A Year in Review – 2021 SAP Highlights

2021 probably couldn’t be described as a normal year by anyone’s standards, but as always SAP had plenty going on, including some significant new announcements in the realm of software development and delivery. As the CTO of an organization that builds automation solutions for SAP, it’s important to closely track all aspects of SAP’s strategy, with an eye on how it will impact our customers. In this post I highlight the initiatives from 2021 I think are most compelling.

SAP launches RISE with SAP

SAP’s biggest news in 2021 was the launch of RISE with SAP. It looks a smart strategic play, because it moves customers to predictable recurring revenues (which investors love) and is designed around helping firms migrate to S/4HANA (a key goal for SAP).

But it’s fair to say that there’s been some confusion about what RISE with SAP actually is and the potential value on offer. In essence it’s a commercial offering, rather than a specific product, which SAP is billing as “Business Transformation as a Service.”

That translates to a menu of services companies can pick from under the RISE with SAP umbrella. SAP offers SAP S/4HANA licensing, cloud hosting from hyperscalers, and technical migration services to help you make the transition. There’s a Business Process Intelligence element based on SAP’s March 2021 acquisition of Signavio, pitched as helping to streamline the move to S/4HANA by simplifying and standardizing processes. Access to the SAP Business Technology Platform (see below) and SAP Business Network are also included.

The idea is that SAP provides a single point of contact for service level agreements, operations, and issues handling when you’re running new cloud-hosted systems. But naturally it’s not quite as simple as that: customers need to contract separately for systems integration, application management and advisory services, for example.

Unsurprisingly the jury is still out on RISE with SAP but it’s reasonable to say it won’t be ideal for everyone in its current form. Companies with existing hyperscaler contracts risk diminishing their overall bargaining power by contracting with SAP directly, for example. Others with long established and/or highly customized estates may simply require the full control and versatility of S/4HANA On Premise.

SAP S/4HANA Cloud, Private Edition

RISE did see some product tweaks, notably the introduction of SAP S/4HANA Cloud, Private Edition. This is software hosted on the hyperscaler of your choice, licensed by subscription, and managed by SAP, all under a single contract. Of course, it wouldn’t be like SAP to make things simple, so Private Edition is quite different from the much more limited SaaS version which is also called… SAP S/4HANA Cloud! It’s actually more similar to the On Premise version of S/4, without the same ability to customize and modify. If you’re still confused, I previously wrote a blog that might help.

RISE with SAP doesn’t affect change management, how SAP works, or how you design your processes. That means many of the challenges present in non-RISE systems will persist – like how to deliver changes fast for greater business agility when you’re on the new platform. Fortunately, the ecosystem of add-ons that have traditionally helped – like ActiveControl, Basis Technologies’ DevOps automation solution – can still be used on RISE systems. In fact, ActiveControl can help to accelerate the technical migration to S/4HANA thanks to powerful features like continuous retrofit, selective deployment, dynamic conflict detection, and more.

SAP releases S/4HANA 2021

SAP has been rolling out annual updates to S/4HANA since back in 2015 and remains committed to a much more frequent release cadence than was the case for ECC. October 2021 saw the release of the latest version, named S/4HANA 2021. As usual, this release introduced a wide range of new capabilities, including features for analytics, automation, and user experience.

We’re finding that many SAP users are motivated to implement these upgrades on a regular basis; certainly much more so than in the past, perhaps even annually. On the one hand they want to make the most of their investment through the latest features and enhancements. On the other, they definitely don’t want their SAP systems to fall out of support – each version of S/4HANA is only supported for five years, after all, in stark contrast to on premise ECC systems.

The question is how to make it happen. Upgrades aren’t a simple matter after all, typically taking months to complete (at least). That’s where ActiveControl comes in. It helps to resolve the challenges around parallel development and continuous retrofit so that companies can upgrade at the pace they choose. Some ActiveControl users have already completed multiple S/4HANA upgrades without any negative impact on ‘business as usual’ operations.

New free tier for SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP)

For a long time, SAP has been separate from the rest of a company’s software development. The SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP) was introduced to provide a more standards-based way to develop applications and extensions that connect to SAP systems. It’s an evolution of the SAP Cloud Platform, designed to make extension of SAP and integration with other applications easier. And it’s probably no coincidence that it’s another subscription service from SAP.

From a development perspective BTP enables applications to be built using languages like Java, Node.js, Python, and HTML5, and so helps to standardize across SAP and non-SAP applications. It may also open up development of SAP-related software, like mobile apps and web interfaces, to a wider group of IT professionals. But many teams seem to have been reluctant to ask their company to pay for BTP licenses without trying it first, so the big news in 2021 was the release of a free tier, making the platform more accessible for experimentation.

Despite the potential benefits, use of the BTP will throw up some new questions for SAP teams to figure out, like the best way to manage related changes across ‘hybrid landscapes’ that span BTP and the core SAP systems. Adoption seems fairly limited to date but we’re expecting more organizations to investigate what the BTP can offer in 2022.

SAP announces Embedded Steampunk

While many welcomed a new way to use standard languages for SAP applications, there was one glaring omission from the original SAP Cloud Platform that sparked an outcry: no ABAP support.

Steampunk is the ‘code name’ for the SAP BTP ABAP Environment, which addresses this problem. Available in one form or another since 2018, when SAP bowed to the pressure of an SAP development keen to leverage decades of existing skills and experience, it is an ABAP environment ready for the cloud.

Initially, Steampunk ran on BTP, side-by-side with the core ERP applications. In September 2021, SAP announced Embedded Steampunk, which can be used to create extensions directly within S/4HANA as well. Again, it’s early days but the combination of cloud-hosted S/4HANA environments, the BTP and Embedded Steampunk could provide some interesting new options for how to shape an SAP development and delivery strategy.

Conclusion

As always in SAP, it takes time for companies to adopt change. The impact of some of the new SAP initiatives may not be seen for some time. We’ll be watching with interest throughout 2022 and beyond!