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Web Services Strategy - SAP Platform

It's not your father's SAP

Packaged business applications have dominated enterprise IT landscapes for over a decade. Now these products are undergoing major changes to segway into the world of Web Services. SAP has been one of the most aggressive companies in embracing this revolution. Its NetWeaver platform is an ambitious suite of integration technologies designed to morph SAP into enterprise SOAs. SAP unveiled a four-year roadmap for NetWeaver in 2003. This article looks at the platform at its halfway point as well as SAP's vision for creating a Web Services-based agile business process infrastructure.

What Is NetWeaver?

NetWeaver is really a brand that encompasses a suite of tools just like WebSphere, WebLogic, and .NET are umbrellas for a family of products within a platform. Some of these products are relatively new, while others are proven solutions that have been widely deployed. What is significant is the way SAP is bringing these products together in support of a common vision for service-oriented computing. This has led to a unified roadmap, better compatibility, and shared release cycles for the entire suite.

All of the usual suspects can be found inside of NetWeaver. First is an application server that SAP calls the Web Application Server or WAS. What's unique about WAS is that it contains both a fully compliant J2EE engine and SAP's ABAP engine, which serves as the technical foundation for most SAP products. In fact one might argue that SAP figured out the application server concept long before Java. And much of the proven high-availability, security, and fault-tolerant technology built for the ABAP environment has been extended to the Java engine. WAS also contains rich support for exposing both Java and ABAP-based applications as Web Services as well as consuming external Web Services.

The next component is an integration broker and business process management (BPM) tool called Exchange Infrastructure or XI for short. XI offers the same modeling, design repository, and execution environments you'd expect from any EAI tool. Besides traditional adapter models it was designed with XML-, SOAP-, and Web Service-based integrations in mind. The BPM part of XI offers a fully complaint BPEL orchestration modeler and execution engine. Table 1 provides a more complete view of how XI supports Web Services standards.

SAP will soon begin to ship significant amounts of pre-built integration content modeled in XI along with its business applications. What's unique about XI is the way SAP is trying to bridge the gap between coarse-grained business process definitions that users understand and the much finer-grained orchestration execution models that exist today in BPEL semantics. SAP is partnering closely with IDS Scheer, a leading business process automation firm, in this endeavor. Closing that gap is a prerequisite to realizing the promise of agile business-driven computing.

The third major component of NetWeaver is a portal server that SAP calls Enterprise Portal. As with any portal server Enterprise Portal acts as an integrated user interface across many applications. It offers role- and user-based personalization, single sign-on APIs, a portlet model called iViews, XML/XSLT data transformation support, and so on. Enterprise Portal also includes tools for easily exposing portal services as Web Services.

NetWeaver contains many other products including workflow and collaboration tools, a private UDDI registry, a business intelligence suite called Business Warehouse, a Mobile Infrastructure Engine for accessing SAP from portable devices, and Master Data Management for synchronizing and harmonizing data. Accompanying these products is a set of modeling, development, deployment, and monitoring tools, some of which will be discussed in more detail below.

In short NetWeaver is a technology platform with many of the features you would expect from any application development and integration middleware stack. In addition, Web Services are becoming a pervasive part of this platform. NetWeaver will be part of every SAP system landscape in the future because it's part of the upgrade path. Enterprise Portal will become the ubiquitous user interface across the company's business suite. XI will be the out-of-the-box way to integrate SAP with other applications. Most importantly, SAP customers will soon see a flood of new Web Services options unleashed on their organizations.

NetWeaver Is About Business Processes

At first glance it looks like SAP is going head-to-head with IBM or BEA in application middleware. While there's a lot of feature overlap between these platforms that's not the intent. SAP is first and foremost a business applications company. NetWeaver is designed to morph SAP's business applications into the SOA world. The reason is simple. It's inevitable that process logic will be liberated from individual applications.

Let's reinforce the point. What it means is that the promise of Web Services, loosely coupled architectures, and digitized business process management is about to enter a new age. Companies like SAP that have been built on monolithic products with proprietary interfaces and high switching costs have surrendered to this eventuality. By embracing the SOA paradigm companies like SAP will actually accelerate the adoption curve.

SAP's vision for service-oriented, process-driven computing is called the Enterprise Services Architecture (ESA). It is key to understanding how all the NetWeaver pieces come together. SAP defines ESA as "Service Oriented Architecture principles and Web Services technology applied to the world of enterprise business applications." It means that value comes from fusing business applications with an enabling technology platform. ESA enables:

  • Role-based UIs built on Enterprise Services
  • Process automation in and across organizational boundaries built on Enterprise Services
  • Decoupling process and integration logic

Implied in these definitions is the notion of an Enterprise Service with three characteristics. First, it's a business-level service, which means that it's fairly coarse grained and delivers value at a functional level. Second, it's a service so it can be discovered, described, and invoked like any other Web Service. Finally, it's enterprise-class implying high levels of scalability, security, manageability, and other non-functional concerns.

As with any SOA model these Enterprise Services become the focal point for a layered architecture. They're built on a foundation of application and technology services that act as building blocks. Enterprise Services can then be woven together through composition techniques into applications that support cross-functional business processes. SAP has developed a commercialization strategy for these composite applications under the name xApps. xApps are business solutions that cut across multiple SAP and non-SAP applications using SOA integration patterns. SAP and its certified partners offer these composite applications as products you can buy. Examples include everything from pricing analytics to streamlined international trade management to optimizing exploration and production for oil companies. What's significant is they are concrete business-level solutions being built, sold, and deployed under a services composition model.

Making NetWeaver Work

So far we've described SAP's vision for service-oriented, process-driven computing called the Enterprise Services Architecture. We've also shown that SAP has a technology platform and suite of tools that lets us build and deploy composite applications. The next question is what lets us bring all of this together to make things happen? The following outlines a very basic evolutionary approach for leveraging the power of NetWeaver to build service-oriented applications and automate business processes.

More Stories By Scott Campbell

Scott Campbell is president of MomentumSI, a professional services firm specializing in platform-ready, service-oriented enterprise architecture and business process management solutions. Prior to joining Momentum in 1998, Scott helped open the Houston office for DiaLogos, Inc., and he previously held various positions in product marketing and IT at 3M.

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