How Non Programming Integration Solutions Undermine SAP Projects

Executive Summary

  • SAP is continually fighting against the perception that its applications are difficult to integrate.
  • At the heart of the problem is that SAP’s current integration products use non-programming approaches that are outdated. For organizations, this translates to poor integration performance with scaling limitations, restrictions on pipeline optimization, and the inability to reuse data.
  • Is the solution to increase performance is to use a custom-made solution with a 100% programming approach? The article ends with a demo of a REST API to an SAP system to show how a fully-coded solution can enhance integration performance.

Introduction

This article is co-authored by Shaun Snapp and Denis Myagkov.

In this article, we will begin by covering the history of SAP integration, the reliance on non-programming integration applications, and then we will discuss a new SAP integration approach.

History of SAP’s Integration Solutions

SAP has historically been the most challenging vendor with which to integrate but has a long history of marketing its integration prowess. I (Shaun Snapp) can recall being shocked when I had to integrate to SAP through a hierarchical document (that went back to mainframes) called an IDOC. For decades, a main strategy of both SAP and SAP consulting companies has been to instill fear into customers regarding how difficult it is to perform integration, while at the same time underemphasizing the costs with creating customizations in SAP. The reason for both of these positions has been to direct customers away from purchasing non-SAP applications and to move customizations from existing “legacy” systems and to migrate them to SAP.

Particularly recently SAP has once again tried to recast/reboot its integration image. Moreover, this has lead SAP to make many proposals about the App Center (an Apple App Store type center giving the illusion that SAP is an open ecosystem) and the SAP Cloud Platform. The following video covers some of these claims regarding the SAP Cloud Platform.


SAP has a lengthy history of making SAP integration seem much more comfortable than it is. This leads typically to customers receiving costs and time surprises from the application integration effort that is much more difficult to perform to SAP than initially presented. In fact, two of the primary reasons why SAP projects are over budget is unexpected customizations and integrations.

What follows is an abbreviated list of the history of SAP integration offerings.

SAP’s Integration Offerings

  • Before 2003: SAP performs integration via RFC using C/C++ library equivalent to modern libsapjco3.so for Unix or sapjco3.dll for Windows. Today this libraries delivered as a part of SAP JCo (Java Connector) functionality.
  • After 2003: SAP releases its Exchange Infrastructure – SAP XI as a tool to build integration solution to SAP ERP system without explicit coding. This product was released together with SAP NetWeaver 2004 as killer-feature. Technically SAP XI was Java wrapper on top of what became modern SAP JCo.
  • 2005: SAP renamed XI to PI (Process Integration) due to modification of licensing policy, so that clients paid for traffic, but not per instance. Also, SAP extended the number of use cases in the marketing materials. In the same year, SAP acquired LightHammer. LightHammer had and their integration solution aimed at the manufacturing domain. Later this solution was renamed to SAP MII, that was delivered with SAP PCo (Plant Connectivity). An additional service aimed at industrial support interfaces of data exchange like OPC. SAP MII was also built as a wrapper on top of C/C++ libraries.
  • 2011: SAP PI was renamed to SAP PO (Process Orchestration). However, it was more marketing rebranding than a technology update. This rename did not change SAP PO’s prospects in the market with PO declining in popularity further since 2011.
  • 2016: SAP presents its Cloud Platform Integration & Hybris Data Hub. The SAP Cloud Platform (renamed from SAP HCP) is designed to perform integration with remote SAP System. The Hybris Data Hub is aimed at integration the integration of SAP’s Hybris e-commerce application with a short number of functions in SAP ERP like material master data, stock value and prices.

The Reality of SAP’s Integration Products

Let us consider what this list of SAP integration products tells us.

If we follow the evolution of SAP’s integration solutions, SAP has attempted to move from programming paradigm to non-programming, when writing of explicit code was replaced with some transactions for customization.

However, all of the technologies listed in the previous section are based on C/C++ library that wrapped with Java library that wrapped with one of listed integration tool (much like an onion).

The Price Paid by Customers SAP’s Non-Programming Integration Approach

SAP has historically benefited from a large pool of specialized workers that are able to configure systems without knowing how to code. This is the standard SAP “functional consultant” as opposed to a “technical consultant.” Meanwhile, vendors ranging from Oracle to Axapta to Baan frequently struggle with a shortage of well qualified IT resources to build their ecosystems. SAP easily attracted non-technical resources and converted them to consultants. Doing this they were able to develop an army of semi-IT literate resources who were ready to set up all business logic in SPRO without writing a single line of code with most of these resources working in SAP consulting partners or as independent consultants rather than working for SAP itself. This reduced the learning curve for configuring SAP and opened the area to more resources.

How SAP Does The Same Thing in Integration

With integration solutions, the picture is quite similar.

SAP provides people who are unable to distinguish between TCP and UDP protocols the ability to build integration solutions without writing an even single line of code. They can do this without even understanding of protocols.

In the mid-2000s, this can be said to be a reasonable trade-off. At this point, there was just the dawn of modern WEB technology, and there was little to integrate to most of SAP systems. However, by the end of the 2000s, we already had a massive offering of different technologies and concepts that is still exponentially growing. In recent years, we see the growth of solutions aimed at integration with SAP ERP to extend its planning, reporting or any other abilities. We also have the massively increased popularity of mobile and web-based solutions that also aimed to be integrated to SAP.

All of these tools have its requirements for integration, security, user management, performance…

Getting to the Heart of the Problem with XI/PI/PO

The biggest problem of current integration products from SAP is that it provides an inappropriate model of integration. Features that made SAP XI/PI/PO accessible to SAP consultants are now doing them a disservice. SAP XI simply was not designed to work with most of the contemporary technologies and protocols.

SAP as a vendor also unable to extend and update its solution to fit modern requirements.

Understanding the Server, The Weakest Link of Chain

Every server can handle only a limited number of external connections simultaneously.

Given the restriction is due to things like the following:

  • Network bandwidth
  • Parameters of Unix core and constraints of specific software server.

For instance, the default number of parallel connections to Apache Tomcat is 100. The default number to MySQL is 151. The default number to HANA is….well nobody knows for sure, but it is not more significant than it is to MySQL.

If we consider the server, no matter what type, it can be viewed as operating as a big supermarket. Imagine a supermarket with 100 checkout stations and all incoming requests is like its customers. There is something called Little’s Law that could help us to estimate what time we will spend until server will serve us.

Let us get into the math of server requests.

  • Number of Business Users: Let assume that we have 2000 business users using WEB applications connected to some server
  • Average Number of Requests per Server per Second: Each application makes an average of 10 requests to the server per second, which could be handled by the server in parallel.
  • Server Requests: Let also assume that the server will process every request in 5 seconds.
  • Wait Times: Here we will get the situation when half of our users will wait at least two times longer than it could be with a lower number of users.

Contention at the Server with SAP Fiori

Same issue we are facing with the Fiori when the extension of connection dramatically reduce overall application performance. Here we have to understand that everything we get to the screen sent by Fiori Frontend Server as a response to our multiple requests (JS code, layout structure, dashboard data, user permissions, some transactional data, pictures and so on).

Any system will work only as fast as its slowest or bottleneck resource, or even slower than that.

Can One Address the Issue by Simply Adding More Servers?

Thereby, in practice we have is a situation when a solution that works worse in than in the 2000’s due to the growing number of connections in modern applications.

However, wait one second. What about Google, Facebook, Netflix, PayPal? They could handle thousands of requests per second and work as fast as they servers staying in a next room.

Why can’t SAP do the same for its clients?

To improve our integration performance we have to be able to do the following:

  • Scale the Landscape Horizontally: That is to reduce the number of requests to a single server by adding new servers.
  • Optimization of the Pipeline: Improve the number of requests that could be handled by a single server by optimization of code and memory usage.
  • Reuse of Data: Add client-side and server-side cash to not serve requests that were served one minute ago.

Second, we have to acknowledge that all of those companies (Google, Facebook, etc.) are using their own fully tailored solutions that from the beginning was designed and adapted to handle the targeted number of requests.

How Does SAP Address This Issue?

What did SAP make in an opposite fashion to other modern IT-Giants?

Quite a few things it turns out. Let us review each of them.

  • Scaling Limitations: SAP integration solutions horizontally. Even one decides to add more PI/PO servers behind some reverse proxy, it will not help because the number of request to SAP ERP backend still will be the same. The next problem is how to maintain similar logic on several PI/PO instances. This has no real solution.
  • Pipeline Optimization: There is no way to optimize the pipeline. The ability to use the non-programming paradigm was obtained, but only in exchange for a loss of performance. Each time, when a connection is made to SAP PI/PO, the server creates a request to the database to obtain non-programming integration rules. Then the server transforms them to programming, compiles them, then allocates them to memory, then executes. All of those steps between getting request and its execution is the overhead of non-programming paradigm. It is possible to write a custom component to PI/PO in Java. Then we will get minor improvements of performance with no test or debug tools. The majority of PI/PO consultants are unable, unfortunately, to write production-ready code.
  • Reuse of Data: With PI/PO they are unable to reuse data (at least on server-side). If 2000 users decide to open Fiori apps, the SAP PI behind it will make 2000 times the requests to the database to obtain non-programming integration rules versus the requests for programming integration rules. Hence, our non-programming overhead became 2000 times more palpable and time in queue for every request became much longer.

How SAP Became Trapped in the Non-Programming Paradigm

Today SAP is trapped in its non-programming paradigm. SAP has no possible mechanism to improve integration performance while insisting on the supremacy of non-programming paradigm. Generically solving specific business cases is impossible. Let us review a particular example.

How Google, Facebook and Netflix Compare

Companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix also struggling with the performance of their infrastructure, but let us review how they are solving this issue of integration.

  • Google: When a video becomes viral on YouTube, Google copies this video to hundreds or thousands of servers across the globe to make this data available to users as fast as possible.
  • Netflix: When Netflix starts a new season of the Game of Thrones its run thousands of new servers to broadcast content. Running 10-12 additional application servers to improve overall performance during a December run-up is not feasible in the SAP ecosystem.
  • Visa: For Visa, it is entirely reasonable to handle 4000 transactions per second. This is much higher than any single server could handle. When you are paying for your coffee at Starbucks, Visa is somehow able to check your account balance, verify your pin-code and send a confirmation to the terminal. How could that possibly work with SAP FI + SAP PI?

None of those achievements was the result of magic or supernatural abilities. All of those companies invest enormous efforts and money to design and build their own solutions that have no SPRO/configuration client to simplify things for consultants and furthermore they are specially made for one client.

Big Data itself was only a by-product of Google, and it reshaped the IT industry after they published this article in 2003. Google solved the problem of how to handle significant amounts of heterogeneous data by a large number of cheap commodity servers.

After 15 years everything SAP was able to propose to the Market as they Big Data solution was SAP Vora that works on top of Hadoop, that works on HDFS – file system similar to described by Google. It is SAP trying to insert itself into Hadoop, Hadoop and other related technologies do not need SAP.

Getting Back to Basics for Integration

Does this all mean that to get the high performance we need to get back to programming?

Yes, but with a caveat.

We have to acknowledge that programming 15 years ago versus today has evolved. However, those changes are for the good. For example, 15 years ago it was necessary to spend several days to write and deploy a simple enterprise-ready server. Today any recent computer science graduate can do that in 1-2 hours maximum and use such server to a cloud.

In my practice (Denis Myagkov), I am using my custom-made solution that I named Integration Framework. As with the SAP integration solutions the Integration Framework also works on top of SAP JCo and C/C++ library. However, I choose 100% programming approach where all of the integration logic compiled to bytecode and produce zero overhead. Moreover, I can work with any data cache, scale my servers horizontally or do whatever I want to do.

Below is code that provides REST API to real life SAP system from Amazon AWS t2.micro instance.

This is everything needed to write to open single API to SAP BAPI. It requires only a couple of hours or days through the Integration Framework to build integration part that easily outperforms any SAP PI/PO implementations in 100-150 times while working on 7$ Amazon AWS server.

Seeing is Believing

Those who do require more evidence can experience this demo first hand. It will be available for 1-2 months by the link:

  • login: 1ntruder
  • password: l0ckp1ck
  • matnr range: 753-800 (change it in URL)

The demo is only Bread & Butter of high-performance integration. I will try to find some time in the future to create something more comprehensive.

SAP Integration Development & Consulting

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References

https://research.google.com/archive/gfs-sosp2003.pdf