SAP’s HANA in-memory analytics engine now available

SAP’s HANA (high performance analytic appliance) in-memory computing engine went into general availability on Monday, giving the vendor a flashy new weapon against the likes of Oracle’s Exadata data-processing machine and others in a highly competitive market.

HANA, which is based on a superset of technologies SAP has been developing for some time, places data in main memory, providing a performance boost over reading it off disks. With HANA, customers will be able to analyze data from their SAP systems and other sources in near-real time, with blazing performance, according to SAP.

SAP has seen an “extraordinary response from the marketplace,” with several dozen customers already signed up, said executive board member Vishal Sikka in an interview. The HANA “pipeline,” or backlog of deals in process, is the highest for any product in the company’s history.

Only “very serious” opportunities are put in the pipeline, he added. “It’s not like we had a [single] conversation with someone.”

Wholesale wine and spirits distributor Charmer-Sunbelt Group is in the middle of implementing HANA, CIO Paul Fipps said in an interview.

The company had already been using a range of SAP technologies, but until now, not its BI (business intelligence) products, Fipps said. “When HANA was first introduced it looked like a real opportunity for us to do real-time analysis of business transactions.”

CSG has many warehouses around the US. “There’s a lot of nighttime activity going on there in order to get products to our customers,” he said.

HANA will help CSG give managers analytics to make those operations run more efficiently, according to Fipps, answering questions such as “where am I putting my labor, do I have the right amount of labor in the right areas to do the replenishment?”

HANA will also help CSG roll up various analyses into a “massive” operational benchmarking report, allowing executives to make warehouse-to-warehouse comparisons, for example. Such reports now take a month to produce, “and we’re going to get it down to every single night,” he said.

CSG is also looking to pull data from its SAP ERP (enterprise resource planning) system for tasks like deep analysis of profitability.

Fipps declined to describe the query performance CSG is getting from HANA. “We’re not there yet in terms of true metrics.” But he says a friend who is further along on a HANA project has told him the performance is “unbelievable.”

HANA does feel like the new product that it is, but not unexpectedly, he said. “We went into this with eyes wide open. We knew we were going to hit the bumps.” Overall, the project is well-staffed and “everybody is looking for a big win,” he said.

He declined to say how much CSG is paying for the HANA system. “But relatively speaking, if HANA does what it’s supposed to do, I think it will be well worth the price,” Fipps said.

Right now, “several” customers have HANA running in production, according to Sikka. Many others are live, “meaning they have an instance running actively and are using for their business, but the IT department doesn’t consider it a production system,” he added.

But the fact that SAP is putting HANA into general availability roughly a year after it was first announced and before a wide range of customer case studies has been made public may cause some to wonder whether the technology isn’t being rushed along a little.

Sikka mostly dismissed the idea.

“You have to understand, we are riding on the coattails of 3,000 production installations of MaxDB … and more than 1,000 installations of TREX,” he said, referring to some of the technologies HANA is based upon. “This is the team that has built [HANA]. I am behind it. Hasso is behind it,” he said, referring to company co-founder Hasso Plattner.

Having said that, “we’re coming out of a period of time where SAP was not innovating,” he added. “So yes, we are in a little bit of a hurry to show we are innovating.”

HANA is going to serve as the basis for an “intellectual renewal” at SAP, according to Sikka. “It’s at the heart of everything we do in the future. Every team is impacted by it. We are all either transforming our products on the basis of HANA or right now building the road map to do so.”

Between 250 and 300 engineers distributed across the globe are working full-time on HANA around the clock, Sikka said.

SAP will provide more details in September on HANA-related product road maps, including the HANA AppCloud, which got a brief mention at the recent Sapphire conference.

Over time, SAP plans to open four data centres for the HANA AppCloud around the world, managing some itself and co-locating with partner-owned facilities for others, he said.

Like other cloud platforms, the AppCloud will involve server farms coupled with a software fabric for elastic resource provisioning. HANA will run on top, allowing customers and ISVs to run analytics or build applications, he said.

For now, HANA is available in appliance form from a range of different hardware partners — including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu, Cisco and IBM — giving customers ample choice of vendors. SAP has also constrained hardware support in one sense, as HANA currently only supports Intel x86 processors. That move was made to speed up HANA development, since only one platform needs to be supported.

HP is selling HANA boxes based on ProLiant servers in a total of six size configurations, according to company documents. It has also developed a series of implementation services for HANA.

Fujitsu’s site touts its past experience building in-memory appliances with SAP’s previously released Business Warehouse Accelerator product. It’s offering HANA appliances in five configurations using Primergy RX servers.

IBM is offering six HANA configurations built with its System x3690 X5 and x3950 X5 servers. A number of HANA services are available as well.

Dell is basing HANA systems on its PowerEdge R910 server platform, while Cisco will use its Unified Computing System product family.

Overall, there should be some parity across all hardware vendors’ HANA offerings, as SAP has created a specific bill of materials for the various sizes, according to Sikka.

Since HANA only serves as a computational engine, other software is needed to deliver analytics and reports to end-users.

HANA supports the common SQL and MDX query languages, meaning it can be compatible with any third-party BI (business intelligence) software that uses those standards, but has been optimized for SAP’s Business Objects 4.0 BI platform, which is set for release in July.

SAP is also releasing a series of specialized applications that sit on top of HANA, such as Strategic Workforce Planning, which companies can use to analyze the effect of large-scale changes to their employee base.

HANA will also support transactional workloads as well as analytics. SAP plans to eventually present HANA as an option for customers now running its Business Suite on Oracle’s database.

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