Imagine being able to crunch through thousands or even millions of data sets in real-time, and the benefits that could have for businesses. That's what SAP is pushing with HANA, its in-memory analytics platform. But how does the reality compare to the hype? Steve Evans reports
Gabriel Byrne on stage at SAP TechEd/Sapphire Now in Madrid
At the opening keynote of SAP's TechEd/Sapphire Now conference double-header held in Madrid, a man shuffled on stage. He wasn't wearing a tie, there was no pumping music to accompany him as he entered the stage, nor any whooping and cheering from the crowd. In short, it wasn't one of the usual suspects when it comes to conference keynotes.
"My name," he said, followed by a dramatic pause, "is Gabriel Byrne."
"I grew up in rural Ireland," he continued. "I knew a man who had seen the first motor car, listened to the first radio, watched television for the first time and watched man land on the moon. He also saw the invention of the PC. He thought all of these were the zenith of human achievement. 'There can't be anything else!' this old man would say.
"Well, if those were big inflection points, we are at a really big one now because we have new, quantum leap opportunities through two advancing technologies: mobility and the cloud. And a third breakthrough one. I mean in-memory computing - the instant analysis of masses of fast-changing data. And I mean nanosecond fast, for decision-making and running applications."
Comments like this may have been expected from the CEO of a company pushing its latest revenue-generating products, but not from a Hollywood actor.
"It's all about hyper-processing power," Byrne continued. "With in-memory computing, just multiply yesterday's capabilities up to 100,000 times over, so that you can ask questions about your margins, your manufacturing mix, marketing, and get answers and insights unbelievably faster. What it took three days to do before, it takes three minutes now. That's 4.6 billion records analysed in less than two seconds, with data stored in RAM accessed instantly through the cloud."
In-memory business intelligence is what SAP is pinning its hopes on, along with cloud and mobility. Its high-performance analytic appliance platform, HANA, was a big part of the Madrid conference. But what is it? As Byrne, and indeed SAP later on, pointed out, it is a way of analysing huge amounts of data on the fly - the processing is done in the computer's memory rather than on a disk.
Speed is the key here. Cutting out disks or database access can speed up the data analysis process by many hundreds or even thousands of times, as some customers are finding.
Jim Hagemann Snabe, SAP co-CEO, took to the stage after Byrne and went into more detail about HANA. As he highlighted there is nothing new or revolutionary about using data in main memory; all programmes use data in main memory, he said.
In fact, as BI analyst Nigel Pendse wrote on analysis blog The BI Verdict: "In-memory BI came before disk-based BI, probably because in-memory programs are easier to write.
"The first multi-dimensional tool was APL, whose origins were in the 1960s, based on a book called A Programming Language published in 1962. The first usable implementation of APL was in 1967, on the IBM 1130 mainframe. Most other early modelling (which we would now call BI) tools also used in-memory architectures."
Pendse continued: "By far the most widely used tool for BI applications today is Microsoft Excel, which has always had an in-memory architecture."
So if in-memory data processing and analytics has been around for a long time, why is SAP really pushing it now? And how is it different to the technologies that have come before HANA?
"It is far too simple to describe HANA as in-memory computing - it is so much more than that." Snabe says. "It is the combination of bringing all data into main memory and compressing it so it's affordable. Add to that a column store and maximum use of parallel processing. That's what makes HANA unique."
Jim Hagemann Snabe, SAP co-CEO
Explosion of data
Speaking to CBR, Sanjay Poonen, president of Global Solutions and Go-to-Market at SAP, expands on why the time is right for HANA. "There is an enormous explosion of data - that's just a fact of life, and it's doubling every 18 months. And people are looking for faster and better ways of analysing information at their fingertips."
So-called consumerisation of IT is another trend that is helping to drive in-memory analytics, Poonen says. "This means that people who were workers during the day and consumers at night just expect things to work," he says. "Mobility is the primary driver of that and we saw an opportunity to be a leader in terms of how that relates to business applications.
"We're not going to be a consumer mobility company that builds Angry Birds or whatever, but imagine if those types of principles - good design, a beautiful interface - could be used for an enterprise app," Poonen continues. "So when you look at the trends, that is exactly where HANA and in-memory is positioned: to solve the big data and mobility roblems."
Poonen points out that it is the iPad that has revolutionised the way in which people think about work, particularly when it comes to being able to crunch huge amounts of data on the go. Therefore it is no surprise to see that it is the combination of big data and mobility that is driving the initial uptake of HANA.
At the Madrid event Poonen demonstrated to CBR how HANA can be used on an iPad - he was able to pull up SAP's own sales pipeline and drill down into products, regions and so on, using a HANA database sitting on top of SAP's CRM system.
"It's a killer app," he adds. "A mobility application, with a powerful engine in the cloud, and a beautiful experience at your fingertips [via SAP BusinessObjects Explorer]. You can't crunch billions of records on the device; you want to be able to do it in the cloud."
Out in the real world there are a few impressive case studies - at Colgate Palmolive sales reps can now run reports with real-time results up to 100-300 times faster, with some processes coming down from 77 minutes to just 13 seconds. India's Essar Group has seen a performance increase of more than 10,000 times, with processing time coming down from 15 hours to 4.8 seconds.
The most extreme example displayed by SAP was for Japanese retail company Yodobashi. The company has five million customers on its loyalty card scheme, and establishing what rewards they were owed used to take three days, explains SAP's CTO Vishal Sikka. It now takes just two seconds and can even be done while the customer is in a store, he says. This shows a performance increase of 129,000 times.
SAP's CTO Vishal Sikka
Is the time right?
While this all sounds very impressive, there is an elephant in the room when it comes to in-memory analytics. SAP does not publicly disclose prices for HANA as that depends on the size of the project, but analysts have suggested that a significant investment is required to get the ball rolling.
With the economic situation looking increasingly perilous, will companies feel this is simply an investment they cannot afford to make at the moment?
Steve Winter, UK&I MD at SAP, is not worried: "If you look at what some companies are spending today on their data warehouses you can drive costs down by consolidating on HANA, and it will pay for itself. The important thing is being able to crunch data in seconds and make business decisions that can have an immediate impact," he tells CBR.
Winter was also coy when it came to discussing UK customers that have adopted HANA, just mentioning a couple of pilot projects that have been launched, one with Centrica and the other with a large oil and gas company, and a couple of unnamed companies that have actually purchased HANA.
On stage in Madrid, co-CEO Snabe said he believed in-memory computing would go on to become the dominant computing architecture as the idea of separate memory and hard drives will fade away. But the combination of upfront costs and a slowing of the world economy may mean SAP will need more than Hollywood stars to convince businesses HANA is a worthwhile investment, at least at the moment.
Read CBR's full Q&A with Steve Winter, UK&I MD at SAP, here.