From Concept to Finished Product

Synergy is crucial. Research and development projects aimed at creating marketable products are often not in harmony with each other. Each area – whether it is fundamental research, applied research or product definition – is too focussed on its own needs. In order to integrate innovative processes, research organizations within companies must additionally assume the role of mediators. This is the task also undertaken by SAP Research, SAP’s research organization.

Tracking trends

A part of SAP since 1999, SAP Research has numerous research sites, including Karlsruhe, Palo Alto, Montreal, Brisbane and Sophia Antipolis. The organization pursues three primary goals – to develop a research strategy, to acquire and implement suitable research projects, and to incorporate the research results into product development. SAP Research identifies technological trends, analyzes these in terms of their potential for innovative software solutions or new business models and establishes the corresponding application scenarios. Technological goals must be distinguished from application domains. The former often refer to SAP NetWeaver, for example to link RFID radio chips with enterprise systems via middleware. Domains, on the other hand, cover new application areas, such as homeland security or IT-supported health care (e-health).
The projects carried out by SAP Research focus, in particular, on developing new technology concepts and integrating these into the SAP landscape. The experience gained is also used to assess business management potential. Finally, the department not only transfers the research results to product development but also provides advice up to and including pilot testing in real environments.

Developing service-oriented architectures

A number of research programs carried out by SAP Research are dedicated to the fundamental change associated with open, service-oriented architectures (SOAs). Four programs tie directly into the SAP Enterprise Service Architecture. The “Enterprise Services & Semantics” research program, for example, asks the following questions: How can we describe business objects according to their sense (using semantics) in the future? How can we label associated services? How do new technological opportunities arise based on these descriptions? The “Business Process Modeling & Management” research program focuses on new concepts for cross-system and cross-enterprise business processes and the related modeling. Its work is aimed at developing new forms of interoperability in order to simplify cooperation among business partners or companies in the future.
The “Security & Trust” research program is dedicated to enhancing the security of SAP applications and new security concepts for open systems. The “Software Engineering & Architecture” research program is aimed at improving SAP’s development methods and the tools used. This increases the productivity of development processes and optimizes non-functional aspects such as performance, quality, ease of maintenance and operating costs. New architectures such as SOA or Grid Computing are giving rise to completely new challenges and opportunities.
Three further programs can already be considered classics. They include the “Smart Items” research program, which integrates commonly available (ubiquitous) technologies such as radio chips (RFID) and sensor networks into business management applications. Innovative human/machine interfaces (HMIs) have been analyzed for some time in the “Human Computer Interaction” program, while the convergence of learning, work and knowledge management is the subject of the “Knowledge Management” program.

200 partner organizations

Among the primary application areas (domains) of newly developed technologies are health care (e-health) and homeland security (HS), including disaster prevention and rescue and relief. Radio technologies (RFID) improve the security and traceability of transport containers and ensure seamless data integration with corporate IT systems in areas such as logistics and supply chain management. Cross-system business processes such as those analyzed in the “Business Process Modeling & Management” program, for example, are indispensable for electronic health care.
SAP Research works in cooperation with research partners. Staff from 200 partner organizations are participating in the research projects currently underway. These include more than 50 universities, 30 research institutes and technology partners such as Infineon, industrial users such as BP and users from the public domain. In addition to the research units, SAP Inspire is a central unit within SAP Research. SAP Inspire promotes innovative ideas and offers talented staff the opportunity, within the context of a corporate venture model, to develop their ideas for leading-edge technologies which fit SAP’s overall vision. SAP Inspire evaluates these ideas and provides staff with assistance in developing business plans. The SAP Executive Board decides whether projects are to be implemented.
The units are supported by the Business Development Team and the Operations Team. Business Development is responsible for cooperation with the product groups, for relations with research organizations and industry partners and for the communications strategy. The Operations Team provides the research groups with project management. It also provides assistance with legal problems and intellectual property issues and carries out internal and external accounting.

RFID research since 1998

The research and development work relating to Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is an example of the research department’s modus operandi. This radio technology is a non-contact and non-line-of-sight method for reading and storing data. Market research and initial discussions with logistics experts, started in 1998, enabled SAP to recognize the potential of RFID. SAP Research first developed a generic interface with SAP solutions. As part of SAPPHIRE 1999, SAP used a supermarket cash register to draw public attention to RFID. Customers could use the cash register to check out their merchandise on their own. A year later, a check-in device was unveiled at SAPPHIRE which automatically records incoming goods. This was followed by a first RFID pilot project with a British telecommunications company. By 2001, SAP Research had developed the concept for a Smart Items Infrastructure, thus allowing a server solution for processing data volumes that had been collected with a variety of readers. The prototype was first seen at SAPPHIRE 2002.
SAP was a founding member of two research establishments, the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the M-Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology at the University of Sankt Gallen. Together with Metro Group and Intel, SAP started the “Future Store” initiative and provided the RFID software components for the “Future Store” in Rheinberg. In 2003, a pilot project was started at Frankfurt airport to inspect the exhaust valves of the airport buildings. It is based on a mobile infrastructure with an interface, developed largely by SAP Research, to RFID readers. The new SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure, introduced in initial client applications in 2004, integrates RFID with business applications. The solution is based on the Smart Items Infrastructure prototype, developed entirely by SAP Research.

Years ahead of the market

What factors can be identified in retrospect which make IT research a success? It is essential that research and cooperation with the SAP product groups start as early as possible in order to have solutions developed and ready when the market demands them. As a rule, SAP Research starts projects when it can be assumed that the research topic will generate demand within three to five years at the earliest. The RFID example underlines the importance of a timeframe spanning several years. The product development processes, in this case, were sporadic. At first, the subject was driven solely by the technology. But technology quickly became secondary when the costs for RFID tags were determined and these proved to be an obstacle to commercial RFID use. In addition, commonly accepted standards did not exist.
Once again, SAP Research worked with strategic partners, such as the manufacturers of RFID readers and potential users. And the partners helped with the implementation of pilot applications in real environments. Many problems, such as RFID antenna positioning and patterns of behavior in exceptional cases, can only be identified in actual application. Finally, research results must be transferred to ensure success – whether for the purpose of developing a new product, improving an existing product or gaining know-how.

Orestis Terzidis
Orestis Terzidis