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Is SAP NetWeaver 7.5 a new foundation for an old brand?

SAP's venerable NetWeaver seems to be fading out of sight, but it forms the basis of the HANA Cloud Platform and a new version, SAP NetWeaver 7.5, indicates that it's here to stay.

As HANA rises in prominence at SAP, NetWeaver, the company's "old" do-everything software platform seems to be a fading memory. That sentiment might seem harsh, but it begs some questions: Is NetWeaver just the aging tech glue that holds together traditional SAP on-premises software? After more than a decade of service, is it cracking at the edges? On the other hand, is SAP HANA Cloud Platform merely NetWeaver dressed up for the cloud?

Ultimately, as the brand new SAP NetWeaver 7.5 update seems to suggest, is NetWeaver here to stay?

The answers, it turns out, are both complicated and straightforward.

"NetWeaver has been sunsetted as a brand, but the NetWeaver platform is very much alive," said John Appleby, global head of SAP HANA for Bluefin Solutions, a London-based SAP consultancy. "In fact, NetWeaver is the basis for S/4HANA, running HANA as a data warehouse, and many other tools. SAP NetWeaver 7.5 modernizes the platform, and things like near-zero downtime upgrades are now possible for mission-critical systems."

So, if NetWeaver is no longer one of SAP's go-to brands, yet it also forms a foundational layer for SAP's most important software, how is this oxymoron shaking out?

"This is basically the strategy,” Appleby explained: “NetWeaver is the platform but it's no longer the brand. HANA is the brand."

Consequently, it's hard to talk about NetWeaver without also considering the HANA connection.

If all roads lead to HANA, where is NetWeaver?

In years past, NetWeaver software not only formed the runtime environment for many SAP applications, its components were used for application development, customization, and integration. NetWeaver uses both ABAP and Java, and it plays well with other languages, letting NetWeaver integrate with a wide variety of software, although most NetWeaver use cases revolve around SAP's own (generally on-premises) software stack. For example, the NetWeaver brand has been part of SAP software for its Business Warehouse, Enterprise Portal, Identity Management, Process Orchestration, and Master Data Management software, but Appleby notes that it also forms the application server that runs on top of the databases that power SAP Business Suite.

If much of SAP’s software is based on NetWeaver, how extensive is NetWeaver use?

"Today we have roughly 23,000 customers operating roughly 75,000 live systems on NetWeaver, and that doesn't include SAP operating a large set of it," said Harald Nehring, SAP’s vice president of product marketing for middleware.

NetWeaver is woven throughout much of SAP's core software, but the real shift in the NetWeaver story is coming from how SAP-focused IT pros will achieve customization, integration, and application add-ons in the future. For example, SAP NetWeaver Process Orchestration combines NetWeaver-based tools that connect data and workflows to let SAP-focused businesses customize business processes between applications and server systems. However, once cloud-based services enter the mix, NetWeaver may not be the most apt choice, or even the one that SAP recommends.

And this, it turns out, is due to both a naming choice as well as a technology change.

Nehring explained that as the number of applications has increased, mainly in the cloud but also on-premises, the notion that one platform that can provide extension capabilities for everything won’t work.

"As we moved to the cloud, we decided to introduce an additional platform, SAP HANA Cloud Platform, which is similar to NetWeaver in services," Nehring said. "It's mostly made up of components and software that is either very closely related or closely integrated with its on-premises counterpart, but we decided not to call it NetWeaver. HANA has become a prominent platform, so we decided to call it HANA Cloud Platform."

And what about the technology change?

Nehring explained that there are differences between how you extend cloud-based applications and on-premises applications.

"There is basically no or very little customization you can do in the cloud -- all you can do is extend, [or] layer on top,” he said. “Whereas in a traditional SAP installation, you've been customizing the tables, customizing the transactions and writing exit codes that change the behavior directly in the system, and that's what NetWeaver was built for, to change the system itself."

With so many different applications running on different platforms, SAP set out to create a more neutral extension platform based on mainstream programming languages, frameworks, as well as some open source technology. All of which also makes HANA Cloud Platform more accessible to a broader range of customers and business partners.

Inside SAP NetWeaver 7.5

Meanwhile, none of these changes means that NetWeaver is left standing still.

SAP NetWeaver 7.5 brings support for Java 8, improvements in ABAP, optimizations for HANA, SAP Fiori enablements for cross-applications user interfaces, integration with HANA Cloud Platform, and lifecycle management updates for easier and faster upgrades and migrations. In addition, the NetWeaver "hubs" like Portal or SAP IdM, have also picked up hub-specific enhancements. (For ongoing, updated details, check out the SAP NetWeaver 7.5 landing page.)

Aside from a list of updates, Nehring said that two changes to 7.5 really stand out. "One of the highlights is the close combination with HANA and what we're doing to make HANA the default data store for every Business Suite or S4/HANA application developer," he said. "The other is the support for a system like S/4HANA so that it is deployable in the cloud or on-premises with the same code line, which requires a lot of enablement capabilities in the platform itself."

Karl Kessler, SAP NetWeaver product manager is particularly excited about how SAP has exposed a semantic data model around its core data services that is used by S4/HANA, which combined with SAP NetWeaver 7.5 allows the use of Fiori templates to create new user interfaces for various devices.

"You pick a template and a semantic data source and weave them together," Kessler explained. "In the end you can run your mobile app directly from the tablet [and] that is the coolness of the new NetWeaver 7.5. It mediates between very modern UIs on one side and very powerful data services on the other."

Where to spend time and resources?

As a platform for SAP software, NetWeaver's position would seem to be rock solid for the foreseeable future, but what about the next generation of integration and extension, particularly in hybrid environments? Should organizations spend resources learning and using HANA Cloud Integration, which runs on top of HANA Cloud Platform or stick with NetWeaver 7.5?

"Of course, cloud-to-ground is a gray area and you could use either," said Massimo Pezzini, vice president of research for application development and integration for Gartner.

"NetWeaver is good for the foreseeable future. SAP has many thousands of customers that they will never leave out in the dark, but from a strategic perspective, we think that HANA Cloud Integration is where there are going to be in the future for new functionality and technology.”


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