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.