‘We always have been supporting a lean protocol and without that we would never have been able to go that fast into the internet.’

 In the eighties when R/3 was first rolled out, Peter Zencke was a key member of the product development task force. Now more than a decade later, Zencke has again played the role of a key team leader, responsible for conceptualizing and rebuilding R/3 along the frameworks of e-commerce business practices to deliver mySAP.com. Zencke joined SAP in 1984 with a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Bonn and as a professor of numerical algorithms. Zencke joined the SAP board in 1993 and has been responsible for SAP CRM and all SAP e-commerce and internet solutions. As an architect of SAP’s novel three-tier client server solution and now the four-tier solution, Zencke is probably one of the best equipped to comment on the road map leading to thin clients and ERP off the web. Excerpts of this dialogue with
Arun Shankar during SAPphire 99 at Singapore:

  • With the release of mySAP.com has there been a change in the business vision of SAP?
    mySAP.com is the biggest change of SAP since the launch of R/3. At that time we changed from the mainframe environment to client server computing, which was focussing on the needs of the enterprise, small or big. Now with mySAP.com we are directly responsible for cross enterprise business integration, which is internet based and this will be the driver for SAP in the future. And therefore all applications, which are focussing on external relationship management whether they are customer relationship management, supply chain management, or collaborative engineering become more important.

  • With the release of Lotus Notes 5 and Office 2000, there has been an increasing dependence on collaboration and the role of the browser. With mySAP.com, this has moved to a still higher level. Yet these three products appear to have a common functionality?
    They are similar and it depends on whether you come from an Office type of environment or whether you come from document management. There is reuse of technology and collaboration.

  • Considering the fact that mySAP.com is built around the Microsoft browser, what is the current status of the relationship with Microsoft?
    In the last press conference in Philadelphia something was said–that we own the desktop workplace and this was misinterpreted. What we meant was the business desktop and not the desktop as a technology. We are not competing with Windows and if we are talking about the new SAP workplace, this is obviously using Microsoft Explorer and browser technology. So there is no competition at all on the technology layer. It is just the other way around that we are very interested to leverage our partnership with Microsoft. But the thing we feel responsible for, which is our area and our strength is how to address the end user of business applications. We have been really promoting and pushing NT in the enterprise area…

  • …What is the reason for promoting Windows NT?
    Not a real objective. We have been convinced that NT is a product, which can be very attractive for our customers.

  • From an overall point of view, what are the benefits of using R/3 or mySAP.com in a Unix versus Windows NT environment?
    We started the R/3 environment as client server computing with Unix. The first preferred vendor was Digital in the early days of R/3. The second one was HP–we have a good relationship with all the Unix vendors. Nevertheless, we have been convinced that for the small mid-size business, NT would be an attractive environment. One of the reasons is that three-tier client server environment is based on scalability of multiple application servers. And if you would like to run an environment with maybe 50 application servers, the price per server is a crucial element. Obviously, NT is the cheaper alternative for these application servers than to use one Unix box. 

    In the beginning, Unix had its strengths as a mixed environment–with Unix at the database server and NT for the application server. Then NT based database servers, which are Microsoft SQL servers became more attractive as well. So with a pure NT environment we have customers with high performance sites. We are interested that SQL server proves to be a reliable product in the high-end market segment as well. We have customers who ask us–I will give you one example, Bosch–they are interested that we have a very close relationship [with Microsoft], so that if they are facing some problems we are not playing ping-pong. So that there is a joint commitment from Microsoft and SAP to solve problems together.

    Another area of collaboration with Microsoft is the pervasive computing environment. We are
    absolutely convinced that Microsoft CE will play a very important if not the dominant role and a number of applications available have been developed together.

  • But in which environment do we get the best performance?
    On the application server–it is a fact that the high-end Unix solutions outperform Windows NT.

  • mySAP.com is built around the Microsoft Windows browser. What about other internet browsers?
    I think especially after the Netscape-AOL deal, the days are gone that we have browser compatibility and whether the standard consortiums will solve that, we do not know. There are too many specific things, which we can only achieve in a Microsoft Windows Explorer environment. If they are not supported in Netscape that is something we have to say we are not religions about and if our customer like that we do it. 

  • A key differentiator between mySAP.com and R/3 appears to be the usage of a thin client as the front-end device. Has the product been transformed from client server to a server based application?
    From the beginning, R/3 was a three-tier client application. We always have been supporting a lean protocol between the front end and the application server. Without that we would never have been 
    able to–other than to rewrite all our application–go that fast into the internet, which is actually a four-tier client server model. We are using a lean protocol and actually transforming to XML as the first step.

  • Windows terminal server has a Citrix shell, which creates a thin client front-end. Does this benefit the front-end shell for

    This has nothing to do with Citrix. SAP builds its own shell, its own protocol between the front-end and the back-end. We have our own protocol between the PC and the NT Server in a Microsoft environment, with PC as the front-end and NT as an application and database server. Today that protocol would lie between the application server and the internet server and the internet server speaks via the internet to the browser running anywhere.

    The Citrix solution still has an advantage over the browser solution because they are using very clever data compression, which is not yet available for the Microsoft browser. The customer has a choice. He can use Citrix or he can use just a browser. Citrix is the preferable solution if the bandwidth is limited. We hope that some of the good ideas of Citrix could be embedded in the next generation of Microsoft browsers. But today they are not. If I would like to connect to mySAP.com from anywhere without assuming it is a specific PC or specific operating system, then it should support the browser. I think it is a good message that we have both.

  • With regard to the RDBMS database, which vendor platforms give the best performance?
    If you look at the installed base, Oracle has a leading position. At the SAP conference in Philadelphia, Bill Gates was keen to announce lab measurements on SQL server in the high transaction business to show dramatic improvements in the throughput. We see NT and SQL as a high-end data engine. Actually, Microsoft has been using SAP
    internally to fine tune NT and SQL to compete in the SAP environment.

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