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Microservices: Not Just for Nerds Anymore

Feature Article | December 13, 2016 by Robin Meyerhoff

Microservices are having their moment, and clearly, they are not just for nerds anymore.  Find out why this matters to developers.

While microservices may not sound like the sexiest technology out there, if you’ve been to a developer event lately (or care about using the newest technology without disrupting your current system) you’ll know it is radically changing how people approach business applications.

Last month, at SAP TechEd in Barcelona, microservices took center stage in everything from Bernd Luekert’s keynote to news, demos and strategy talks at the show. While there, I sat down with two SAP experts to find out what this technology is and why it’s important to SAP and developers everywhere.

Microservices and the Goodness of SAP HANA

Marie Goodell, vice president of marketing for the SAP HANA platform, broke down microservices – and its predecessors like APIs and Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) – this way.

“Shared functionality between applications is not something new. That has been the idea behind API (Application Programing Interface), Web Services, SOA and now microservices. These are different but the commonality is that you’re calling functionality from somewhere else and the results return something back.”

Microservice is that functionality – be it analytic processing power for something specific like geospatial data or the ability to integrate a sales app with Uber’s product-delivery service (more on that later.)

Here are some other things that make microservices standout. First, they are located in the cloud, which makes it easier for developers to access and retrieve them. SAP plans to make them available on top of SAP HANA Cloud Platform. For example, machine learning capabilities will be released via the SAP HANA Cloud Platform.

Second, Goodell explains, “microservices are a standalone processes – if one goes down, it won’t take the rest of the application down.”  Goodell further explains, “Developers now have the opportunity to leverage microservices that expose powerful processes from SAP HANA without having to set up or run their own SAP HANA system.  Each microservice is a small building block – such as text analysis entity extraction – which a developer can call from an app without having to write the code themselves.”

This is an incredible benefit to developers — and a business advantage for the organizations they represent. By breaking SAP HANA (and other software) down into precise capabilities or data streams, companies can drop that processing power into their applications.

One new SAP HANA microservice released at TechEd can be used to search an earth image database and retrieve images that match specific criteria, like risk assessment. This was developed in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA.) Combining SAP HANA geospatial analysis with ESA’s earth observation data allows application developers to incorporate images in applications that can help businesses from various sectors, like insurance or agriculture.

SAP Hybris and the Open API Economy

The importance goes beyond just bringing the goodness of SAP HANA to a new user base. Microservices will enable SAP Hybris to fulfill their mantra of using digital tools to get closer to customers’ customers.

Says Jamie Anderson, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of SAP Hybris, “What you’ve had up to now has been a fairly monolithic approach to applications. Microservices means you can create apps without having to modify code base of the core product.”

And monolithic doesn’t take you very far when you’re trying to have an intimate, personal and real-time relationship with consumers.

Anderson explained, “When we look a market segment like the retail and fashion industry, we need to ensure those companies keep up with their customers’ demands. Fashion trends change fast and people want to buy things they can wear immediately. SAP Hybris is working with a North America clothing manufacturer to deliver orders faster by embedding a microservice from UberRUSH, which provides ‘on-demand delivery’ so its customers can get new clothes right away.”

Traditionally, if you would want to add this kind of functionality companies would need to engage their IT departments to build or integrate with a deliver process, which could take months to complete. But microservices are self-contained and have everything they need contained within them so you can add them to the “app without messing around with the existing code.”

Similarly, this front-end experience doesn’t interfere with the backend experience. Businesses can “touch the customer,” letting them take advantage of the information contained in existing SAP systems like warehouse supply, order fulfillment and billing — while keeping those back office systems fully intact.

Over the course of the year, SAP Hybris has made its microservices available on a platform – SAP Hybris as a Service, or “YaaS” – for the United States and German markets. Businesses can access the platform through standard APIs hence the term “API Economy.” YaaS is expected to be available in Asia and other regions next year.

The microservice developed with ESA is available on YaaS free of charge through the end of 2016.

SAP is in good company. IBM, Microsoft and Google have all announced microservices initiatives in the past year. But as SAP continues to release agnostic services for everything from travel to machine-learning to consumer payment, it will be an interesting to see if anyone can keep up with the breadth of business processes and industries.

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