13 October, 2011

Speaking at the European SharePoint Conference in Berlin

ESP_Speaker_badgeAfter an awesome few days at the WUG conference in Chicago, I’m headed for Berlin next week to speak at the European SharePoint Conference. I’ll be talking about how SAP customers can utilise SharePoint as a platform for optimising SAP-centric business processes. Although my talk is centered around SAP, the issues and solutions discussed are relevant to any large ERP back-end. Here’s the session outline:

Accelerating SAP Transactions with SharePoint and InfoPath
Data entry into SAP can in many cases lead to complex business processes taking up unnecessary time and resources throughout the organisation. Enterprises can achieve significant cost-savings by providing alternative interfaces that simplifies data entry and increases user adoption.
Considering SharePoint's popularity amongst business users, it provides an immense opportunity for delivering SAP transactions to the broader user base. As an integrated part of the SharePoint platform, InfoPath is a tool for creating electronic forms which can be utilized by business users to rapidly create fit-for-purpose user interfaces for SAP.
In this session, you will learn what it takes to surface SAP transactions in SharePoint solutions following an approach that is entirely driven by business users. In particular you will see specific examples of how a business user can utilize SharePoint and InfoPath to build alternative user interfaces for SAP, with no programming involved.

I’ll be keen to connect with anyone at the conference who wants to discuss SAP/SharePoint integration and/or workflow for SharePoint in general. I will also be looking for a SharePoint talent to join our European team. Just ping me on Twitter (@kalsing) and we can arrange to meet. I look forward to meeting you!

12 October, 2011

Wrap-up from the Winshuttle User Group conference in Chicago

WUGThe annual Winshuttle User Group (WUG) conference has been the sole focus of my attention the last few days. After the inaugural event in New Orleans last year and follow-up events in London and Paris earlier this year, the WUG has grown exponentially into a sizable affair with more than 400 Winshuttle enthusiasts gathered to share experiences, attend customer presentations, participate in training classes and engage with the Winshuttle Partner Network.
The show was kicked off Monday with a keynote that included a solution demo by Winshuttle Co-Founder Vikram Chalana and a very inspirational talk by Harold Hambrose on software design and usability. Vikram’s demo showcased an expense claim process automated in SharePoint and fully integrated with SAP. It was a great example of all the Winshuttle products working nicely together to provide a complete, yet simple solution. In 15 minutes he demonstrated both the end user experience and gave an overview of how it was all put together. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this demo was the fact that the entire solution was built in under four hours on a flight from Seattle to Chicago.
Following the keynote, I attended a couple of customer presentations focused on the Central governance platform. Both sessions sparked some hectic debates between business users and IT representatives. Like any other business user-oriented software platform, such as Microsoft SharePoint or SAP Business Objects, the Winshuttle suite aims to empower the business without compromising IT governance requirements. It is a balancing act that sometimes can create some internal friction in organisations. However, consensus was that it is something that cannot be ignored and business units seeking more autonomy in solution development need to partner with IT every step of the way to ensure success. It is clear that business user tools must have good governance and control features to be relevant in an enterprise context.
At the end of the first day, I facilitated a panel discussion on master data governance. Again, all attendees were very open to share their experiences and some valuable lessons were passed on. Probably less than half of the companies represented had reached a maturity level where master data governance is centralised with an executive sponsorship. This is what everyone is striving for though and it is increasingly becoming an area of high priority.
Tuesday was all dedicated to training and overall the event was a massive success. Like other industry events, the WUG provides a perfect opportunity to collect feedback from customers and partners alike. And there is no doubt the customer-to-customer interaction was well appreciated by everyone. Large enterprises face many of the same challenges and taking out a few days to learn how other companies are dealing with these challenges is invaluable. And as a Product Manager, I have certainly come away with a long laundry list of first-hand customer feedback and ideas that will feed into both short term product improvements and long term roadmaps.

03 October, 2011

SharePoint rock star wanted for Europe

Following the success of Winshuttle’s product suite as an effective way of utilising the SharePoint platform for SAP process optimisation, we are ramping up our global SharePoint competencies. We have an immediate opening for a highly motivated SharePoint rock star in Europe.

We are looking for a consultant with solid SharePoint experience who can work directly with business units to compose solutions. Are you interested? You will be helping customers to optimise SAP processes through the use of Winshuttle and SharePoint technologies. Prior experience with SAP is desired but not a must.

This is an awesome role where you will be part of a strategically important Acceleration Team where the primary objectives are customer readiness and enablement. As such, your focus will be on short and sharp engagements that prove the value of Winshuttle software and help customers to hit the ground running.

Key responsibilities include project scoping, solution architecture and proof-of-concept delivery. Expect to be working with many different customers across Europe. Ideally, you should be based out of our EMEA head office in London, but we would be willing to consider other arrangements.

I’ll be in Berlin for the European SharePoint Conference, 17th through 20th of October, and in London during the first week of November. If you are interested, please drop me a line (kristian dot kalsing at winshuttle dot com) and we can arrange to meet up for a chat. This will be a lot of fun!

13 September, 2011

Keynote summary from SAP TechEd in Las Vegas

The 15th anniversary edition of SAP TechEd has kicked off in Las Vegas and the keynote was delivered this morning by Vishal Sikka on stage, introduced by Hasso Plattner connecting through from Germany. In addition, various technical leads were called in to add their two cents’ worth in their respective areas of expertise. If there was one common theme throughout the keynote, it was certainly HANA. Actually, there was barely a single sentence during the 1.5 hours that didn’t include the magic word, HANA!

Before Vishal Sikka came on for the main act, Hasso Plattner briefly summarised the vision for HANA which was painted at SAPPHIRE earlier this year. Back then, a great deal of attention was given to the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ Now, after 12-18 months of proving the technology with early adopters and after three months of general availability, it’s time to get down to business and concentrate on the ‘how’. The inherent challenge will be to bring a highly disruptive technology to the market without causing major disruptions in the installed base.

Vishal Sikka started out by emphasising that the intention with HANA is not to add more complexity to an already crowded mishmash of application layers in the SAP technical landscape. Nor are they “replacing the litter with a different kind of litter.” HANA is all about “bringing together the grand simplification.” Delivered on the next generation of commoditised hardware, HANA will provide a unified infrastructure for future applications. A new consolidated layer of in-memory data and application logic will “provide businesses with the freedom to innovate.”

There were lots of lofty promises as you would expect from a keynote, but halfway through the presentation there was a reality check when the attendees were asked to raise their hands if they were considering embarking on a HANA project. Less than 5% of the audience put their hands up. Despite all the hype surrounding HANA, most customers are still battling with much more mundane aspects of realising the return of their existing investments in SAP technology.

Moving on to future developments of the HANA platform, the most immediate introduction to the market will be the launch of BW for HANA (Project Orange) on November 7. Customers will basically be able to run BW directly on top of HANA, eliminating the databases currently underpinning BW and introducing unprecedented performance improvements. With HANA, SAP is in general betting on traditional data marts and data warehouses going away in the future.

The keynote also had some brief updates from the major SAP platforms of NetWeaver, BusinessObjects and Sybase. The key message here was that all technologies are undergoing a renewal and support for HANA is added wherever it makes sense. Capabilities for managing HANA in the SAP landscape will be added to Solution Manager. Technologies such as PI, BPM and Gateway will all be extended to support HANA. BusinessObjects universes will be natively optimised for running on HANA.

Finally, the keynote was concluded by a series of demos and examples of applications built on various UI platforms underpinned by the HANA infrastructure, accompanied by the usual customer testimonials of how easy it was to implement. However, the final verdict of the promised simplicity will have to wait until we have heard the experiences of customers that were not carefully nurtured as early adopters. All in all, it was a keynote that was reinforcing SAP’s strong commitment to HANA and driving the message of “bringing on the grand simplification of the layers.”

03 August, 2011

More evidence of a less SAP-centric approach

It is not more than two or three years ago that the prevailing view within SAP was that customers should adopt a wall-to-wall SAP strategy. In the mish mash of technologies called NetWeaver there would be an answer for everything. Any application or integration need around the SAP Business Suite could be addressed with “something” from the NetWeaver mixed bag.

This viewpoint has been changing significantly over the last few years and there is now less of a push to solve every problem with an SAP product. This is particularly evident in SAP’s release of the Gateway product, which will make it much easier for developers to build front-ends to SAP using non-SAP technologies.

At the annual summit of the SAP Australian User Group (SAUG) held in Sydney this week, there was even more evidence of customers complimenting their SAP landscape with non-SAP technologies for specific purposes. In R “Ray” Wang’s event report a few points stand out:

  • There is an increase in technology spending despite reductions in IT budgets. In other words, the business is buying.
  • 65% of attendees are considering solutions outside the SAP sphere.
  • For collaboration solutions SharePoint appear to have gained mindshare.
  • CRM remains dominated by Salesforce.com and Microsoft CRM.
  • Analytics discussions include many non-SAP products such as IBM Cognos, Oracle Hyperion and QlikTech.

The ironic aspect is that allowing other platforms to seamlessly integrate with the core SAP system will potentially make companies more SAP-centric from a data perspective. If organisations can deploy their own user interfaces and tools of choice, fully integrated with SAP, then there will be much less demand for buying other industry-specific solutions. I suspect this is what SAP is finally realising too.

02 August, 2011

Top 20 SAP transactions and quick wins using SharePoint

Over the last few years one of my colleagues, Jim O’Farrell, has done some excellent work in terms of working with Winshuttle customers and calculating the ROI of business process acceleration. Part of this work includes looking at customers’ logs in the SAP Workload Monitor (ST03N). These logs keep a tally of all transactions handled in the system and provide valuable insights into usage patterns in SAP. Usage logs from individual customers are highly confidential, but analysing the data in aggregate is quite interesting. For example, the table below lists the top 20 transactions based on actual usage data aggregated from more than 250 SAP customers worldwide.
Rank Tcode Description
1 VA02 Change Sales Order
2 IQ02 Change Material Serial Number
3 CAT2 Time Sheet: Maintain Times
4 VA01 Create Sales Order
5 FBL5N Display Customer Line Items
6 ME23N Display Purchase Order
7 IQ01 Create Material Serial Number
8 VL02N Change Outbound Delivery
9 FBL1N Display Vendor Line Items
10 MD04 Display Stock/Requirements Situation
11 LM13 Put Away Clustered
12 MIGO Goods Movement
13 ME21N Create Purchase Order
14 FBL3N Display G/L Account Line Items
15 VA03 Display Sales Order
16 MIRO Enter Incoming Invoice
17 QE51N Results Recording Work List
18 IW32 Change Order
19 VL03N Display Outbound Delivery
20 FB03 Display Document
A really interesting aspect of this list is that it includes eight display transactions. In other words, some of the most frequent use of the SAP GUI is simply to retrieve information and not perform any updates on the system. We are all familiar with the well-known usability issues of the SAP GUI. Having to navigate and master this generic interface for quick lookups and retrieval of business data, often while performing work in other tools, is an unnecessary burden on productivity.
I am often asked about how to qualify business scenarios for SAP/SharePoint solutions, which is primarily focused on extending the reach of SAP and serving casual users in their tools of choice. Building such solutions involves various degrees of complexity and effort, but the table above helps you identify the quick wins. There is obviously a lot less complexity and effort involved in creating an interface in SharePoint that is merely reading information from SAP. These eight frequently used display transactions is a good place to start when considering how to realise productivity gains by surfacing SAP through SharePoint.

20 July, 2011

Three points to consider when using the SharePoint BCS

The SharePoint Business Connectivity Services (BCS) is an integration feature of SharePoint 2010 which provides read/write access to line-of-business data in external systems. Once an external system has been modelled in the BCS, a SharePoint user or developer can compose solutions that use external data directly without having to possess expert knowledge about the API of the back-end system.

There are many options when it comes to architecting a SharePoint solution that is integrated with an external system. In some scenarios the BCS will be a valuable constituent of a solution, in other cases it may not be a good fit. If you are looking to connect SharePoint with an ERP system or other line-of-business system, there are some important points to consider when deciding whether the BCS should be part of your solution architecture.

Up to 20 operations need to be supported
The BCS provides a back-end neutral framework for integration by requiring the API of the back-end system to be mapped to 20 stereotyped operations. Many APIs of business applications are not very BCS-friendly and it may require substantial effort to distill the APIs into services that can be mapped to the stereotyped BCS operations. This is not a problem when connecting to simple data sources like SQL Server databases, but more complex business applications often have APIs that are very hard to decipher for outsiders (e.g. SAP has a very granular generic API which presents a significant challenge in this regard).

Data is retrieved on-demand
Business data accessed through the BCS is exposed through what is called external lists in SharePoint. These external lists share many of the characteristics of the traditional SharePoint lists. However, one important difference is that the data is not stored in SharePoint. This is often a positive thing because you generally do not want to replicate business data across multiple storages unless you have to. But there are also common scenarios where data caching is required. For example, the administrator of your ERP system might not be too happy if you are frequently hitting the system live to retrieve data that rarely changes.

Workflows cannot be associated with external lists
SharePoint workflow generally works by reacting to items in a list being added or changed. Items in external lists are fetched on-demand and are not stored in SharePoint and therefore workflows cannot be directly associated with external lists. If you consider a use case where you want to trigger a business process every time a new item is added to a table on the back-end then the BCS is not a good option. You can still query data in an external list as part of a workflow running on a document library or an “internal” list, but items in an external list cannot be the primary object of the workflow.

These are all important things to consider when deciding whether the BCS should be part of your solution architecture. There are solutions where the BCS is a natural fit and there are solutions where you will have to come up with an alternative way of bringing the line-of-business data into SharePoint. As always, if you have any experiences with this please share your thoughts below.

11 July, 2011

Webinar on surfacing SAP through SharePoint

At the European SharePoint Conference in Berlin in October, I will be speaking about accelerating business processes with an SAP/SharePoint integrated approach to solution development. In particular, the session will focus on leveraging business user-oriented tools such as InfoPath and the Winshuttle usability suite to automate business processes that involve interaction with SAP.

Leading up to the conference there is a pretty solid schedule of regular webinars, free for all, providing brief introductions into the topics covered at the conference. Wednesday this week, I will be delivering a session on surfacing SAP through SharePoint. It won’t be a deep technical dive but rather an introduction into why SharePoint should be considered in the context of SAP and what the main challenges are. This is the outline:

Surfacing SAP through SharePoint
40% of ERP implementations have user adoption issues resulting in limited ROI from initial investments in ERP. Complex generic interfaces that are not intuitive for casual users of line-of-business systems such as SAP continue to slow down business processes. The popularity and rapid adoption of SharePoint provide a tremendous opportunity for bringing core SAP functionality out to more users while meeting usability expectations.
This session outlines why surfacing SAP through SharePoint is beneficial to the business and provides an overview of the key challenges in implementing SAP/SharePoint integrated solutions.

You can sign up for the webinar here and also check out all the other upcoming webinars. These are 20-30 min sessions on some very relevant topics where you will also have the opportunity to ask questions.

09 May, 2011

Speaking at SAPPHIRE NOW and the ASUG Annual Conference 2011

Next week it is time for the biggest show in the world of SAP. Over 10,000 attendees will descend on Orlando in Florida to experience and explore the latest and greatest in SAP-based business and technical solutions and strategies. Additionally, SAP hopes to reach another 4,000 people worldwide at connected events that will receive real-time feeds or content from Orlando.

In recent years, SAP has been ramping up the use of social media during their events. So, if you are unable to attend you can still follow the event on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. SAP will even have dedicated social media reporters who will be covering specific topics. For attendees, they have also promised a snazzy mobile app (for Android, iOS and BlackBerry) which will include venue details, floor plan, searchable agenda, profiles of exhibitors, daily updates and links to the social media sites.

Now that it is less than a week away, I am starting to get excited. I am looking forward to reunite with many friends and colleagues from around the world. The event is also a unique opportunity, as a product manager, to learn about customers’ challenges and verify product hypotheses. I will also be delivering a presentation on the Tuesday at 11 am with the following abstract:

Accelerating SAP Software Transactions with SharePoint and InfoPath
In many cases, data entry into SAP software can lead to complex business processes that take up unnecessary time and resources throughout an organization. Enterprises can achieve significant cost-savings by providing alternative interfaces that simplify data entry and increase user adoption.
SharePoint's popularity with business users provides an immense opportunity for delivering SAP software transactions to the broader user base. As an integrated part of the SharePoint platform, InfoPath is a tool for creating electronic forms which can be utilized by business users to rapidly create fit-for-purpose user interfaces for SAP software.
In this session, you will learn what it takes to surface SAP software transactions in SharePoint solutions following an approach that is entirely driven by business users. In particular you will see specific examples of how a business user can utilize SharePoint, InfoPath, and Winshuttle to build alternative user interfaces for SAP software with no programming involved.

Apart from speaking at the event, I will be well busy as a booth bandit for Winshuttle. We will have eight demo stations showcasing our complete usability platform for SAP and as usual we will have some exciting new things to show, so don’t hesitate to drop by. Just look for the giant “Brushy.”


05 April, 2011

Using the SharePoint 2010 Service Application Framework for vertical solutions

SharePoint 2010 introduces the concept of Service Applications. It is effectively a replacement for the Shared Services Provider (SSP) in the previous version of SharePoint and the new architecture offers a modular approach which has a lot of benefits from an administration and manageability perspective. The plumbing for the Service Application Framework is baked into SharePoint Foundation and many of the server capabilities provided by both SharePoint Foundation and SharePoint Server are in fact Service Applications. These services include, but are not limited to Search Services, Excel Services, InfoPath Forms Services, Visio Services, User Profile Services, PerformancePoint Services and Managed Metadata Services.

There is a quite a bit of coverage out there about what Service Applications mean for administrators and the benefits they bring to the management of a SharePoint farm. There are also some high-level articles about what opportunities the framework brings to application development on the SharePoint platform. For example, check out Andrew Connell’s general introduction and Spencer Harbar’s coverage of the core concepts. There is also a section about the Service Application Framework on MSDN, although this is still a bit light on actual content.

What I wanted to explore here is the opportunity for ISVs to leverage the Service Application model since it is an open framework that third-parties can take advantage of. This means that third-party applications can potentially offer a lot more capabilities than was the case in SharePoint 2007. A Service Application can take advantage of the following:

  • Use a custom database for application specific data and have the database managed by SharePoint.
  • Host and manage middle-tier web services.
  • Perform scheduled operations with a service-scoped timer job infrastructure.
  • Store application settings within a configuration store in the SharePoint configuration database.
  • Take advantage of claims-based security.
  • Rely on SharePoint infrastructure for scalability, performance and availability.

All of above offer some interesting opportunities for ISV applications. When you combine a custom database, a middle-tier of web services and timer job infrastructure, quite advanced functionality can be built leveraging these core server capabilities. This may significantly increase the scope of vertical applications deployed through SharePoint. Potentially, ISVs can develop more server products based on the SharePoint foundation rather than building everything from scratch. The primary benefit being that ISVs can focus on what they are truly good at, namely building functionality for their domain of expertise, and spend less resources on implementing core server components.

There certainly are vendors that have advanced products based on the SharePoint 2007 platform which include databases, web services and timer jobs. However, with the Service Application Framework, these products can potentially be redesigned to be less of a patchwork and more aligned with standard SharePoint infrastructure. It also offers new opportunities for deeper integration between SharePoint and various third-party applications. For example, some of the BPM and ECM vendors have been providing a SharePoint integration option for years for both SharePoint 2003 and 2007. These vendors, along with others, now have an opportunity to take this integration to a new level using the Service Application Framework.

From a cloud computing perspective, the Service Application Framework compliments the Sandboxed Solutions in a multi-tenant SharePoint environment. Sandboxed Solutions are well suited for building add-on functionality to SharePoint itself. However, with limitations such as no web services, no application pages, etc., they are not adequate for building vertical solutions. If you rely on those capabilities and want to build a multi-tenant ready application, then the Service Application Framework is your answer.

It all sounds good. The big question, of course, is how mature is this framework at this point in time? Third-party Service Applications are not yet supported on SharePoint Online (SharePoint Online Standard Developer Guide), so the framework hasn’t been truly tested in a large-scale multi-tenancy environment yet. For on-premise solutions, I am also yet to come across ISVs where they are building their products based on the Service Application Framework. It’s an interesting and promising architecture that could potentially take SharePoint to the next level in terms of vertical integration, but the technology is still in its infancy and time will tell whether it’ll be a successful platform for third-party products.

25 February, 2011

Duet Enterprise at the Australian SharePoint Conference

The Australian SharePoint Conference coming up in only a few weeks from now will have a broad coverage on anything SharePoint. This will also include some goodies for SAP/SharePoint enthusiasts. I have just heard on the grapevine that Microsoft will be delivering a session on the newly released Duet Enterprise. It’s yet to be published in the agenda, but they’ll definitely be there.