Happy 10th birthday, NetWeaver

SAP NetWeaver is now ten years old. Analyst Dennis Byron reflects on NetWeaver's past and the strengths and weaknesses of SAP's approach in the middleware and service-oriented architecture (SOA) space.

Conventional wisdom among pundits and the press is that SAP's NetWeaver is an ambitious but unproven middleware concept. SAP's competitors wish it were so.

The good news for conservative long-time R/3 users and potential first-time SAP users alike is that, at its core, NetWeaver is ten-year-old portal, Web server, desktop integration and data warehousing technology with NetWeaver mobile functionality almost as time tested. Specifically:

  • The NetWeaver portal dates to SAP's 2001 acquisition of Top Tier, but the NetWeaver portal technology even pre-dates TopTier's debut as a corporate entity in 1997; its first vestiges can be found in Top Tier's predecessor's mid-1990s efforts to build a true "integration portal" (as opposed to the hyper-GUIs popular at the time).
  • Similarly, SAP rolled out its Business Information Warehouse (BW) in September 1997. SAP had experimented with what it called Open Information Warehouse for a few years before that.
  • Also in 1997, with R/3 Release 3.1G, the SAP Internet Transaction Server (ITS) and Internet Application Components (IACs) became available. The former is a precursor to NetWeaver Web Application Server and the latter is loosely a precursor to both Duet and xApps.
  • Admittedly ruining my article's balance, it wasn't until June 1998 that Symbol, Abaco and 3Com's Palm unit announced the development efforts that have led to NetWeaver Mobile.

Despite the latter factoid, I date NetWeaver to the naming of Top Tier, the announcement of BW and the release of ITS and IAC in 1997 and wish it a happy tenth birthday this year.

The analysts' misdirection about NetWeaver comes because these proven NetWeaver capabilities are generally running on top of more modern underlying infrastructure and are available with modern development tools, such as Java and a composite framework.

Many consider NetWeaver to be new functionality because it is also part of a generation of middleware that has emerged since 1997 to enable more holistic business process management. It uses multi-function application/integration servers, handling both straight-through and exception-heavy processes, rather than using unifunctional transaction processors like in R/3 Basis or message-oriented middleware to handle one type of process set or another. This new middleware generation is particularly important in handling business processes that cross legal entities.

The NetWeaver infrastructure is time-proven as well, because NetWeaver is built on NetWeaver. That sounds circular, but what I mean to say is that the portal and mobile software have long used the NetWeaver integration layer. And as of the latest NetWeaver release, 2004s (not generally available until 2006, which proves that SAP still isn't quite the marketing machine that other leading software suppliers are), BW has been redesigned to also use that layer, which lets BW provide improved data modeling and data acquisition, transformation, and data flow control. And in September 2006, SAP announced that NetWeaver has been certified as J2EE 5 compatible.

So SAP has kept up with the new; it was just buried under the covers of Top Tier and NetWeaver portal. Starting with a portal is a less well known but equally effective integration approach as compared to data or application integration products such as the Informatica Power line of data integration software, the IBM WebSphere application server or TIBCO message queue products.

Today's integration products are as influential in changing the information technology market as the client/server paradigm was when SAP adopted it in the late 1980s. The decision by SAP to jumpstart its modern integration efforts from a portal technology base was not only logical but may prove to be brilliant, because the real integration challenge going forward is B2B, B2C, B2G and so forth, not just A2A within the firewall of enterprises. Portal integration is a technically elegant means of enabling such integration.

NetWeaver's elegance is good news for SAP engineers and its ISV partners, and NetWeaver's ten-year history is good news for the SAP user. Because of this history, the portal and business intelligence components of NetWeaver are among the most referenceable. The stuff works:

  • Of eight independently produced case studies on the SAP Web site, five emphasize the benefits of the portal, while a sixth emphasizes a combination of the portal, BI and the NetWeaver Exchange Infrastructure (XI).
  • In the in-house-produced NetWeaver magazine, also available on their Web site, three of seven case studies emphasize BI, two the portal and one the combination of the two.

Of course, one hates to be critical at a birthday party, but there is a lingering question about NetWeaver's overall strength. These disparate capabilities all pre-date the name NetWeaver itself (circa 2003).

Obviously there was no Top Tier portal at SAP on which to base BW when it was announced in 1997, and the ITS was not up to the task. BW was configured as a separate instance of R/3. This is a legitimate criticism. But SAP seems to be counterattacking competitive claims that NetWeaver is based on its fourth generation SAP proprietary language ABAP with the J2EE certification announcement. (Actually NetWeaver is also compatible with ABAP, just as Oracle Fusion middleware is compatible with an outdated fourth generation Oracle proprietary language called Forms.)

SAP got to say NetWeaver was "5 compliant" before Oracle got to say it about Fusion. As a J2EE 1.5 compliant implementation, the NetWeaver AS joins only Sun's product and TMAX Jeus 6 as compatible with the newest level of the popular reference architecture, which was released in May 2006. Being certified J2EE 5 compliant does hold down internal development costs, a second level benefit to the user even though it primarily helps SAP. And the BW design issue has been solved as discussed above.

To bring the discussion full circle, even MDM has historic roots. In an interesting series of lectures that are available for download at Plattner's Institute's Web site, SAP founder Hasso Plattner covers the history of enterprise application computing using (of course) R/2, R/3 and their follow-on products as examples. He begins by describing the real-time-integrated nature of the very first mainframe-based R/2, when everything else at that time (MAPICS, J.D. Edwards, etc.) was batch or file transfer-based, and he shows how that feature and function was brought over to R/3. Plattner then gives SAP's admittedly weak argument for splitting BW, as well as CRM and SCP, apart from the transactional ERP system, which SAP began to do in the 1996 timeframe. With this change, SAP was no longer truly "real-time integrated."

Plattner says he never really favored the split; he notes that this design decision is why SAP applications at the time of the lecture (as of early 2006) have three different customer data definitions (in the CRM instance, the mobile sales instance and the ERP instance). He is happy to say that SAP will have the data definitions back together by 2008 under NetWeaver. This is what NetWeaver MDM is all about.

From a NetWeaver birthday perspective, this means that SAP brings both old and new to the user and most users prefer that approach to the alternative of being alone on the bleeding edge. As for naming the baby so long after its birth date, that's OK by me. An umbrella name is just marketing and "BASIS II" just didn't have a 21st-century, Internet-era ring to it. ----

Dennis Byron is the analyst for IT Investment Research (www.itinvestmentresearch.com) aimed at institutional and individual investors in information technology (IT) or just anyone who likes to peer under the covers of "the financials" where both large companies and emerging IPOs like to bury their most interesting facts. Byron has more than 30 years experience researching and analyzing all areas of information technology and information-systems use, and was a researcher with the Datapro division of McGraw-Hill and IDC. He has conducted over 500 specific information-systems case studies and has contributed to Application Development Trends magazine and other publications. For NetWeaver specific material, see Dennis' publicly available March 29, 2006 seminar presented for sponsor Patni here).

Copyright 2007, Dennis Byron

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