SAP introduced the first in a planned series of developments around its column-store and in-memory computing technologies on Wednesday with the release of SAP High-Performance Analytic Appliance (HANA) software.
SAP HANA promises near real-time analysis of dynamic data within SAP applications as well as external systems to deliver time-sensitive insight.
Utility companies, for example, could use HANA to monitor and manage power loads as usage levels fluctuate. Airlines, hotel chains and e-retailers could monitor sales and adjust pricing in real time to continuously optimize revenue and profitability. And any sales-driven organization could gauge the sales pipelines and provide up-to-the-minute forecasts.
These and other new applications based on real-time transactional insight will be delivered in the coming year, according to SAP. The first HANA-based application, also introduced on Wednesday, is SAP BusinessObjects Strategic Workforce Planning.
It's a surprising choice as a first HANA application in that it does not involve fast-changing transactional data, as employee ranks don't tend to change from day to day. But the predictive modeling and ad-hoc simulation required for rapid-fire workforce planning would not be achievable without HANA's in-memory analysis capabilities, SAP said.
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Over time, SAP says it will release upgrades of HANA that will replace BWA, Explorer and BW itself. Eventually, SAP says it will give customers the option of running their entire application platform on top of the technology. As outlined by SAP Chairman Hasso Plattner at the company's SAPPHIRE event earlier this year, that final step will erase the boundary between transaction processing and data warehousing, eliminating the need for costly and redundant infrastructure.
The HANA software available today will be preinstalled on appliances powered by multi-core, 64-bit blade servers from hardware partners including HP, IBM, Dell, Fujitsu Siemens and Cisco.
These blade servers have up to two terabytes of onboard random access memory (RAM) and sell for as little as $50,000 per blade. That combination has forced a rethinking of data management to take advantage of the massive computing power available, SAP said.
"We can now take the raw transactional data out of ERP systems and other sources, replicate that data into HANA and let end users directly analyze the information without aggregations, summarizations or transformations, as the data comes in," said Vishal Sikka, SAP's executive board member overseeing technology and innovation.
HANA uses a data replication server from SAP's recently acquired Sybase unit to copy data from any source system into HANA. The latency of that data movement is as low as milliseconds, according to Sikka.
SAP declined to detail specific configurations or pricing of appliances. In fact, it said it will not publically release the pricing of its software, disclosing terms only to customers participating in early deployments.
One such customer is Hilti, a manufacturer that participated in early tests of HANA. A Hilti executive said the company has successfully piloted a customer reporting application involving some nine million customer records. The report previously took two to three hours and involved multiple query steps, but in HANA it's a one-step query that takes just two to three seconds, according to Christi Ritter of Hilti's global IT organization.
"HANA will have a deep impact and will be the starting point for a transformation not only in IT, but in our ability to provide information to the people who are directly involved in transactional operations," Ritter said. He noted that end users could ask questions and gain insights instantly rather than having to wait for ETL batch processes involving IT.
Hilti's next step will be to move open-order and customer-view reports into HANA. If results are consistent with the initial pilot, the company could save as much as one full-time-equivalent in each of 70 global marketing groups, Ritter said.
HANA is decidedly not a big-data appliance in that RAM remains as much as 20 times more expensive than comparable disk-based storage capacity, according to Gartner analyst Donald Feinberg. That said, Feinberg predicts SAP's rivals will also move toward in-memory database structures as hardware vendors turn out blades with more processing cores and memory at ever-lower cost.
"If HP, IBM and Dell can create these boards, there's no reason [Oracle] Sun can't," Feinberg said, adding "Larry Ellison has commented that Oracle will have an in-memory, column-store database by next year."
Whether Oracle and others will also propose taking layers out of the IT stack, as SAP has, remains to be seen. For now, HANA is an add-on to existing environments, so it has to justify a payback without the promise of cutting cost from existing deployments.
"If you can save $50 million on a $2 million investment, there isn't a company that wouldn't do that," Feinberg said. "But you have to have a high-value application to rationalize the investment."