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SAP is open for business, data. More specifically, SAP is open to helping customers use business data from their own data estates, from third-party sources where information streams have been ratified to be safe or anonymised and obfuscated… and SAP is open to using data services that stem from OpenAI in the form of Microsoft 365 Copilot.

The company detailed many of its moves in the open data space under an umbrella of presentation themes centred around enabling businesses to future-proof their data services layers. Announcements included ‘responsible AI’ (i.e. bias-free explainable AI that has been checked for potential infringements of human freedom or simple but often horrendous errors) built into business solutions, ledger-based accounting for carbon tracking and industry-specific networks to bolster supply-chain resilience.

“In a world of geopolitical tensions, product and skills shortages, plus new [commercial operations, governmental compliance and other] regulations, our customers continue turning to SAP for the solutions they need to solve their most pressing challenges,” said Christian Klein, CEO and member of the executive board of SAP SE. “The innovations we’re announcing at SAP Sapphire build on our heritage of responsibly developed technology and decades of industry and process expertise,” added Klein, in a prelude to his technical team setting up a number of deeper dive sessions on data fabric mechanics.

Future-proof of the pudding

Speaking at SAP Sapphire 2023 in Orlando, SAP’s Thomas Saueressig dug into the entire topic of future-proofing business in his role as head of product engineering and member of the executive board. In terms of actions needed to future-proof enterprise systems, Saueressig says work is already underway and currently being evidenced in the SAP platform itself. 

Corporate platitudes notwithstanding, he moved on to explain some specifics in terms of the more granular technologies being brought to bear. Among those are industry-specific container networks, which are on the horizon and SAP has already initiated projects related to this. But, he cautioned, this type of progression is only possible if data and applications are fully integrated throughout an entire business

“SAP is opening up more than ever to make sure we create the most open level of data exchange possible – we truly believe in the democratisation of data – and so we have demonstrated that it is possible to integrate data from SAP systems and non-SAP systems. There is no doubt, SAP is an AI company and we have already delivered 130 use cases natively embedded as [packaged software] solutions,” said Saueressig. 

He reminds us that for AI to be future-proofed and guaranteed to work in the long run, it needs to be responsible and free of bias. Saueressig insists that SAP now ‘infuses AI everywhere’ so that many (if not all) of the big data analytics technologies that SAP was championing in pre-pandemic times perhaps half a decade ago. With generative AI from SAP delivered through its newly expanded partnership with Microsoft, the company says it provides users with the ability to type instructions such as the below random but specific example. 

“Develop an app to create a ticketing system that will enable service-desk workers to get requests from users who log product maintenance requests in retail environments dedicated to selling clothing,” typed the user, in this example.

Data, applications (context) & process

Also now positioned as part of a core future-proofing strategy is work happening in the SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP) space. Echoing a theme played out recurrently at this year’s Sapphire, SAP talks about future-focused enterprises coalescing their applications, processes and data so they can innovate and automate to boost productivity. 

“SAP Business Technology Platform gives customers direct access to their entire end-to-end processes, data and relevant context. We’re launching a host of innovations to future-proof our customers today, including new integration capabilities, features to uncover critical process insights faster and new low-code enterprise automation capabilities. We’re also diving into our expanded partnerships to introduce a comprehensive open data offering that will simplify data landscapes and unleash the power of business data,” noted SAP, in a briefing statement. 

SAP is now S(AI)P

Not a formal renaming convention and certainly not a snappy enough tagline to even make it onto a t-shirt, SAP insists it is now AI-centric through and through. Well, who isn’t, right? In something of a branded landgrab move, the company has packaged a a good portion of its Machine Learning (ML) capabilities under the SAP Business AI banner.

Advancements in SAP Business AI include developments designed to personalize customer engagement, make procurement more productive and expand organizations’ abilities to find and (as noted above in the Microsoft partnership news) develop critical talent across their workforce.

“Our special approach to AI is all about the ‘process context’ that SAP is able to bring to the whole task of building models in this vein,” said Julia White, chief marketing and solutions officer at SAP SE, speaking in a break-out media session at SAP Sapphire. The inference being made here (Machine Learning pun not intended) is the combination of a) data b) process context drawn from business applications and services across the SAP suite from financials to human resources to customer experience and so on, plus c) the AI model and engine itself. Perhaps something of a ‘heady’ mix of technologies, services and resources, this could be a more solid validation of AI than we’re currently seeing evidenced by the vast swathes of firms all pumping out the ‘we do generative AI too’ messages right now.

This whole coalescing technology proposition – underpinned by SAP’s partnership with Microsoft to integrate generative AI into the SAP SuccessFactors with Microsoft 365 Copilot and Copilot into Viva Learning as detailed here on Techzine – does throw up the question: is SAP putting the OpenAI model directly in line with SAP data without any guardrails in between? Given that SAP is branding the whole union of technologies as a Microsoft-play and talking about Microsoft 365 Copilot, rather than OpenAI, is that enough of a comfort factor?

“We are creating ‘isolated environments’ to keep data separate from (for example) any instance of ChatGPT – there is no combining of customer data (in any tenant i.e data domain) at all in reference to this question,” confirmed Bhagat Nainani, SVP of product development for SAP Business Technology Platform.

Echoing Nainani’s point, Sebastian Schroetel, VP and head of product management for SAP BTP application development, automation and integration clarified further. “It is the customer’s decision in terms of what they decide to expose to Microsoft through this service – and that goes for Microsoft or any other AI source, SAP operates a multi-vendor AI strategy – we are not shipping Microsoft’s own Large Language Models (LLMs) with SAP software and we are not owning these models or taking responsibility or control of these models, that is the customer’s choice,” added Schroetel.

Additionally, SAP stated the following; “We are leveraging the Azure OpenAI Service API with predefined prompts to ensure inclusive, context-based tailored results. On top of that, the OpenAI model is able to draw upon the business data from SuccessFactors. This combination provides the best possible results for our customers without merging SuccessFactors data with the OpenAI model. The LLM is trained agnostically of individual customers. It then is applied in an individual customer environment (opt in) however it is not applying one customer’s data set to the next.”

In terms of how safe any data is across the new SAP openness mantra, SAP Sapphire press and analysts got a technical explanation in a breakout panel session featuring Irfan Khan in his role as president & chief product officer for SAP HANA database & analytics. Khan spoke alongside Umesh Vemuri, VP of global strategic customers and industries.

“The idea behind a business data fabric is that content and data are typically owned by the owner of the domain in which data resides. You would then assume that the domain owner will have some semantic role in the securitisation of that data. When that domain owner moves their data, they also move the security of it. You could have customer-managed keys to be able to manage the encryption of that data. But what we advocate is really the core principles of data fabric. The domain of ownership typically is where the data resides and the ownership and security and governance should be managed in those environments,” said Khan.

Vemuri echoed Khan concurrently and precisely. 

“Customers own their data. It’s their data and they have the keys to that data. They also have the ability to unlock their data and control its direction. That’s really what this comes down to. Customers will hold the key to every single filing cabinet [of data] and decide when those keys are used and control the security policy inside the filing cabinet itself,” said Vemuri.

More open data exchanges

In other related news that emanated from SAP Sapphire itself, the company says it is now reinventing the R in ERP by extending the definition of resources to include carbon. 

“Amid rapidly changing regulatory requirements and rising stakeholder pressure to operate sustainably, enterprises need an accounting system for emissions that is as auditable, transparent, and reliable as their financial data accounting. With SAP’s new green ledger, which moves companies from carbon estimates to actual data, companies can manage their green line with as much visibility, accuracy, and confidence as their top line and bottom line,” noted the company, in a news statement.

SAP announced an update to the SAP Sustainability Footprint Management service. This is a single product that calculates and manages the full range of corporate, value chain and product-level emissions. This comes along at the same time as a new SAP Sustainability Data Exchange application, software for enterprises to securely exchange standardised sustainability data with partners and suppliers so they can decarbonise supply chains faster. So again, yet more data sharing there.

Keeping this thread going one carbon footprint further, the company also recently built on its commitment to open data. Through its partnership with Google Cloud, SAP says it is creating a comprehensive open data offering to enables users to build an end-to-end data cloud that brings data from across the enterprise landscape using the SAP Datasphere solution together with Google’s data cloud.

“Ongoing supply chain disruptions have fundamentally altered the way organisations trade. SAP Business Network – a B2B collaboration platform where companies connect, transact and partner on shared processes and information – has already helped boost global supply chain resilience. SAP Business Network for Industry fuses the benefits of networked supply chains with [SAP] industry expertise into prepackaged uses and implementation practices that help customers across diverse industries extract value quickly,” explained SAP, in a product listing.

The 1, 2, 3 of SAP in 2023

With the infection, inflation and invasion of the last few years, it has been a while since many of us broke bread with SAP at a Sapphire event. The company appears to have lost none of its American Silicon Valley-inspired gloss, its Germanic exactness and its ability to stick a corporate branding label on everything that moves within its ever-expanding stack of self-developed and acquired technologies. 

If there is a challenge with SAP, especially at an SAP Sapphire, it is getting past those slightly cheesy opening statements designed to make customers feel good about ‘unlocking insights’ and ‘creating value’ in the relentless quest for ‘innovation’. Hey, it’s a customer event in the first instance, you’d expect that layer to exist in any enterprise technology organisation. Pressed for more, SAP will almost always deliver and the firm’s endless list of spokespeople are always willing to provide the guts, goo and gore beneath the handshakes and smiles.

Did SAP do enough to get us to 2024?

Well, the future-proofing should last that far at the very least.