Following a great deal of attention through the end of 2010 and a launch event in April 2011, the long-awaited SAP BusinessObjects BI4 product has now been released into General Availability. It seemed like a great time to sit down with Adam Binnie - GM & Global VP of Business Intelligence Solutions at SAP, to try to answer some of the key questions that customers have been asking me for the last few months. The words are mine, not his.
I was a bit concerned when George Matthew from SAP left in June 2011, and the promise was that Adam would fill his shoes. It's clear from the short time that I spent with Adam that he is a seasoned Business Objects executive (he joined BO in 1991 through a series of acquisitions of Holistic and Seagate) and he knows the product very well. For my money, the product is in good hands.
What's the big deal with the BI4 launch? Didn't that happen in April?
Yes: BI4 was launched back in April 2011 but at that time it was marked as "Release to Customer" or RTC - and was in unrestricted shipment. SAP require that certain key metrics be met before it is marked as "Generally Available" - mostly around number of customers that are live and presumably some around number of defects. These weren't met in April and so the product couldn't be yet classed as "GA".
Despite this Adam tells me that there were already some 600 downloads, 500 customers using it and over 10 productive customers. After RTC, the product was available for download after filling in a form. Now, those KPIs have been met and BI4 is ready for prime time.
The thing is, many SAP customers don't use software that isn't marked in GA - particularly in risk-averse markets like the UK. So today is a big day for many customers, because they will now consider usage of this product.
What does this mean in real terms? Is the product stable?
My consultants have been working with BI4 since before it was in RTC, during the phase called Ramp-Up, which is what many software vendors call Beta. Our view is that since BI4 SP02, which was released in June 2011, the product is now stable and good for productive use in most scenarios.
As with any new product, it's always worth considering your usage as compares to the number of defects that remain. This is true of any software product and BI4 is no different: it pays to be pragmatic.
What does this mean for the relative product maturity of HANA vs BI4?
HANA 1.0 SP02 was released into GA in June 2011 and it's fair to say that HANA 1.0 is a really new product. As such it's still got some teething troubles - particularly in complex scenarios. This is perhaps fair enough because customers can - and are - getting value out of HANA. Its maturity will come with time.
Adam tells me that the customer expectation of a ".0" release with a mature product like SAP BusinessObjects Enterprise, which is on its 16th version (XI was version 11 remember!), is very different. They are looking for a mature, stable and quality product.
What's new in BI4?
There's resources much better than I can write on this. The roadmap is available here if you are a SAP Customer. The key points for me are:
Massively improved performance for SAP BW - claimed 5x faster
Improved usability and similar interface for all products
Semantic layer allows building of data structures across systems
Focus on self-service analytics, empowering the user communities
What about BI4.1 vs BI4.0. Should I implement now?
SAP Mentor Ingo Hilgefort wrote about this in March 2011 in the blog "SAP Integration Update 9 - Should you start with SAP BusinessObjects 4.0 or wait for 4.1?". His view was clear - implement 4.0 now. I quizzed Adam on the same point and my view is much the same as Adam's.
SAP BusinessObjects BI4.1 brings new features - that's what the .1 means. Those aren't quite confirmed yet but the product is due to go into Ramp-Up in Q4 2011 - though the timeline is not yet confirmed. The big ticket items are set to be:
Better Mobile Support. This means geo-location services, exploration views on mobile, more support for the Android platform and also support for the Sybase Unwired Platform, which is really interesting.
Tighter SAP HANA Integration. There should be support for Analysis for OLAP and Office to use BICS on HANA, and there are rumours about how parts of the calculation layer in BI4 will be compiled into HANA - dramatically increasing performance.
Further Improved Integration with SAP BW and ERP. This means a bunch of improvements around client access via BICS, metadata, support for scaling factors and hierarchies etc.
SAP StreamWork Integration. It's unclear what the impact of StreamWork is on the Enterprise but this may help adoption.
Improved developer access. This means everything from REST APIs for BI and Crystal, the use of Flex 4.0 for Dashboards (at last!) and various other API improvements and multi-tenancy support. Lots of nice minor additions.
Our view is clear though: if BI4 meets your needs today, then consider implementing it now. If you need some of the features of 4.1 then wait.
What does the sunsetting of the Deski tool mean?
This depends a bit on your usage. The Webi web-based tool is now much richer than it was in Business Objects XIR2 or SAP BusinessObjects XIR3 and for many scenarios, the migration tool from Deski to Webi may be sufficient.
However there are scenarios where Webi won't meet the requirements and process change may be involved. This requires fairly serious thought and you should consider a Proof of Concept of BI4 and look at the business impact.
SAP's view is fairly clear: desktop based tools like Deski no longer meet the needs of most businesses and it was a good thing to sunset Deski. There is the alternative Analysis for Excel product that is available for desktop scenarios and it uses the familiar Excel interface.
What does this mean for SAP NetWeaver BW users running SAP BusinessObjects XIR3 or Business Objects XIR2?
In short: huge improvements. BI4 was designed for NetWeaver BW EhP1 and EhP2 (as well as NetWeaver BW 7.3 obviously) and it's a major leap.
The BICS interface has been improved and you can consume BEx Queries into BI4 natively. It's faster, supports hierarchies and usability makes a big jump. If you're running BO on top of SAP, BI4 will be the defacto choice.
What platforms does BI4 run on and what is the preferred platform?
It was interesting that Adam and I had slightly differing experiences. My experience is that UNIX platforms like AIX and HP-UX are the poor cousin of the Windows edition and those customers suffered a bit in the past.
What's for sure now is that unlike in the past, all platforms will be supported simultaneously - mostly due to SAP creating a bigger testing team which means they can do this safely. On launch: Windows, Linux (SUSE and RedHat), AIX and Solaris are supported. DB2, MaxDB, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle and Sybase Adaptive Server Anywhere are supported.
Adam tells me that a lot of customers are now preferring Linux. My experience is mostly on Linux and Windows and both are great platforms. For my money, AIX and Solaris will remain niche platforms and if you want a mainstream platform, you should stick to Windows or Linux.
It is important to note if you are a XIR2 or XIR3 customer on Windows that you may need to replace your hardware. BI4 only runs on 64-bit Windows - which is a great thing, due to the memory limitations of 32-bit Windows. You get better performance too!
What is the support strategy for BI4? It appears only to be supported until 30.06.2013?
SAP have committed to a 7+2 year support agreement for BI4 - this means that the overall release will be supported until at least 26.11.2017 in mainstream maintenance and 26.11.2019 in extended maintenance. Note that this is for the overall release.
It seems likely that to remain in support, you will need to upgrade to BI4.1 or whatever follows it (4.2 etc.) before 30.06.2013. Adam does confirm though that the upgrade from 4.0 to 4.1 is intended to be low-impact and should be an inline upgrade: it will be an installer that does not require new equipment etc.
I have asked SAP for clarification on this and am awaiting a response.
What does an upgrade look like?
As with the XIR2 and XIR3 releases before it, BI4 requires a migration approach to upgrading. This is usually neat because it means you can implement new hardware and improve performance.
You install BI4 onto a new system and then migrate the content using the migration tools. Once implemented, you test and check that it all works. Especially in NetWeaver BW scenarios, it may be necessary to revisit the data modes and if you have Deski usage, there is likely to be a business change component during the migration to Webi.
What are the license implications of upgrading?
As with any license situation you should refer to your SAP account team - each customer has individual needs. However, if you are licensed for SAP BusinessObjects XIR2 or XIR3 and you pay for a maintenance contract, there should be no direct impact of upgrading - especially if you replace hardware and therefore have better performance.
BI4 offers some great new opportunities for tools with Crystal, Webi, Analysis for Excel/OLAP etc. and these may have some additional license requirements, if you have a business need for new usage.
SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.0 has had a slow start but it's now ready for the prime time. The improvements in integration and usability mean that it's a no-brainer for most existing customers, and an extremely attractive proposition for new customers: both SAP and non-SAP houses.
I'd seriously recommend looking at a Proof of Concept of BI4 if you are an existing or new customer. The self-service nature of the Webi tool means that it is quick to build a PoC and easy to roll out to business users, who will quickly become familiar with the interface and start building their own reports. And that's where Business Analytics really is in 2011.