HANA for ERP, SuccessFactors for HR and even on-premises SAP ECC systems by tying together asynchronous business events.

A delicate balance between old and new

SAP is in a "tough spot" in its quest for developer relevance, as a new generation comes to the fore and as the definition of the role evolves, said Shaun Syvertsen, managing partner and CEO at Convergent IS, an SAP development and consulting firm in Calgary, Alta.

Shaun Syvertsen, managing partner and CEO at Convergent ISShaun Syvertsen

To that end, it was particularly good to hear SAP apply the term developer to roles such as UX designer, application architects and programmers, he said.

"They're also trying to be inclusive of many different languages and IDEs [integrated development environments]," Syvertsen said. "Younger developers that have learned to love Python, JavaScript and other languages have a choice to use a language of their choice instead of just ABAP. It still makes tremendous sense to me to expand the use of JavaScript in a full-stack capacity for SAP, and I'm excited to see that gain traction."

Predrag Jakovljevic, principal industry analyst, Technology Evaluation CentersPredrag Jakovljevic

SAP's balancing act of trying to continue supporting and relying on the expertise of ABAP developers while catering to younger developers with different skill sets makes sense, said Predrag Jakovljevic, principal industry analyst at Technology Evaluation Centers, an enterprise industry consulting firm in Montreal.

"I liked their way to not abandon the legacy ABAP, ECC and on-premises customers," Jakovljevic said. "That ABAP multi-tenancy environment looks interesting, for example how it can enable the army of ABAP developers to develop in the cloud. Those guys will not easily switch to the more modern and sexy cloud languages like Java, [JavaScript] or Ruby, so why not enable them for the cloud? "

Mueller's concession that SAP has not been particularly developer friendly and is taking steps to change was important, said analyst Jon Reed, co-founder of Diginomica.com, an enterprise industry news and analysis site.

Jon Reed, co-founder, Diginomica.comJon Reed

One challenge that SAP needs to face is the rise of open source developer communities, Reed explained.

"SAP has learned a lot about open source, but developer communities have become so open and the tools to get involved are so easy to use that it's really put a lot of SAP policies on the defensive," he said. "Some of these developer license issues have gone on for years and that's why they announced the SAP Cloud Platform for next year will finally get to this free, unlimited access model, so you don't have to have this 90-day renewal thing and you can go right into production."

Need to attract cloud-native developers

SAP has done a good job in modernizing ABAP, but it needs to also attract cloud-native developers, Reed said.

"The problem they have to deal with is how they get the messaging out to both the ABAP types and the new developers," he said. "Things like the multi-tenant environments are nice for customers who have invested heavily in that technology, but how good is SAP at attracting new developers who aren't going to want to learn ABAP. Whether or not they can work in their own language and in their own environment is still a really open question."

Trevor White, analyst at Nucleus ResearchTrevor White

The new capabilities for automation should help make it easier to develop applications on the SAP Cloud Platform, and they are helping SAP meet current market needs, said Trevor White, analyst at Nucleus Research. Companies need to develop applications faster now and the current business environment means they may be dealing with smaller teams.

"Those automation areas are really about shortening the time frame from start to finish," White said. "[The automation] is also about the environment we're in where nobody's really hiring, nobody's got budgets to be adding resources, so automating as much as possible and doing it in a more cost-effective manner are really no longer business wants -- they're business needs."

SAP also needs this to keep up with the competition, he said, calling the market "very hot" and pointing to Salesforce's announcement last week of workflow automation tools and a new architecture that enables customers to move workflows to the public cloud.

"There's a lot stuff coming out at the moment that are really similar between those companies and everybody's trying to make sure they stay level with everybody else," White said. "A couple years ago, something like this would have been an important differentiator, but now it's what customers are expecting from an enterprise-level provider."

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