Making Knowledge Accessible

It is a problem familiar to just about any company employee who has needed to track down some information. Only around 20 percent of documentation from day-to-day operations is stored centrally and accessible in a structured, organized form. The other 80 percent is hidden away in e-mails, texts, presentations or illustrations and split between a number of different applications, hard drives, sites and, last but not least, individual users. Under these circumstances, it is simply impossible to carry out a comprehensive, targeted search and valuable knowledge is lost.

SOA-based portals consolidate information

This is where portals come in, providing an overview of the company’s IT and giving users access to information that is tailored to suit their operational requirements.
Until now, however, integration and interface problems have made it difficult to incorporate a content management system (CMS) seamlessly into a company portal. The two applications have their own rival solutions for tasks such as user administration. As a result, it has so far been virtually impossible to apply a uniform role and rights concept to both.
The same applies to creating new portal pages and maintaining the site structure within the portal. If an editor created new content in the CMS editor program, this could not be published in the portal with a simple click of the mouse. The editor first had to create empty page templates in the portal, link these and then copy the new information manually from the CMS into the empty pages. Even if the portal and CMS were developed using the same technology, Java for example, there was no guarantee that they would be totally compatible.
Service-oriented architectures (SOAs) are the ideal answer. An SOA facilitates communication between software applications, making it easier to incorporate them into portals. It works based on a modular principle. Instead of a fixed software package, companies benefit from a solution split into several small modules or web services, which enable customized application landscapes to be created. Standard languages such as XML or the SOAP protocol ensure modules are totally compatible.

Intermediary role for SAP NetWeaver

With its SAP NetWeaver platform, SAP has taken a huge step towards an enterprise service-oriented architecture (Enterprise SOA). Business applications normally work in isolation and combining them is time-consuming and only possible for certain aspects. In an SAP NetWeaver environment, on the other hand, companies can combine SAP and non-SAP applications with web services.
A middleware platform alone, though, is not sufficient for the transition to a service-oriented software landscape. Accordingly, SOA-compatible solutions are required. The full benefits of an SOA platform can only be realized if this is enhanced by further solutions from a veritable ecosystem of software manufacturers, system integrators and customers. This is where SAP NetWeaver really comes into its own. SAP is not the only one to transfer its solutions into the SOA environment. Its cooperation partners also adapt their applications to SAP NetWeaver. They make available functions which to date have been hidden deep in the program code, using standardized interfaces as services for other applications. This also breaks down the barrier between enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other IT management disciplines such as ECM.
The SAP NetWeaver portal component with integrated knowledge management already provides the basic functions for handling unstructured data. This makes it easy to store individual documents in the portal, manage the various versions and carry out searches. The first ECM solutions are now also running directly and natively in the SAP NetWeaver environment. The crucial advantage of this is that they, and all the other associated applications, use the SAP NetWeaver Application Server. This means that no data center is needed for a standalone ECM installation and only one-off investments are required to operate a high-availability, mission-critical application.

Changes in media a thing of the past

In a service-oriented architecture, portals do not just score points thanks to lower operating costs in the long term. The individual applications within the SAP NetWeaver environment can also jointly access overarching services such as monitoring, backup, recovery or user administration. This means that, overall, the portal requires significantly fewer hardware and administrative resources than a collection of separate interface-linked applications. For example, the central SAP User Management Engine (SAP UME) in SAP NetWeaver coordinates the role and user administration functions for all solutions. Users creating or editing texts in the portal no longer have to log on separately in the ECM application but are already logged on through single sign-on.
Intelligent task sharing in the SAP NetWeaver stack also dispenses with the change in media between the portal and CMS navigation structures. Items created by editors in the content management system can be dragged into the portal navigation system using the mouse.

Non-application-dependent business processes

The potential of business process management (BPM) solutions is particularly promising. While users have thus far only been able to model processes and store them centrally for documentation purposes, it will soon be possible to run modeled processes in the content management solution. Content approval processes are just one example. Until now, a modeled process had to be “programmed” in the relevant applications using the model but in future it will be possible to run processes directly using a process engine. This will dispense with all the associated programming work. As a result, authors’ rights and approval routines, which require both data from business applications and content from the ECM, can be non-application-dependent.
This example illustrates how the constraints of rigid individual applications are gradually being removed.
A service-oriented portal solution thus meets one key IT strategy requirement – IT is adapted to the business processes and not vice versa. With their uniform and comprehensive management of structured and unstructured data, a service-oriented solution makes a major contribution to creating integrated business processes and makes it possible to process information without changing media.

Compliance made easy

The integration of ECM solutions in SAP NetWeaver also makes it easier to comply with legal directives on the availability of corporate data. Legislation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or Basel II obliges companies to document their business processes and data accurately and keep them available for subsequent audits. However, the relevant information is often split between a number of different departments, employees and IT systems. The accounts department, for example, works with SAP finance-related functions, while the corresponding posting requirements are kept separately in individual text documents. Given that EU regulations differ from those applying in other countries, such as the U.S., each foreign subsidiary has to maintain its own documentation in the language spoken in that particular country. This makes the uniform corporate governance required by the law much more difficult to achieve.
Combining the portal and ECM consolidates compliance documentation and the associated business processes. If an accounts employee at a global company in Berlin accesses his chart of accounts, he will simultaneously be given access to the applicable directives. The portal recognizes that the user is working in Germany and displays the appropriate regulations. The documentation is not stored with the SAP finance-related functions but in an ECM application. Both applications run in parallel in the portal. Users with the appropriate access rights who have logged on to the portal can immediately make changes to the documentation without having to switch to the editorial system.
The benefits of the new world of portal-based web services are there for all to see. Portals consolidate content which is dispersed and duplicated throughout the company on a single platform and link it to the relevant applications without changing media.

Ali Saffari
Ali Saffari