Criticism of SAP HANA database: Fair or false?
SAP HANA is an in-memory database and its namesake's highest profile product. The platform has added new functionality over the past decade, but industry experts disagree on how successful it has been.
In 2010, SAP "revolutionized" the database management market by delivering SAP HANA, the first in-memory data platform, according to Philip On, global vice president of SAP HANA. Since then, the product has generated a great deal of attention as well as criticism.
"We envisioned that modern digital businesses needed something that was much more real time in nature in terms of their data processing and data access … and we've delivered on a new database platform that is purely in-memory-based," On said.
SAP HANA started out as a transactional and analytical database platform to handle both transactions and analytics all in one system, according to On. The initial use cases were for data mart and data warehousing scenarios.
"HANA has evolved to become an all-in-one data platform that can handle both analytical, transactional and application development for customers -- what we call the digital platform for a modern business," On said. "Today, nine years later, we have over 28,000 customers using SAP HANA as the foundation for digital transformation."
SAP HANA is used in support of both real-time computing needs for SAP and non-SAP application environments, he said. Customers are using HANA to support SAP apps, such as ERP and CRM, but they're also using it in non-SAP environments. In addition, many use the SAP HANA database platform.
SAP's own line of business applications from S4/HANA to C4/HANA, along with all of its cloud lines of business, also use SAP HANA as the database platform, On said.
"As it relates to the cloud, our customers are on a journey to modernize, and to that end they need a partner that can deliver deployment options for them for both on-premises and the cloud or even hybrid," he said.
Customers want to design once and deploy in any environment, and SAP is one of the few leading platform vendors to offer multi-cloud support, allowing its customers to choose whatever cloud infrastructure they wish to deploy HANA on, including Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services or even Alibaba Cloud, On said.
Initially, organizations used SAP HANA for one-off analytics projects as well as to expedite specific data processing and performance requirements in SAP Business Warehouse (BW), according to a report from SAP partner Centiq.
Where HANA falls short
However, SAP has been on the receiving end of criticism for HANA, with the exception of porting BW onto the platform, said Shaun Snapp, an SAP researcher at Brightwork Research & Analysis in Phoenix. That works reasonably well because BW is an analytics application, and HANA is optimized mainly for analytics, he said.
"They make it sound like it's optimized for a variety of processing types," he said. "But internal benchmarking from some different places that I can't really mention, in addition to feedback that's come from global clients that have implemented HANA, show that those claims are not true."
SAP has faced criticism because HANA doesn't meet projected performance claims, which include the ability to do analytic and transaction processing, and even computationally intensive activities such as materials requirements planning, Snapp said.
SAP ultimately wanted to be able to incorporate all that functionality in a single database and defeat any other competing database, he said.
"It was quite a lofty goal that [SAP co-founder and chairman] Hasso Plattner set out for HANA, but he didn't have any idea how to accomplish it," Snapp said. "So he basically set forth the vision and then he said 'you guys do it.' He just handed it off."
Snapp said that although SAP HANA hasn't evolved in terms of its core database, it has in another respect.
HANA was first introduced with a number of other technologies that were called HANA, but didn't have anything to do with the database. There was the HANA Studio, which is a development environment, and the HANA Cloud Platform, which was a cloud service offering, Snapp said.
"So in that respect, it's changed. The grand vision of some sort of very integrated multi-item thing that is a database and a bunch of other things, that's died down and is pretty much gone," he said. "But the database itself hasn't really morphed into anything that it wasn't designed to be in the beginning ... in part, because it does not have very good database underpinnings."
Positive feedback for HANA
George Lawrie, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., provided a different viewpoint, saying SAP HANA has extended its capabilities since its first market introduction in 2010.
Contrary to criticism of the platform's functionality, the 2014 Forrester report, "SAP HANA Is the Answer! What's the Question?" written in part by Lawrie, noted that HANA is:
- An analytics appliance
- A distributed in-memory columnar MPP (massively parallel processing) database engine
- A high-speed in-memory data mart
- A data integration in-memory layer that can be used between all of an organization's data sources and data-consuming applications and services
- An application server, as many of SAP's applications can run directly on HANA without the need for external servers or application servers
- An in-memory cloud platform-as-a-service that lets companies extend and run SAP HANA applications in the cloud.
In a subsequent report in 2017, Forrester said that SAP HANA is a "shared-nothing, in-memory data platform" that's the core of the company's translytical platform, supporting such use cases as real-time applications, analytics, translytical apps and advanced analytics.
"We call it a translytic database because it's one in which you can do transactions and analysis," Lawrie said in an interview.
Enterprises use the HANA platform for in-memory data marts and SAP BW, as well as SAP applications such as S4/HANA and the SAP Business Suite, Forrester noted in the 2017 report.
"It was initially a development platform as well as an analytic appliance," Lawrie said. "It was also an application service and it was a kind of data warehouse. So when SAP first brought it out, there were people running BW directly on HANA."
Now HANA is a platform-as-a-service because it includes development tools, he said.
"Everything that used to be in what you would call ERP has been rewritten in HANA," he said. "So that's the S4 bit. But now all the front end is rewritten or in the process of being rewritten. And that was the C4 announcement last year. So they're now rewriting what was their CRM in this architecture."
That means a customer-centric organization with an order-centric way of thinking can now connect the back office to the front office, Lawrie said.
"I think what [SAP] is doing there is very interesting," he said.
Update: SAP responds
SAP later addressed some of the criticisms in this article, asserting that HANA's combination of "transactions, analytics, and machine learning with real-time performance in a single database" eliminated the inefficiencies and complexity of traditional relational databases and provoked the entire industry to rethink the foundations of managing mixed workloads. It quoted the 2017 Forrester report on translytical database platforms which states that SAP "crushes" translytical workloads.
The statement sent by an SAP spokesperson went on to say HANA's capabilities enabled SAP to redesign its approach to ERP and move the modules of Business Suite onto one box in its next-generation ERP platform, S/4HANA. Users can run searches across the entire ERP system and "there is no need to copy data into separate specialized systems, which leads to a massive simplification of the system architecture."
HANA supports both "scale-up and scale-out" deployments to accommodate an application's data volume and performance demands, according to the statement. The scale-out installations are widely used in business warehouse scenarios, "with dozens of hosts and systems reaching more than 70TB in size, as well as large scale-up, single node installations with up to 24TB of RAM," SAP said. PayPal, for example, is running SAP Bank Analyzer on HANA to process more than 100 million transactions a day. -- Eds.