02 December, 2010

Slide deck from Share 2010 on improving SAP usability with InfoPath and Winshuttle

Earlier this week, I delivered a presentation on using InfoPath to address SAP usability issues at the Share 2010 conference in Sydney, Australia. Ten years after SharePoint technologies first hit the market, Share 2010 was really the first dedicated SharePoint conference entirely devoted to covering the business challenges around the SharePoint platform. Speakers included early evangelists of a more business-oriented approach to SharePoint such as Paul Culmsee, Michael Sampson, Dux Raymond Sy and Erica Toelle. Overall, Share 2010 was a resounding success and the vibe was unlike anything I have ever seen at the more technical SharePoint events around the world.

Considering Share 2010 was aimed at the SharePoint community, I wasn’t sure beforehand how big of an audience I would get to a session about a specialised topic such as SAP usability. But as it turned out, the positive feedback was overwhelming. Oxygen and IQX also delivered a presentation on SAP/SharePoint interoperability solutions and both sessions were very well attended. Since most attendees were from the business side, many were also regular users of SAP. If your business runs on SAP and SharePoint is your portal platform of choice, then it makes perfect sense to explore ways of surfacing SAP through SharePoint.

In my session, I went through how we can leverage the Winshuttle 10 platform to rapidly build data entry forms in InfoPath which post data directly to SAP. Data collected in these forms are posted to SAP via web services which are authored and deployed by business users with Winshuttle. I am not aware of any other technologies in the current marketplace that will effectively empower business users to build their own web services for SAP without writing a single line of code. The slide deck below provides some insight into how this works.

As a Product Manager for key components of the Winshuttle platform, I am obviously very keen to hear your feedback on all this. It is an approach which can be applied to hundreds of common use cases which are currently not very well supported by the more developer-centric and resource intensive options out there. I look forward to your comments below.

01 December, 2010

General availability of Duet Enterprise

The long anticipated development platform for SAP/Microsoft interoperability solutions, Duet Enterprise, is slated for general availability later this week. To mark this milestone, there will be a Duet Enterprise Launch Summit on the 1st of February 2011. The summit will have physical events in Frankfurt and Orlando, but you can also attend the event online at no cost.

For companies that run on SAP and utilise SharePoint as the broad collaboration platform within the enterprise, Duet Enterprise provides interoperability infrastructure and a development framework for building solutions that span across both technology stacks. It supports all versions of SAP from 4.6c and up, but does require NetWeaver 7.02 and SharePoint 2010 (and optionally Office 2010 for offline scenarios).

25 November, 2010

Presenting on ERP usability at Share 2010

Next week, the inaugural Share 2010 will see the light. Share 2010 is the first SharePoint conference focusing entirely on the business aspects of SharePoint. I will be presenting on how business users can use SharePoint and InfoPath to improve ERP usability. In particular, I will be showing some of the cool new solutions business users are able to build by leveraging the Winshuttle 10 platform.

Improving ERP usability with SharePoint and InfoPath
Monday 29 November | 16.30 – 17.25 | Track
40% of ERP implementations have user adoption issues resulting in limited ROI from initial investments in ERP. Usability issues for the casual user of core systems such as SAP often lead to complex business processes taking up unnecessary time and resources throughout the organisation.
Considering SharePoint has become the de facto collaboration platform for many organisations and proven popular amongst business users, it is worth asking the question: Is the time ripe for taking SharePoint to the next level and utilise the platform for improving business processes that involve interactions with the ERP system?
In this session, we will discuss what it takes to surface ERP functionality in SharePoint solutions following an approach that is entirely driven by business users. In particular we will see specific examples of how a business user can utilise SharePoint, InfoPath and Winshuttle to build alternative user interfaces for SAP, with no programming involved.

Throughout the conference I will be keen to catch up with anyone who wants to discuss SAP/SharePoint solutions. Bringing SAP into SharePoint provides an excellent opportunity for taking SharePoint to a whole new level. Just ping me on Twitter (@kalsing) or call my mobile number on the conference networking list.

19 October, 2010

SAP Project ‘Gateway’ and lightweight consumption

SAP has for quite some time been working on a new integration technology, codenamed Project ‘Gateway.’ They have kept their cards close but SAP TechEd has revealed a few details and one important point has become clear. It is not a replacement for existing integration technologies such as Enterprise Services. Project ‘Gateway’ provides an additional way of exposing SAP data to other platforms and it is specialised for lightweight consumption. Enterprise Services will remain the preferred option for heavier integration. Richard Hirsch has posted an excellent overview of the concepts of lightweight consumption versus heavyweight integration.

The ‘Gateway’ technology attaches to existing SAP systems, even older versions. Developers will then be able to build lightweight front-ends in various web technologies including ASP.NET, PHP and Ruby on Rails as well as targeting mobile platforms such as Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry and iPhone. In developing ‘Gateway,’ SAP has primarily been working with three partners: Microsoft, IBM and RIM. As such, it is the underlying technology of the latest iterations of both Microsoft’s Duet Enterprise and IBM’s Alloy. There is also a new product on its way built for BlackBerry.

From an interoperability perspective, it is potentially a disruptive technology as it opens up unprecedented opportunities for reaching new users with SAP. The idea of a lightweight consumption pattern will be well received by most customers who are looking for more agile ways of delivering business applications. Project ‘Gateway’ is definitely another sign of the changing tide at SAP where third-party platforms are increasingly seen as an opportunity for enlarging the footprint of SAP rather than a threat to their dominance of the technical landscape.

12 October, 2010

SharePoint leading Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for horizontal portals

Gartner has for quite some time positioned Microsoft as a leader when it comes to providing portal-type capabilities. Now Microsoft SharePoint is taking the absolute lead in the recently updated version of the Magic Quadrant for horizontal portals. Compared to the 2009 edition, Microsoft has just edged past IBM. There are few changes to the rest of the quadrant with the other major players having retained their existing positions relative to each other.

Improvements in SharePoint 2010 could well push SharePoint beyond being just a basic intranet and document collaboration tool. It is now a more capable platform for creating and delivering composite applications, which means we will start seeing more business data surfaced in SharePoint. It is also worth noting that Microsoft is the only significant portal vendor in the magic quadrant which has a multitenant, elastic cloud-based portal offering. SharePoint Online is already proving to be a huge success with a 300% growth this year alone and more than 40 million paid seats in total.

SAP has also retained a leadership position in the magic quadrant, but I dare say this is based on the success of SAP ERP rather than the portal and user experience capabilities of NetWeaver Portal itself. The vast majority of NetWeaver Portal deployments are vertically focused, enabling SAP applications in a web environment. NetWeaver Portal does have improved features for content management and collaboration with Web Page Composer and Enterprise Workspaces, but only time will tell whether more customers will start using the product for more than as a web enabler for SAP business applications. Even the latter is no longer a given considering that Enhancement Pack 5 has decoupled core business packages such as ESS and MSS from the NetWeaver Portal.

On the whole, this updated magic quadrant is a positive read for SAP/SharePoint interoperability enthusiasts. SharePoint is maturing and becoming a true enterprise-level platform with enhanced capabilities for composite business applications. NetWeaver Portal, despite being a solid product, has a hazier future in SAP’s growing array of UI technologies including Duet Enterprise for Microsoft SharePoint. More than ever, enterprise portals are being evaluated for their potential as complete usability platforms providing users with a unified experience across disparate applications. Considering SAP is rarely the only significant back-end system in a large enterprise, SharePoint is compelling because it is largely agnostic with respect to business applications.

12 August, 2010

Current hot topics for SharePoint business users

During three days in Sydney later this year (29 November-1 December 2010), the inaugural version of Share 2010 will take place. Share 2010 is essentially a much anticipated new SharePoint conference aimed entirely at business users. Until now, business users driving SharePoint within their respective organisations have not had a conference solely focused on the non-technical business-oriented aspects of SharePoint. This conference will fill that gap.

I have been involved in some research work for Eventful Management, the organisers behind Share 2010, to help identify and prioritise the current hot topics for SharePoint business users. The research is based on inputs from more than 100 SharePoint customers across Australia and New Zealand as well as thought leaders from around the world. Below is the consolidated list of hot topics that came out of this research in order of priority:

  1. Governance
  2. User Training and Change Management
  3. Business Process Automation and Workflow
  4. Information Architecture
  5. Information Discovery (including Search)
  6. Collaboration
  7. Document and Records Management
  8. Reporting and Analytics (Business Intelligence)
  9. Integration with other Systems
  10. Resourcing and Support
  11. Social Networking
  12. Selling the Value and Demonstrating ROI
  13. Security
  14. Going 2010
  15. Extranet Collaboration with External People
  16. Third-Party Partners and Products

The conference content and format is being put together using this hotlist of topics as guidance. You can read more about the essence of each individual topic on the Share 2010 website.

16 July, 2010

Facilitating round table discussions for new SharePoint conference in Australia

Another new SharePoint conference is being launched in Australia. Later this year, Share 2010 will be a conference with a different format and focus than previously seen in Australia and New Zealand, focusing entirely on the business issues and challenges of SharePoint. It's being organised by Eventful Management who for many years have been running some great events in the SAP space. I have been fortunate enough to have been involved in many of their conferences, both as a speaker and as a vendor, and they have always exceeded expectations.

The conference content and format will be driven by the people at the coal face. At the moment, Eventful is running round table discussions in Sydney, Auckland, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth with local people who play a key part of their organisations' SharePoint journey. Based on the outcome of these round table discussions, the conference agenda will be set and speakers invited accordingly. In total, more than 100 community opinions will feed into building the inaugural conference content and style of delivery.

I will be facilitating the round table discussions in Brisbane this coming Thursday. Please provide your input in the comments below if there's something you think should absolutely be part of the conference. What are the biggest pain points you are currently experiencing with SharePoint? In particular from a business and change management perspective? What format would you like to see sessions delivered in? I’ll make sure all your comments and ideas are taken into consideration.

05 July, 2010

SAP/Microsoft interoperability and the composition challenge

The best of both worlds approach is appealing. Leveraging SAP as the transactional backbone and surfacing business data in the Microsoft collaboration and productivity tools that everyone is so familiar with. So why isn't everyone doing it? Because, it is not that straight forward. There is one particular challenge that always needs to be addressed and here I will explain what the fundamental problem is.

When SAP opened up for a more service-oriented approach, they basically just took the lid off the box exposing a rather complicated mess of wires, called RFCs and BAPIs. You can achieve almost anything connecting to these wires but it takes a specialised SAP professional to do so. To overcome this challenge, these wires need to be combined into understandable and reusable sockets which outsiders, such as .NET developers or increasingly business users with the right tools, can easily plug in to.

In other words, connecting directly to RFCs and BAPIs will not get you far if you require anything but the simplest of read-only integration. So, has SAP overcomplicated it by making the API so granular? Not really. Because SAP is one large generic product built to work in pretty much any conceivable industry, it has to be this way. At least when considering the core product.

We have all heard users expressing their frustration with the standard SAP GUI. A lot of that frustration is a consequence of a generic user interface that is not targeted at that particular user's role or industry. It is exactly this same frustration developers experience when connecting directly to the SAP services. The issues users are having with the SAP GUI are reflected in the integration layer when developers are facing the underlying API. Granularity is the culprit in both instances.

There are many tools and technologies which can be employed in the services tier or even to help with point-to-point integration. However, regardless of whether you are using SAP Enterprise Services, SAP Connector for .NET, SAP PI, Microsoft BizTalk, your own custom interoperability components or any combination of the above, you will still encounter the same challenge: Composing easy consumable services from the granular SAP API.

The good news is that this is a problem that can be solved. And it can be solved elegantly. The less positive news, however, is that the reality dictates a wide range of solutions depending on many factors that are specific to your requirements, circumstances and environment. But hopefully this post has helped you focus on where you need to concentrate your effort, particularly when you design your architecture or evaluate various third-party tools and technologies. Always ask the question, "how is this going to make service composition easier?"

Thanks for reading and please do share your thoughts below. Many people out there are eager to hear your professional view on this.

27 June, 2010

SAP is seeking participants for the beta shipment of SAP Connector for .NET 3.0

After abandoning new developments on the SAP Connector for Microsoft .NET, SAP has now announced that a new version 3.0 is planned to be released in December 2010. A beta version will be made available to selected partners and customers during the second half of 2010. By participating in the beta release, you can gain early hands-on experience and get special project support from the product team.

Development on the SAP Connector for .NET was previously withdrawn with a view to put more focus on SAP Enterprise Services as the preferred framework for integration. However, the reality is that customers want options. Enterprise Services may not be the preferred web services layer or web services may not be part of the architecture at all for certain solutions.

If you have access to the SAP Service Marketplace you can find more details here about the beta shipment and how to apply for participation. Note, you are not allowed to use the beta software for production solutions and there is no migration from version 1.0/2.0 to the beta version of release 3.0.

28 April, 2010

Qualifying business scenarios for Duet Enterprise

Further unveiling the potential of Duet Enterprise, the next step is to explore what business scenarios qualify for the platform. The Duet Enterprise product itself will provide a foundation of core capabilities upon which scenarios can be implemented to meet specific business requirements. The success of Duet Enterprise will ultimately depend on the value realised by the solutions built on top of the platform.

The actual product release is still some time away and only limited details about the features have made it to the public domain. But given the conceptual architecture and what we know about the core capabilities, it is worth trying to identify the characteristics of business scenarios that would be a natural fit for Duet Enterprise.

Many are calling out Duet Enterprise as a way of addressing usability issues with SAP. But I would argue it is not necessarily all about usability issues in the existing user base. The biggest opportunity is the potential to reach people that are not currently using SAP at all by giving these people direct access to SAP in the environment they are already comfortable in, i.e. SharePoint and Office.

I would also like to encourage everyone to consider the platform from a much broader perspective than HCM, which seems to be an area that always comes up when discussing SAP/SharePoint solutions. No doubt, there is a lot of potential here and it makes perfect sense if your user base is already using SharePoint. But the idea of empowering a new group of users “further out” to access information and perform transactions directly on the system can be applied to most functional areas, not just HCM.

Assuming your business runs on SAP, SharePoint is your horizontal collaboration platform and you have a well-defined business problem, what are some of the questions you should be asking to qualify a problem as a scenario that can be addressed with a Duet Enterprise solution? At the very least, ask the questions below. The more yes answers, the more suitable your scenario is for Duet Enterprise.

Are non-SAP users involved?

Are the users you are trying to reach not currently using SAP? Do they spend the majority of their day in other tools such as SharePoint and Office?

The current base of SAP power users are generally satisfied with the SAP GUI and a number of new innovations including the Business Client will further serve this user base. I acknowledge that there can be user adoption issues even amongst the core users, but the general overhaul of the UI that SAP is doing with all the new redesigned Web Dynpro interfaces will address this in due course. The point is, you don’t want to simply be redeveloping SAP’s UI as is. Leave that to SAP.

The opportunity with Duet Enterprise is to go beyond the traditional SAP users. These users are often referred to as casual or occasional users of SAP. If the process being considered involves people that are not currently SAP users and these users are already using SharePoint, then Duet Enterprise can bring SAP to them rather than the other way around.

If you are targeting people that are not currently using SAP, then there will obviously be licensing implications. We’re still waiting for more details on this, so there is not much point in speculating about licensing at this stage. But if SAP really wants to reach 1 billion users by 2014, then the licensing model obviously needs to facilitate this.

Is there currently a reliance on SAP power users?

Are users requesting information from SAP users in order to carry out their work tasks? Are they producing or capturing information which ultimately ends up with SAP users who enter the data in the system through the SAP GUI?

A reliance on power users is often streamlined with paper-based forms. The vast majority of paper-based forms are really just a workaround interface to a system that the user does not have access to. The humble paper-based leave form falls into this category. Because the staff member does not have a direct interface to the HR system, a form is filled in which ultimately ends up with an SAP power user in the HR department who will manually key the data into the system. Think about other functional areas where there are scenarios similar to this.

SharePoint, with its forms rendering capabilities and underlying workflow engine, can be utilised as a platform for automating some of these paper-based processed. With External Content Types provided by Duet Enterprise these interfaces can expose data directly from the SAP system. The Federated Search capability of Duet Enterprise is another great way of minimising reliance on power users by opening up access to SAP data to a larger user base, still respecting security.

Does the scenario involve collaborative activities?

Is input required from many people? Is it an iterative feedback process where an artefact circles through the same steps many times? Is the collaborative part of the process evolving and as a result required to be tweaked on an ongoing basis?

SharePoint's core strength is around collaboration, so it makes sense to manage the more collaborative part of a business process within SharePoint. It’s a case of using the best tool for purpose, which organisations are already doing. But there is typically a complete disconnect between the transactional and collaborative activities. Duet Enterprise will open up an opportunity to bridge that gap.

The Enterprise Collaboration core capability of Duet Enterprise empowers users to create collaboration sites around SAP business data entities and the Contextual Workflow capability allows SAP workflows to be extended within SharePoint to cover the collaborative part of an end-to-end business process.

Is there manipulation of unstructured data (i.e. documents)?

Does the business process include editing one or more Office documents? Would the users be more productive using tools like Word or OneNote to collate data for the business transaction? Are document artefacts being produced as part of the process?

SharePoint is tightly integrated with the Office client tools providing a seamless experience for working with and collaborating on documents. With a Duet Enterprise solution you can give document authors easier access to business information in SAP from within the authoring tools (e.g. Word, etc.), eliminating the need to switch to another interface or request the information from someone else.

Duet Enterprise also makes it possible to create sites with 360 degree views of SAP business data entities. On these sites you can mix structured data from SAP with unstructured content managed in SharePoint. You can view and create unstructured data without losing the context of the core business process.

Are role-specific interfaces required?

Should information be presented in different ways to different users? Would the interface be more logical to the users if it was targeted at their specific roles?

Leveraging the audience targeting features, most objects in SharePoint can be targeted at specific groups of users. Views of data can be customised to what a specific role requires and whole blocks of functionality (web parts) can be shown or hidden depending on the audience. With Duet Enterprise, these audiences can be defined based on SAP roles.

Role-specific interfaces are a result of an outside-in approach as opposed to an inside-out approach. Applications are designed around the needs of the business role rather than from the perspective of one single system.

There is also an opportunity to empower business users to assemble interfaces for other users. The web part framework is SharePoint provides a highly flexible UI which is easily configurable by the end user. A savvy business user can add or remove web parts, lay out the screens and change basic configuration settings.

Is the business data sourced from SAP as well as from other databases?

Is the scenario touching data that resides in line-of-business systems other than SAP? Are you aggregating information from multiple sources? Are parts of the captured data required to be stored in non-SAP databases?

SharePoint is an agnostic platform that can potentially connect to any back-end system. This makes it ideal as a platform for mashing up content from various sources. SharePoint’s BCS which play a fundamental part of Duet Enterprise is designed to work generically with almost any data source.

In all its essence, it is about providing a better alternative for the “swivel chair users” so they no longer have to turn from system to system to system to gather what data they need to complete a business task.

A Duet Enterprise solution would provide the SAP piece of the puzzle. SharePoint web parts exposing SAP data can be designed to connect easily with other web parts on the same page. We are then using SharePoint as a platform for enterprise mash-ups aggregating information from various data sources.

Is business data accessed or updated offline?

Will the users be taking the business data with them to access it outside of network connectivity? Will they be updating the data while they are on the road? Do you currently have to use other products for storing this data offline?

Offline scenarios are currently hard to cover with standard SAP technologies alone. The problem is usually solved either by cumbersome paper-based processes or by deploying third-products that includes a standalone database. This introduces overheads in the form of comprehensive manual data entry or integration challenges with third-party applications.

Baked into the SharePoint and Office platform (2010) is a comprehensive framework for managing data offline and synchronising it with the system of origin. This means that SAP data surfaced through Duet Enterprise can be taken offline with either Outlook or SharePoint Workspace and even be updated while disconnected. The framework will automatically manage the synchronisation with the SAP back-end whenever there is connectivity.

I hope the questions above have provided you with some guidelines for qualifying scenarios for Duet Enterprise. It will be interesting to follow in the years to come. I expect we will see some innovative solutions that will boost the ROI of SAP, which is the ultimate goal. I would be keen to hear from you if you have been exploring what business processes can be improved with a Duet Enterprise solution.

26 April, 2010

Slide deck from SharePoint Saturday India

I had the pleasure of delivering a session at SharePoint Saturday India on the weekend, an online event featuring speakers from all over the world. Kudos to Rajendra Shekhawat for taking the initiative to bring this popular community-driven concept to India. It was definitely a success and well-attended.

Last Saturday was only the first of many SharePoint Saturdays coming to India. There is already another one planned for the 8th of May 2010 which you can sign up for here. Don’t miss this opportunity for lots of free SharePoint goodness.

My session was about SAP/SharePoint interoperability. I discussed some of the motivations behind surfacing SAP through SharePoint and provided an overview of how it can be achieved with SharePoint 2007 and SharePoint 2010 as well as the upcoming Duet Enterprise platform.

19 April, 2010

How is Duet Enterprise an improvement to previous versions of Duet?

A vast majority of large enterprises have a heterogeneous solution stack with substantial investments in both SAP and Microsoft products. For those companies, the concept of surfacing SAP through the broadly deployed Microsoft UIs resonates very well. In that context, the initial release of Duet got many of these companies excited. However, it is fair to say that Duet 1.0 and 1.5 have never become the huge success that many had hoped for. After all, it was the first attempt to unite two completely different worlds, both technically and culturally.

The upcoming release of Duet Enterprise has the potential to change this. It is a complete revamp of the technical architecture from the ground up which has some significant improvements to previous versions of Duet. The focus has also shifted away from delivering specific vertical scenarios to providing a platform of base capabilities. The following three improvement areas will all contribute to a renewed interest in Duet Enterprise.

Rationalised architecture based on standard components

Currently, Duet is reliant on a proprietary Duet Server for handling the communication back to the SAP system. Apart from installing additional bits on the SAP NetWeaver Web Application Server, an additional server is required to host the Duet Server.

Duet Enterprise will no longer have an additional server component and will purely be based on the SAP NetWeaver stack and the SharePoint platform. With the Business Connectivity Services (BCS) in SharePoint 2010, new and improved capabilities for accessing business data have been baked into the SharePoint platform itself, providing Duet Enterprise with what it needs to communicate with SAP.

Not only will no additional infrastructure be required, the ongoing maintenance will leverage the existing mechanisms of both NetWeaver and SharePoint for managing upgrades and other maintenance tasks. With a landscape of standard components, the total cost of ownership is significantly reduced.

No additional client footprint

Duet 1.5 requires comprehensive configuration of all end user PCs. The required client components include the client runtime, SQL Server Express, Visual Studio Tools for Office and Office 2003 Web Components. This is another contributor to a relatively high cost of ownership.

The majority of the functionality in Duet Enterprise will be accessible through SharePoint, only requiring a browser on the client side. In other words, Office is no longer a necessary prerequisite for deploying Duet Enterprise. It is only required to cover offline scenarios.

Thanks to the symmetric architecture of the SharePoint BCS on the client side in Office 2010, the optional offline capabilities for Duet Enterprise will ship as part of Office 2010 itself, effectively meaning that having Office installed is enough to enable the offline scenarios. Furthermore any custom code required by the clients is managed and deployed through SharePoint Server.

Foundation capabilities and tools

In the current version of Duet, the pre-canned scenarios cannot be customised or extended. In contrast, the emphasis in Duet Enterprise is on providing a foundation of core capabilities upon which organisations can build their own business scenarios as required. The technical interoperability is provided out-of-the-box and companies can concentrate on delivering the business functionality following the principles and guidelines of a supported framework and using the existing development tools in the respective technology stacks.

This is a very important improvement for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it allows organisations to build and customise solutions to meet their specific business requirements. Particularly in the big end of town, this is going to make Duet Enterprise vastly more attractive than its predecessors. Secondly, this foundation will provide an opportunity for partners to develop vertical solutions in specific industries. A healthy eco-system of partners will foster the ongoing innovation required to make the platform a success on the long term.

26 March, 2010

What happened to the .NET Connector for SAP?

This is not really news but I get this question fairly regularly, so I thought I would clarify a few things. There seems to be a bit of confusion around whether the SAP .NET Connector is still supported and how it relates to the Enterprise Services Explorer for .NET.

The .NET Connector is an SAP product based on Microsoft .NET technologies which provides the technical interoperability required to build .NET applications interacting with SAP. Many companies use this approach for point-to-point integration with SAP where a custom interface is required and .NET is the preferred development platform. It is also commonly used in Office Business Applications (OBAs) such as Excel add-ins that communicate with SAP.

The .NET Connector interacts with SAP via BAPIs, RFCs, IDocs or asynchronous web service calls and is fully integrated with Visual Studio .NET 2003. At design time, you can generate .NET proxy classes using the integrated Proxy Wizard. Your applications will then communicate with SAP through the .NET Connector runtime using RFCs or HTTP/SOAP/XML.

After SAP released the Enterprise Services Explorer for .NET, development on the .NET Connector was discontinued. Using Enterprise Services is definitely more compliant with service-oriented architecture principles, but many, if not the vast majority, of companies running SAP are yet to deploy the Enterprise Services Repository and Registry which ships with NetWeaver 7.1, Process Integration (PI) or Composition Environment (CE).

The .NET Connector is based on version 1.1 of the .NET Framework and is only supported for Visual Studio 2003. Because the .NET Connector has been discontinued, SAP will not provide newer versions for Visual Studio 2005 and 2008. There is, however, a suggested workaround which should work for both.

Theobald Software has been quick off the mark to offer a replacement for the .NET Connector with their ERPConnect product. Similar to the .NET Connector, the runtime is a lean assembly which communicates directly with SAP. The design time experience is slightly different using standard wrapper classes rather than a proxy class generator. It works with any version of Visual Studio.

Despite being discontinued, many companies still use the .NET Connector. But now there is a commercial alternative using Theobald's ERPConnect which has recently achieved SAP certification too.

Update: SAP has announced release 3.0 of the SAP .NET Connector. Public availability is planned for December 2010.

23 March, 2010

Slide deck and wrap-up from Mastering SAP Technologies

The Mastering SAP Technologies conference this week has been another top class event with an atmosphere very conducive of both learning and networking. The mix of customers, vendors and global experts provided an excellent opportunity for invaluable sharing of experiences.

The general feel was that SAP is heading in the right direction, both with technology improvements but also in terms of shifting to a more agile development approach across the board. This won’t necessarily mean more frequent releases, but they will become much more flexible in responding to customer demands.

What customers are looking for at the technology conferences is not so much new business functionality as it is ways of increasing return on the existing investment in SAP and lowering the total cost of ownership. With the strong focus on UI technologies and application management (Solution Manager, etc.) respectively, I think most attendees got to see what they came for.

From my perspective, it was great to see that my session no longer was the only presentation focused on SAP/Microsoft interoperability. I was also very pleased to see several CIOs on stage talk about surfacing SAP through SharePoint as a key component of their strategy going forward.

Judging by the full room at my session, there is definitely an increased interest in SAP/Microsoft interoperability. I provided a general introduction into the topic and demoed a couple of real-life solutions. Below is the slide deck (excluding demos and video):

13 March, 2010

SAP/Microsoft interoperability tutorial at the Mastering SAP Technologies conference

It has come around quickly. It is yet again time for the annual Mastering SAP Technologies conference (22-24 March), this year to take place in Sydney. It is always a great event bringing together the SAP technical community and I am really looking forward to it.

Like last year, I will be delivering a tutorial focused on SAP/Microsoft interoperability. It will be run as an interactive session where knowledge sharing is highly encouraged, so come along both to learn and to share your experiences. The outline of the session is as follows:

  • Motivations for SAP/Microsoft interoperability solutions.
  • Examples of surfacing SAP through Microsoft UIs.
  • Live demos of SAP/SharePoint solutions.
  • Service-oriented architecture principles.
  • Interoperability tools and technologies.
  • Overview of Duet Enterprise.
  • Critical success factors based on real-life experiences.

In particular, I am looking forward to share the latest on Duet Enterprise. We will have some discussions around what is different from previous versions of Duet and why it has potential for becoming a huge success.

On the Sunday afternoon, preceding the official agenda, there is also the SAP Inside Track. This is a community-driven event for learning and networking where many SAP Mentors will participate too. It is an informal setup with open and improvised sessions on hot topics that the audience is interested in. Judging by the community activity on Twitter lately, it is shaping up to be a promising day.

05 March, 2010

Duet Enterprise core capabilities

It is exciting we are finally starting to get some information on the upcoming Duet Enterprise product, bringing SAP to SharePoint and Office. In a recent briefing by the product team, a lot of the rumours we have all been hearing from various sources were finally confirmed. The potential of the product is starting to take shape and so far it is all looking pretty good. The major hurdles that have caused the limited success of the previous versions seem to have been addressed.

Duet Enterprise is not only a complete revamp of the technical architecture but more importantly, what is being delivered is very different of nature. The focus is no longer on delivering the pre-canned scenarios we know from Duet 1.0 and 1.5 but rather on delivering a platform of core capabilities that will reduce time-to-value when building our own SAP/SharePoint solutions. Actual vertical business scenarios will follow down the track and to a large extend be developed by partners that have the necessary functional expertise in various industries.

The SharePoint platform delivers capabilities providing a foundation for building business collaboration solutions. These capabilities include content management, search, workflow, business intelligence and more. Following the same concept, Duet Enterprise will deliver core capabilities for bringing SAP data into the everyday productivity and collaboration platform comprising SharePoint and Office. Duet Enterprise will provide the sets of core capabilities described below.

NOTE! This information is based on pre-release briefings by SAP and Microsoft. The exact nature of the core capabilities of the product may change prior to its release.

Enterprise Collaboration

With Enterprise Collaboration we can easily create collaboration sites around business entities in SAP. These sites can provide a 360 degree view of a customer, a vendor or any other business data from SAP. The site may display content mashed up from various sources, not just from SAP. To visualise this idea, have a look at my slide deck on enterprise mashups (12-15) from a presentation last year.

The much improved capabilities of the Business Connectivity Services (BCS) in SharePoint 2010, will further promote SharePoint’s potential as a platform for enterprise mashups. And with Duet Enterprise we get the interoperability-in-a-box required to cost-effectively include SAP data in those mashups.

Contextual Workflow

The main promise of Duet is to break down the Chinese Wall and link the worlds of SAP and Microsoft. With Contextual Workflow we will be able to take a more holistic view of business processes. The reality is that the highly structured transaction-oriented business processes in SAP often have certain sections where information workers are required to perform work in the more collaboration-oriented tools provided by Microsoft.

Contextual Workflow allows us to surface SAP workflow tasks in SharePoint and Outlook. Information workers can manage and monitor their SAP workflow tasks as part of their SharePoint and Office tasks. Utilising SharePoint workflow, ad hoc collaboration can be initiated around an SAP workflow task without losing the link to the back-end system. In other words, an SAP workflow can be extended within SharePoint to cover the unstructured part of a process.

Two Worlds

Duet Enterprise Profile

The Duet Enterprise Profile extends the standard SharePoint user profiles (My Sites) with HR data coming from SAP. Things like job title, department and location is imported from the source-of-truth in the SAP system. Many companies are already doing this, but with Duet Enterprise it is an out-of-the-box feature.

The uptake of SharePoint My Sites is still fairly limited but this is a huge investment area in the upcoming SharePoint 2010 release. We will see extensive social networking capabilities built around the user profiles and the rich Silverlight-based controls for browsing the organisation hierarchy will become even more attractive with HR data sourced from SAP.

Federated Search

Federated Search gives information workers one single interface for searching for both collaborative content in SharePoint and business data in SAP. SAP search results will be coming from a connection to SAP Enterprise Search and the underlying TREX engine. To get an idea of what that might look like, check out slides 10 and 11 in this deck.

Duet Enterprise Reporting

Conceptually this is very similar to the reporting features of the earlier versions of Duet. Regular reports from SAP ERP or BW can be exposed with Duet Enterprise Reporting. SharePoint will include a catalogue of SAP reports and information workers can also run ad hoc reports.

Users can subscribe to reports which are delivered in either SharePoint or Outlook and these reports can be taken offline in a managed way using SharePoint Workspace. Reports will typically be delivered in either an Excel or PDF format.

03 March, 2010

SAP ESS and SharePoint

Employee Self-Service (ESS) is an increasingly prevalent trend in human resource management that allows an employee to handle many tasks (such as expense claims, leave requests and updates to personal information) that otherwise would have fallen to management or administrative staff. By enabling ESS, HR departments can reduce operating costs, provide better service to employees and allocate more resources to strategic initiatives.

For organisations running SAP HCM (HR/Payroll), the typical way of rolling out ESS functionality is to deploy the required standard business packages through the NetWeaver Portal. But what if the organisation is utilising SharePoint as the main portal? Then the natural question to ask is whether SAP ESS can be deployed through SharePoint. And indeed a great number of organisations around the world have been or are currently considering their options for ESS deployment. These options can be narrowed down to three: a pure NetWeaver solution, a pure SharePoint solution or a hybrid solution.

The NetWeaver solution

This is the traditional approach where ESS is deployed to the NetWeaver Portal as a standard business package. If no customisations of the standard user interface are required, the implementation is straight forward and can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. Another advantage of this approach is supportability going forward where new standard functionality can easily be deployed through enhancement packs.

Out of the three options outlined here, this is by far the simplest and most cost-effective. However, the issue in companies with a SharePoint-oriented portal strategy is that the users will have to become familiar with another user interface. Because ESS potentially affects every single employee, this can be a serious concern. And I dare say there is a general consensus that the SAP user experience is not as well received as SharePoint usually is, at least when trying to reach casual users.

The SharePoint solution

Increasingly SharePoint is becoming the 'portal of portals' within organisations, particularly due to its success as the lowest common denominator that appeals to the broader user base. There is therefore an obvious desire to deploy ESS through SharePoint and many companies are or have been exploring this option. In particular, this is being considered by organisations that have no other reasons to run the NetWeaver Portal than ESS.

The key thing to understand here is that SharePoint is an agnostic platform. It does not come with any SAP ESS functionality. In other words, every bit of SAP ESS to be delivered natively in SharePoint has to be developed from scratch. It is in essence bespoke application development of functionality that NetWeaver Portal provides out-of-the-box. This approach can indeed deliver a user experience exceeding all expectations, but for most CIOs this is not a realistic option. And rolling out any new functionality in the future would require long lead times for development.

So, until someone actually develops a product offering SAP ESS as a low risk SharePoint solution, this approach will entail a high total cost of ownership from a technical perspective. There have been some very dedicated attempts out there, but I am yet to hear about anyone who has managed to do this successfully on a larger scale. But there is hope for the future. Duet Enterprise looks promising in terms of delivering SAP/SharePoint interoperability out-of-the-box making this a viable option.

The Hybrid solution

With a hybrid solution, the aim is to leverage the best of both worlds without going down a costly custom development path. The idea is to take the standard iViews from the NetWeaver Portal and render them inside SharePoint pages. This is one of the two common dual portal scenarios for NetWeaver and SharePoint.

For this approach to work, the scope has to be confined to basic ESS only. For the more advanced ESS scenarios (and MSS scenarios in particular), the iViews will not work outside of the context of the SAP Portal. Many iViews depend on the NetWeaver Portal for runtime. For example, the Universal Worklist (UWL) relies on NetWeaver Portal's event model and object-based navigation and hence will have fundamental issues when rendered outside of its natural habitat.

There are certainly a number of organisations currently displaying simple iViews through SharePoint. For example, in case study sessions at the SharePoint Conference 2009, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Deloitte mentioned they were doing exactly this. The hybrid approach has the advantage of being able to keep users in the same portal window and retain the navigational context. The disadvantage is the severe restrictions on scope because of the iView limitations mentioned above.

08 February, 2010

Common dual portal scenarios for NetWeaver and SharePoint

NetWeaver Portal and SharePoint Server are both technology platforms with an impressive breadth of capability. With a large overlap in the respective feature sets, they are often considered to be competing products between which companies must make a clear choice. However, for large organisations a dual portal strategy is certainly a viable option, leveraging the best of both worlds.

More than two years ago, SAP and Microsoft released a joint white paper outlining all the different scenarios where SharePoint and NetWeaver can work together from a technical interoperability perspective. But one thing is theory, another thing is what is truly worth doing. Over the last couple of years, I have been speaking to a large number of customers about how SharePoint and NetWeaver can co-exist, so I thought it would be worth sharing what companies are actually doing out there. Below are the two most common scenarios I have encountered where some level of integration between NetWeaver and SharePoint has been implemented.

Publishing SharePoint content to NetWeaver

Dual_NetWeaverSharePoint

In this case, the organisation has a significant investment in NetWeaver Portal and it is clearly their portal of choice. However, despite the clear strategic focus on NetWeaver Portal, SharePoint still manages to creep its way into the business. This is typically to facilitate collaboration in cross-functional teams which is an area where SharePoint is very strong. In this regard, the tight integration with the Office desktop applications is quite compelling too. It therefore makes sense to allow the business to collaborate on content in SharePoint workspaces and then have the finalised and approved content published to the corporate-wide intranet based on the NetWeaver Portal.

Technically, this can be achieved through custom developed interfaces or by using a third-party product such as the MOSS Integrator from btexx. Depending on the SharePoint functionality required in this scenario, it is often adequate to be running Windows SharePoint Services (the "free" version of SharePoint which is included in the Windows Server licensing). Also note, that SAP is working on including some SharePoint integration functionality in future versions of NetWeaver Portal which is likely to support this scenario.

Rendering NetWeaver iViews in SharePoint

Dual_SharePointNetWeaver

This scenario is often seen in organisations that have a clear focus on making SharePoint the portal or portals. Typically the business employs a large number of information workers that spend the majority of their day in the Microsoft productivity tools, such a Outlook, Excel and Word. However, the company still wants to take advantage of the many business packages of standard SAP functionality that can be deployed to NetWeaver Portal with little or no development effort required (ESS is a good example of this). With a strategy of making SharePoint the one-stop-shop for the broader user base, it is obvious to explore the path of exposing this functionality through SharePoint.

For power users, this is merely a case of providing simple links on SharePoint than sends them off to the NetWeaver environment which natively delivers the required functionality. For the more casual users, it can be beneficial to bring the functionality to them rather than the other way around. By rendering the SAP iViews within SharePoint, the casual user can access basic SAP functionality without loosing the navigational context of the SharePoint intranet. Note, that this will only work for simple iViews that do not require the context of NetWeaver Portal to work properly. For example, the Universal Worklist (UWL) depends on object-based navigation and will not work outside of the NetWeaver Portal. Also note, that the SAP iView Web Part provided with SharePoint 2007 has issues but Microsoft has released a workaround. In SharePoint 2010 this scenario will be supported through iFrame integration of iViews, BSPs and Web Dynpro applications.