SAP's Agassi Unravels The Meaning Of NetWeaver

A member of the Executive Board of SAP AG, Shai Agassi is the person most responsible for SAP's NetWeaver platform. It was Agassi who first introduced the idea of an application and integration platform to SAP's top executives. And it is Agassi who now, as SAP's chief technologist, oversees the entire development effort. Agassi recently sat down with CRN West Coast Bureau Chief Rochelle Garner to talk about the software's potential impact on systems integrators throughout the industry.

CRN: At the last SAPphire conference, SAP made it abundantly clear that NetWeaver is critical to the company's product and marketing strategy. But NetWeaver provides so many functions, like business integration, business intelligence, composite applications and RFID support, that it's really hard to know what NetWeaver actually is and what it means to your partners and the partners of IBM, Oracle and other infrastructure companies.

AGASSI: If look at what SAP does really well, is we take non-core processes that are essential to run your business but not necessarily differentiate it. They are called best practices. Best practices are things that all companies need to do. Order to cash. Inventory management. Things of that nature. And we let you do them in a package that's out of the box. That's the classic SAP applications.

Now look at core processes, which require you to come in and build something that's differentiated. When we looked at core and non-core, one of the things that we realized is things that you may view as core today may be seen as non-core three years down the road. Things that differentiate you and allow you to capture market share, a few years down the road your competitors are pretty much doing the same things. But if you've built these two in context on two separate islands, you will still need to maintain the code you wrote for these core processes for ever and ever and ever.

So what needs to happen is the ability to build stuff on one environment that allows you to leverage the investment you have, in the other. Build core processes by leveraging the assets you have running your other, non-differentiated processes. But really package them. Compose them in a way that you couldn't do before -- and by that, differentiating your processes. So we figured out there's a conveyor belt, if you want, that connects your context side and your core side. That conveyor belt is what allows you to take the investment you make in your processes -- and compose them better, and differently, and differentiate with them. That conveyor belt is NetWeaver.

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CRN: This is beginning to sound like the messaging around Web services, with the ability to separate out logic from the data.

AGASSI: This is what services-oriented architectures is all about. It's about how you put these small pieces into something that is meaningful, that is valuable. It's about composition, not decomposition. Most of the market has looked over the last three or four years at the decomposition [and] the technology descriptors you put around Web services. We looked at how do you put the pieces together. How can you now recompose to one process one way and another process a different way, but with high reuse of these components.

That's where we started with XApps, and packaged composite applications. Through that composition we've learned what needs to happen in a service enablement and what needs to happen in a composition platform, which is what NetWeaver began as. And so we end up with three layers, all very closely working and aligned to one another: The collection of services. A very clean collection of business objects, their properties, their methods so that you recompose these services in new and meaningful ways. And composites, which are solutions that sit on top of these reconfigurable pieces.

CRN: Looking at it that way, NetWeaver is less an application integration platform and more of an application compositor.

AGASSI: Right. The big story is not just the integration of pieces, it's composition. And it's not just keep the monoliths the way they were before, and let them talk to one another. That was the first generation, where messaging came from and where portals came in, and where business integration is. You wouldn't get a composition value just from a portal. You'd just get a veneer of these systems. You wouldn't get composition value from EAI. You'd just get data synchronization. But if you put all of these elements in one environment, which is what NetWeaver was, you suddenly can compose new, complete solutions from the underlying elements.

CRN: One of the things people have been trying to figure out is where NetWeaver fits in, in the industry.

AGASSI: We've reshuffled the industry.

CRN: How do you describe that reshuffling?

AGASSI: I think there's an emergence of a platform called a business platform or a business process platform, depending on how you want to describe it. It's a combination of the whole Web services stack and the collection of application objects and processes -- all coming in together, served from one environment. That business process platform was not there before. JP Morgan [recently] called it the "applistructure" market -- application and infrastructure coming together. That reshuffles the play because you couldn't build one or the other. You need to have both.

CRN: Both integrated in one piece?

AGASSI: Both integrated in one piece, thought-out and designed together to leverage one another. It's not just slapping one on top of the other. It's figuring out what can you do that you couldn't do before.

CRN: Obviously though, a lot of people are trying to figure out if now, you're competing against companies that have long been your partners? IBM and Microsoft come to mind.

AGASSI: Because you reshuffle an industry, everybody competes against everybody else and everybody's a friend of someone else. You take something that was layered very neatly and turn it over on a 90 degree axis -- everything is looking a bit muddied and reorienting. SAP and IBM are great partners. It's very important to understand that we actually think IBM will do a lot of NetWeaver implementations, maybe even the most NetWeaver implementations in the world. We can't confuse this into an SAP/IBM conflict.

We have pieces that offer same or similar capabilities as WebSphere. We offer NetWeaver, which is a lot more integrated with SAP's applications. And we offer SAP's applications, which run only on NetWeaver. They will not run on any other stack. They will not run on WebLogic, ever. We served our customers' needs in the sense of having a single, unified environment that they only need to put the pieces together for it to run.

Now the same client came in and said "you're not going to be the only stack in town." They want interoperability, so if they build something in one environment they can call back between the two. And that's something we provided as well.

We cannot build our applications on someone else's stack because we'd have to build it on all of the stacks. And in that case our economics go all to hell. So we at least need to have something where we can have an end to end solution. And once we have an end to end solution, it cannot stop at the boundaries of SAP. It has to go beyond SAP. And if our solution goes beyond SAP it can run even if you have no SAP. So it ends up that we are in that middleware market, whether we liked it or not.

CRN: At the PeopleSoft Connect conference, [former CEO] Craig Conway made a point of contrasting NetWeaver with PeopleSoft's new IBM alliance, where they will rearchitect PeopleSoft for WebSphere. Conway said this approach is superior to SAP's.

AGASSI: I think they've just validated the point that we've been making for the past three years. For three years they've been telling the world no one needs NetWeaver. And now they're coming back and saying a) you need a platform, and b) it needs to be tightly integrated with the application -- so tightly integrated that are saying they will invest $1 billion to create that coupling between the two. That has validated the whole view of applications and infrastructure coming together.

CRN: What do you think CRN's readers need to hear about the importance of NetWeaver to SAP, and to them?

AGASSI: NetWeaver is for real. We had a goal of 1,000 reference customers by the end of the year. We hit that mark after about six months. We started from 30 at the beginning of the year. We have a pretty tough definition of what a reference customer is. People who are willing to stand up and say we are using NetWeaver, multiple components of NetWeaver, SAP and non-SAP data, and SAP and non-SAP processes, and were willing to sign a document saying there were happy and would sign their name to it. That was a very big goal for us.

CRN: Although some people could say that's a factor of your including NetWeaver with every SAP application.

AGASSI: It's not whether we sell it. Do people use it. That's the big story. It's probably one of the fastest adoption curves in the market now. I believe the SAP market is moving into faster adoption of NetWeaver than we believed when we started this thing. As a result of that, a lot of skills will be built in the market. In our partners, and around the world, you'll see NetWeaver skills ramping up to support that kind of demand curve. And those skills will not stop at the boundary of an SAP customer, because the technology was designed to be used with anything.

CRN readers need to understand. It's beyond SAP. And it's a great opportunity for everyone in this market, either as a customer, or a provider, to take this and build a business around it.

CRN: Does this require that customers first build up their own internal services-oriented architecture?

AGASSI: What customers need to do is not build their own SOA, but to understand how does SOA impact them. And they need to start thinking about their business in the sense of service - in the sense of events, in the sense of what am I measuring, how do I improve these process flows of information. But they don't have to create an architecture, which is what some of the vendors are telling them. We are saying we've done a lot of the heavy lifting. We've built a service oriented application. Learn from us. Don't reinvent.