SAP has changed its mind about open source: exec

SAP AG’s relationship with open source today is much less conservative than it used to be and reflects an internal change in attitude towards software development where the goals are efficiency and interoperability, said an SAP executive.

“Open source for us was never really a strategy on its own … It was not at the centre of SAP’s business model,” said Claus von Riegen, director of technology standards and open source with SAP.

But the Germany-based enterprise resource planning vendor today believes the ideal combination in software is commercial and open source, where it can be more efficient by taking advantage of commodity components already out there.

Two-and-a-half years ago, SAP decided to take a more systematic approach to incorporating open source code into its development process, said von Riegen. It’s now more about finding reasons to not use open source. “The number of open source technologies we are integrating into products is growing constantly,” he said. Nominate someone you work with for a ComputerWorld Canada IT Leadership Award

The SAP NetWeaver platform comprises software components that “are generic, not SAP-specific,” thereby allowing the company to standardize implementations and protect its investments, said von Riegen.

SAP just recently deployed a tool from Waltham, Mass.-based Black Duck Software Inc. to help its development teams manage open source licensing in a development process where there are multiple sources of code.

Von Riegen said SAP already was using Black Duck’s software to examine the software portfolios of acquisition targets but now plans to deploy the software across its development teams globally by end of 2010.

The goal is for SAP’s developers to know and understand the open source components they are using, and to drive greater efficiency in the approval process, said von Riegen.

Peter Vescuso, senior vice-president of software with Black Duck Software, said large development houses like SAP have sophisticated processes for building software that require visibility and management.

“(The) complexity and scale make it even more difficult to manage all of this externally developed code that’s being brought in,” said Vescuso.

SAP AG’s decision to weave into its development process a tool that manages proper licensing of open source code may be surprising but it shows the Germany-based company is listening to the needs of its employees, said Randy Hearn, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd.

“I wouldn’t have put SAP and open source together,” said Hearn. “They’re listening. That’s the bottom line.”

Hearn said SAP’s move to make its use of open source code more systematic is an acknowledgement of how “frightening” it can be. “So SAP has obviously been listening to that and they’re putting together a means for those people to be able to do it a little bit easier, to integrate the open source tools,” said Hearn.

Yet SAP’s association with open source is a little unexpected given the sheer size of SAP’s business, said Hearn. “My take on that is you get what you pay for. SAP is not exactly what I would consider inexpensive,” said Hearn. “It’s like an oxymoron.”

Hearn thinks SAP’s use of the Black Duck Suite is probably a bigger deal for Black Duck than it is for SAP. “It’s a huge feather in their cap,” he said.

As for the battle that SAP has been facing regarding changing its monolithic image, Hearn thinks taking a more systematic approach to open source in development will help soften that rigid appearance.

“It would definitely make them look a little bit more flexible, a little bit more open in terms of what they will allow in,” said Hearn.

He added it’s a move that sets them apart from other large enterprises, especially in light of vendors like Apple Inc., which recently caused a stir when it turned its nose up at Flash, saying it would focus its support on alternative standards like HTML5 instead.

Claus considers himself very much a “change agent” in transforming how SAP develops interoperable software and how it innovates with other industry players.

But SAP isn’t just reusing commodity components. The company is “increasingly playing an active role” by giving back to the open source community, said von Riegen. In 2009, SAP was the third-largest contributor to the Eclipse Foundation with almost two million lines of code.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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