by Thomas Wailgum

SAP Unveils Its NetWeaver Business Process Management Tool

May 13, 2008 5 mins
BPM Systems Enterprise Applications

The BPM market is hot, and entrenched players will be tough to displace as SAP plays catch up in the business process management space. Here's what SAP plans to deliver and when.

At its Sapphire show in early May, SAP announced plans for the future release of two new tools: the Business Process Management (BPM) and Business Rules Management offerings, which will be added to its NetWeaver platform in the latter part of 2008.

“The new tools from SAP are aimed to provide the business process flexibility needed to enable customers to turn strategic business insight into real-world execution,” stated SAP’s announcement. “The addition of the planned capabilities will enable business process experts to design, model and immediately execute new or adapted business processes without having to develop code.”

Madan Sheina, a principal analyst at Ovum who was at the Sapphire show, says that a element of excitement permeated the air as the NetWeaver BPM announcement took center stage in both of SAP’s co-CEO keynote speeches.

One of the key messages from the BPM kick-off, as well as from the Sapphire show overall, was that SAP is attempting to add more flexibility to its product offerings, and BPM is a logical place to deliver the message: After all, BPM generates lots of buzz. (See “BPM: A Hot Area That’s Still Immature” for more on BPM.)

In its announcement, the German software giant wasted no space in hammering home the attributes of the new BPM tool. The words agility, quickly, accelerate, flexibility, innovation and competitive advantage were repeated throughout.

“Process flexibility within SAP environments was the key message here [at Sapphire],” Sheina says. “SAP’s been breaking away from the old image of rigid systems, rigid processes, expensive ABAP [SAP’s programming language] programmers, and really trying to open itself up a little bit more.”

SAP is trying to change its image because today’s heterogeneous IT environments and companies’ dispersed and global operations demand flexible applications, and SAP’s processes and applications have long been viewed as being strict and not easy to change. Change, however, is a near constant for business users and their processes today, and business applications need to adapt on the fly.

What NetWeaver BPM Is and Is Not

With its NetWeaver BPM announcement, SAP has introduced a “generic business process modeling environment,” Sheina says. The big difference between SAP’s BPM tool and the pure-play BPM providers’ offerings is that SAP’s is not (so far) a standalone process management tool that can work in enterprises’ heterogeneous IT environments, Sheina points out. “It’s really a process management tool that allows SAP users to play around and tinker with their processes that are in place.”

That distinction is important to best-of-breed BPM providers like Lombardi Software. Rod Favaron, Lombardi’s chairman and CEO, says that it’s difficult for vendors such as SAP, who are applications companies at the core, to create a pure BPM platform that is more tailored and useful for business users rather than for developers. (See “How a Travel Giant Turned Its Ship Around” for an inside look at a BPM success story.)

“Companies don’t want another development tool; they want an environment a businessperson can interact with,” Favaron says. “An awful lot of what gets done in a BPM suite gets done by non-programmers.”

SAP, however, is stating that its BPM tool will allow users to change processes without changing the code, Sheina notes. (For more on BPM, see “Workflow? BPM? I’m So Confused!” and “An Introduction to BPM.”)

“That might be new to SAP customers, but not to the wider BPM community at large,” Sheina writes in an Ovum report. “Hence, SAP is in many ways playing catch-up to functionality that has been around for years in more mature BPM suites.”

How Much Market Share Can SAP BPM Grab?

Where SAP might have an advantage when the tool finally rolls out is in enterprises that are heavy SAP users. “The embedded nature of SAP’s BPM product—for instance, the tight coupling with SAP applications—will confer significant benefits for wall-to-wall SAP shops,” Sheina writes, “but less so for customers that have highly heterogeneous environments.”

A benefit for an SAP-only shop is that the NetWeaver BPM tool would enable users to “selectively pick and choose components from the core SAP applications directly as part of the process orchestration,” Sheina writes. “That will allow them to easily pass objects from one step of the process to another and assemble them as composite applications for new functionality.”

Sheina questions just how much SAP can penetrate the BPM market, which already has plenty of established service providers, such as Pegasystems, Savvion as well as Lombardi. “What advantage does it provide over using best-of-breed BPM products like Lombardi in conjunction with SAP applications?” he wonders.

Sheina isn’t the only one with questions about SAP’s BPM product. Lombardi’s Favaron wonders whether it’ll be geared more toward developers or business users.

“What will be interesting to see is: Does SAP come to market with anything that can be consumed by business analysts and business people in a useful way, or is it a set of developer tools buried in NetWeaver,” Favaron says. “Because if it’s not going to be standalone and independent, then we’re not concerned about it.”

When NetWeaver BPM Will Arrive

Everyone, of course, will have to wait and see. The NetWeaver BPM and NetWeaver Business Rules Management tools are “planned to be available” to SAP’s ramp-up customers in the third quarter 2008, with general availability within the NetWeaver Composition Environment enhancement Package 1 expected in early 2009, according to SAP.

“It seems like it’s quite a ways away from being released,” Sheina says, and, he figures, SAP still has much work ahead.

“While the messaging behind NetWeaver BPM is more or less in line with current BPM trends—process agility and transparency, less coding and wider business user collaboration, and supporting composite applications,” Sheina writes, “it remains to be seen whether NetWeaver BPM will allow SAP to shift from its…rigid ERP applications to more flexible composite applications development.”