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SAP greenfield vs. brownfield approach: Which to use for S/4HANA

Here's an explanation of the key differences between SAP greenfield vs. brownfield, what each approach means for an S/4HANA migration and which questions best help you decide.

One of the most discussed issues related to S/4HANA migrations is the brownfield vs. greenfield issue.

Most SAP customers really need to do two migrations: They'll need to migrate to a new database, and they'll need to migrate their applications to S/4HANA. Let's look at the differences between brownfield and greenfield approaches, and which one best enables that transition.

What is a greenfield approach?

The greenfield approach is a brand-new implementation of SAP S/4HANA, starting from scratch. The greenfield approach involves installing and configuring a brand-new network. It's disruptive and can be costly, but it gives you a clean slate and complete freedom.

The greenfield approach is similar to migrating from a different ERP product altogether. In both instances, you'd plan for a new instance of S/4HANA by understanding your current business processes, then revamping them to align your business processes with the software's capabilities. You'd then deploy the software, migrate your data from the old system and train your staff to use the new system.

If you're eager to take advantage of S/4HANA's new capabilities, and if you see substantial benefits in reengineering your processes, then a greenfield approach might be what you're looking for.

What is a brownfield approach?

The brownfield approach involves upgrading an existing network and continuing to use some legacy components. It's similar to a traditional upgrade because it involves a software update, some data transformation and some tweaking of business processes. It's still disruptive, but much less so than a greenfield implementation.

If you are risk-averse, prefer to take a gradual approach to utilizing S/4HANA's capabilities or are worried about the costs of a greenfield approach to S/4HANA, then you may prefer this approach.

S/4HANA data migration

Regardless of whether you go with a greenfield or brownfield approach, you'll need to perform some data transformation. With a greenfield project, you'll need to do a full-scale data migration. Anyone who has ever done a system rollout knows just how much work that implies -- especially if the business processes and data models underlying those processes have changed significantly. 

In a greenfield project, you should expect that some data will simply be too expensive to migrate. Historical data, including detailed records of receivables and payables, for example, will likely not get transferred.

Decide on your S/4HANA approach with these questions

Which approach is better? It really depends on your company and its existing SAP implementation.

Ask yourself these questions before making the big decision:

As a general rule, does your organization prefer rapid innovation with some associated risk, or a safer, gradual approach? If you're on the cutting edge, go with greenfield. If you prefer the more conservative route, take the brownfield approach.

Are you using business processes that no longer suit your organization? If your organization has changed significantly since your initial system implementation, then it might be time for a fresh start with a greenfield approach.

Will you still need your customizations when you get to S/4HANA? The new product provides a lot of updated features. Be prepared to evaluate your existing customizations to determine whether S/4HANA could address some of that functionality out of the box.

How important is it that you retain your historical data? If you're doing a greenfield implementation, it's unlikely that you'll bring all your historical data over to the new system. Are you willing to forfeit having that detail in your live system? 

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