Channel Program Reorganization, HANA Road Map Top SAP Partners' Sapphire Agendas

SAP is holding its Sapphire Now conference for customers and solution providers this week. And channel partners have questions -- lots of questions.

SAP is undergoing some monumental changes, from the vendor's strategic shift into cloud computing, to major shake-ups in the executive suite and within the company's channel organization.

Partners generally applaud SAP's direction, in terms of the vendor's technology and product strategy and in the still-evolving overhaul of its channel operations.

[Related: SAP Creates New Channel ]

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"It's still a good time to be an SAP partner," said Alex Rooney, vice president at Vision33, an SAP Gold Partner based in Irvine, Calif.

But things have been tumultuous at SAP in recent weeks. Early last month, the company announced a series of management changes, including the surprise departures of Shawn Price, the company's top cloud executive, and Vishal Sikka, the development executive who was most responsible for developing the HANA in-memory database upon which the company is betting its technology future.

The company also restructured its channel organization, creating the new Global Partner Operations organization and naming Americas president Rodolpho Cardenuto as the new channel chief.

"SAP does tend to shuffle the decks constantly," Vision33's Rooney said in an interview. While that can create uncertainty, he was quick to say it did not seem to impact the channel managers he works with on a day-to-day basis. "The one thing we would love to see out of SAP is some continuity. It seems like they're doing a re-org every six months," said Karen Mills, executive vice president at Idhasoft, a Santa Ana Calif.-based solution provider and SAP Gold Channel partner.

Waldorf, Germany-based SAP traditionally has been an engineering-focused company: SAP was to software what BMW is to cars. But CEO Bill McDermott's background is in sales, and Brad Windecker, president of Portland, Ore.-based Orchestra Software, an SAP Gold Partner as well, is seeing McDermott's influence. "I think SAP is turning into a real sales company," he said.

That brings about other challenges. One channel partner has experienced channel conflict in the last year with SAP salespeople calling on some of the partners' accounts in the $200 million to $500 million range. "It really did impact our business in a negative way," said the partner, who asked not to be named.

While the partner thinks Cardenuto "gets" the channel, a lot of new sales hires don't, and the partner is hoping to hear at Sapphire how the new channel chief plans to address the issue.

Vishal Awasthi, chief technology officer at Dolphin Enterprise Solutions, a West Chester, Pa.-based SAP partner, called Sikka's departure "shocking" given his role in developing HANA. "He was the flag bearer behind HANA for the last few years," Awasthi said.

But that doesn't seem to have shaken partners' belief in SAP's commitment to HANA. Indeed, in recent weeks it's become clear that SAP's new tagline is "the cloud computing company powered by SAP HANA" -- a motto Sapphire attendees will hear a lot this week.

Awasthi pointed to the availability of key applications such as the SAP Business Suite ERP software to run on HANA as evidence of the vendor's seriousness about the platform. "It shows this is getting past the hype cycle," he said.

Still, at Sapphire he wants to hear more about SAP's messaging around HANA and the vendor's cloud services -- "Because we have changed our strategies and road map to align with that." And he wants to hear more details about SAP's plans for providing mobile device access to core ERP applications.

"SAP is evolving, and I think they're going to get there," said Idhasoft's Mills, referring to the focus on cloud applications and HANA. Idhasoft's customers are increasingly interested in cloud services, she said. And while she admits she was very skeptical about HANA as recently as last year, "This year I'm sold," she said, noting that she has meetings with nearly 50 prospective HANA customers at Sapphire.

"SAP is moving very fast," said Dorothee Andermann, vice president of SAP products at Brainloop, an SAP technology partner that develops a secure, cloud-based file and document-sharing system that works with SAP's cloud offerings. Despite all the changes at the company, "It's still all about SAP being a cloud company," she said.

Several partners see what Orchestra's Windecker called "a stronger, more strategic focus" on SAP Business One, the company's application set for small businesses that's sold almost exclusively through the channel. Under the recent reorganization the product was put under the direct control of the new GPO organization.

"This is a complete 180-degree turn from two or three years ago," Windecker said. SAP held a Business One Innovation Summit last month and he expects the product to be more visible at this Sapphire than in previous years.

Business One is also a big product for Vision33 and at Sapphire Rooney wants to hear SAP's views on selling the product to big companies for use in departments and subsidiaries.

Late last year, in fact, Vision33 acquired Encaptis, a leading reseller of Business One in Canada. That gives Vision33 a significant Business One footprint throughout all of North America, Rooney said. "We wouldn't have done that if we didn't think that SAP was the best place to invest our corporate dollars in a partner relationship."