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CAST report uncovers problems in customizing SAP applications

CAST Research Labs says business oversight and outsourcing of customized SAP applications are often to blame for high costs, low productivity.

Customizations of SAP applications are in many cases poorly structured, according to a new report by CAST Research Labs. The problem results in high costs, difficulty in maintaining systems and lost productivity.

Bringing IT in at the early planning stages of customization projects might make the most difference in avoiding roadblocks, said Bill Curtis, senior vice president and chief scientist at CAST Research Labs, a subsidiary of software vendor CAST, based in New York.

"This is very critical, as [IT professionals] have the requirements, management skills and the project management skills," said Curtis, the report's lead author. "There are a lot of things they have that need to be a part of your project."

CAST analyzed the SAP applications for their structural quality, not their functional abilities, he said. The noted problems did not stem from SAP in and of itself, but from applications that were customized with ABAP, the language that allows developers to build applications on SAP ERP.

Poor structure, complex code cited

The research uncovered two large problems with the ABAP customizations.

"No. 1 is building efficient instructions for information management -- the querying, interactions, data manipulation. In too many cases, they just weren't efficient in being able to do that. They were building structures that were going to take too much effort and use up too many resources," Curtis said.

You might be losing customers because they just don't want to wait. They'd rather go to somebody else's system.
Bill Curtissenior vice president and chief scientist, CAST Research Labs

"The second thing was actually creating code that was too hard to maintain," he added. "It wasn't designed in way that was understandable or was going to be easy to change. It was too complex."

The biggest consequence for businesses is added cost, Curtis explained, as small inefficiencies throughout a large application eventually add up in lost productivity.

"Let's say I've got a large system with a thousand claims processors using it, and I've got inefficient queries. This means that it's going to take longer to do things, and that's going to have an impact on productivity," he said. "If there's a customer-facing system, you might be losing customers because they just don't want to wait. They'd rather go to somebody else's system."

The main culprits behind ABAP customization problems are outsourcing and that most customization projects are run by business groups, not by IT departments, Curtis said. "In many cases, the business doesn't know IT well, they don't know how to manage the project properly, and they haven't got the requirements straightened out," he said. "So, there are issues with the business running the project rather than IT, and there's a lot of reasons why they do it rather than having IT do it, but they're just not as trained in project management."

This is a particular problem for the customization of SAP applications because many projects are overseen by the business side, which lacks the skills to control the quality of outsourced technical help, Curtis said.

Aim for project team stability

Closely monitoring a customization project and keeping a stable team are two ways to address the problems, Curtis said. Before entering into any outsourced project, companies should specify in writing what they expect for reliability, security, maintainability and performance. Then they must continually monitor the ABAP code as it comes in and analyze it before it goes into operations.

Another major problem with outsourcing, however, is the constant movement of the people who do the work.

"You get one team in and by the time they've run the system, they've moved somewhere else," Curtis said. "So, it may make some sense to try to write in some formal aspects of the contract that retain some level of stability, because you don't want them to learn your system and then move on. You want them there at least significantly longer so they can get a quality result. So, managing the staff turnover through contractual means is probably very important."

In its report, CAST Research Labs examined 83 ABAP applications consisting of more than 49 million lines of code (MLOC). The size of individual applications varied, with some made up of more than 2 MLOC. Almost half of the applications were in manufacturing (41 of them), while the government and retail sectors each had more than 10 applications. The rest of the applications came from the energy, IT consulting, telecom, utilities and financial sectors.

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