What Are the Killer Apps for SAP HANA and Other In-Memory Computing Systems?

9 December 2011

Dennis Moore

Dennis Moore


In a previous blog, I argued that SAP HANA (and in-memory computing) had the potential to bring a number of benefits to enterprises in the short term, including:

  • elimination of lag time between data capture in the operational system and its availability in analytical systems,
  • greatly increased query performance, and
  • simplification of the IT landscape.

A second blog discussed scenarios in which HANA could be transformative to customers today.  In summary, customers running SAP BW may find substantial benefits to moving to SAP HANA in the short term - read the blog for more details. It's my opinion that SAP BW is the "killer app" for HANA.  However, this is only a part of the answer, since BW is a platform on which customers run many different apps.

"Timeful" software

Why is HANA so interesting?  In a sense, what the HANA team did is to look at all the assumptions underlying applications today.  Given the enormous changes in the price of high-speed memory, it is now possible and economical to handle essentially all of our typical transactional applications - and a very large fraction of our analytical applications - on a data set in fast RAM, rather than on a slow disk.

As I was discussing SAP HANA with Vishal Sikka (SAP Chief Technology Officer and Executive Board member) and his team over the past months, I came to the conclusion that the software architecture embodied in HANA is a radical re-thinking of the assumptions underlying the enterprise software industry - and this could be transformative for the enterprise software industry and every industry it supports.  Disruptive changes in speed and cost have always held the potential for transformations of industries, whether in transportation (from sailboats to airplanes), farming (from ox-driven plows to today's automated equipment), or mining (workers with pick axes to earthmovers and dynamite).  As these industries transformed, they also led to transformations in the industries around them, and society as a whole.  For example, fast, cheap, reliable transportation led to transformations of every industry from agriculture to energy to trade to government and even to war.

Vishal recently discussed a concept he calls "Timeless Software" (blog, video).  Timeless Software embodies the notion that software must evolve as customer needs - and technologies available to satisfy them - change.  Business processes and data need to survive even as the technologies around them get invented, flourish, and eventually passed by with new and (usually!) better successors.  But what about the situation where the business needs change extremely rapidly, and the business can flourish or perish based on its ability to respond in real-time?

You could think of this scenario, where time is of the essence, as "timeful software" - scenarios in which you could transform an industry by eliminating latency - or lack - of information.  HANA's speed allows batch processes to be performed more frequently, continuously, or transmuted into continuous processes.  Can such speed - delivering information and insight into the hands of those who need it instantly when it is needed, or re-planning on an "as needed" basis rather than periodically - can such speed really transform an industry?  Can moving information and deriving information in real-time make such a difference?

In many business processes, the answer is already, resoundingly "yes."  Hotels check availability before confirming your reservation.  Banks check for sufficient funds before cashing a check at the teller.  Airplanes get rerouted and rescheduled when a volcano erupts in Iceland.  But there are many other business processes which are executed periodically, in batches, today due to the cost and disruption to production systems.  If the cost (performance) and disruption (latency, system unavailability windows) could be eliminated - as they can be with in-memory computing systems like SAP HANA - then the economics of businesses and industries could be substantially improved.

These "timeful" scenarios listed below are illustrative of those which I think will be enabled by SAP HANA, and which will lead to dramatic efficiencies, competitive shifts, and improved service, creating value for customers in such a way as to transform an industry.

Cross-Industry, Batch Processes Run More Frequently

This first set of "timeful" scenarios are processes typically executed periodically (in batches), in many industries.  If these processes could be performed more quickly or more often, at economically feasible transaction costs, then many industries could become more efficient, more effective, and more profitable (by better satisfying customer needs).


Cross-Industry, Batch Processes Converted to Continuous Processes

In many manufacturing industries, converting a process from batch to continuous execution can result in much higher yields, better quality control, and lower costs.  Couldn't this be true as well for non-manufacturing industries?

A very innovative example of someone using a conversion to continuous processing to revolutionize an industry is Sal Khan, with his Khan Academy.  Khan Academy is bringing many innovations to the education industry, but one exciting improvement is moving from infrequent, standardized, "batch" testing of students to continuous, personalized testing - and results-based learning.  Check it out for yourself.

This next set of "timeful" scenarios are processes typically executed periodically (in batches), in many industries.  Converting these processes to continuous processes may require new algorithms and theories, but others can use existing approaches in real-time rather than an offline, "asynchronous" approach.



Industry-Specific, Batch Processes Converted to Continuous Processes

Every industry has its own set of processes that are executed infrequently, in batch mode, and some of these processes can be beneficial if run more frequently or continuously, producing results as needed.


There is no shortage of "timeful," killer app scenarios that are industry-, or even company-, specific, but these are provided just to illustrate the concept.

Killer Apps

A killer app is a typically thought of as an application that is so beneficial that it drives widespread adoption of a new type of platform.  This term was invented for the computer industry, with VisiCalc (driving the adoption of personal computers) being a canonical example.  Once individuals, and businesses, adopted personal computers to run VisiCalc (or Lotus 1-2-3 for MS-DOS, or Excel and Word on Windows), users started using those same computers for many other applications, ranging from word processing to e-mail to web browsing.  The impact of these second set of applications is more profound than was the impact of the spreadsheet, but it was the spreadsheet that paved the way for these applications by bringing PCs into mainstream adoption.

VisiCalc, Lotus, and Excel were really just containers that held data and applications ("macros"), and it was those applications that made the tools into killer apps, used for everything from budgeting to tax preparation to production planning to homework.  In many ways, SAP BW is exactly analogous to a spreadsheet like VisiCalc or Lotus.  BW is a container that can hold data and applications - applications including the lists of processes above.  BW, with scenarios like the long lists above, will drive widespread adoption of in-memory computing (and SAP HANA, more specifically).  Once HANA is in place as the database under SAP BW, customers will find many more ways to use HANA to transform their enterprises to much higher levels of performance, much as word processors, e-mail, and browsers are transforming business and society.

Will SAP HANA have the same impact as the PC?  Will HANA be VisiCalc or Excel in my analogy?  Time will tell, but time is exactly what SAP HANA gives you.  And, perhaps in the end, time is the real "killer app."

Do you have additional scenarios to suggest for "timeful" transformations?  Share them here!


Dennis Moore loves enterprise software and solutions.  He is a member of the Enterprise Irregulars, where he blogs frequently on topics of interest to customers, vendors, and other enterprise software industry participants. Follow @dbmoore on twitter.

Disclaimer: SAP is a former employer, and current client, of the author.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bluefin Solutions Ltd.

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