As ABAP reaches a momentous 40th anniversary this year, we take a nostalgic look back, reminiscing about the beginnings of the iconic programming language, its evolutionary milestones, and the countless developers who have shaped its history and its future.
“If you really want to have an impact on the world, without anyone noticing it, then you should learn ABAP. Because ABAP is everywhere,” says Sonja Liénard, vice president of ABAP Developer Tools at SAP. “About 80% of all business transactions run on ABAP.”
Clearly, Liénard’s enthusiasm for SAP’s own programming language is boundless. And this sentiment is mirrored by countless others who have either created or learned to love ABAP over its 40-year history. We spoke with some of them in celebration of this special milestone.
What is ABAP?
ABAP is SAP’s own programming language. It is designed for building and operating business-critical applications. The abbreviation stands for Advanced Business Application Programming.
While we can’t be sure of its exact date of birth, ABAP’s origins can be traced back to an idea SAP Co-Founder Klaus Tschira had. He built a document analysis program using assembler macros to select and output data as a list for the real-time financial account and materials management system (RFM). In the 1980s, Gerd Rodé created ABAP/4 as a standalone fourth generation programming language (4GL) that, along with the report formatting processor, provided the interpreter on the SAP R/2 system.
As the story goes, there were many developers across SAP inventing programming languages at the time. This did not sit well with management, so they were asked to go back to developing applications – not languages. However, Rodé was passionate about the language and spent many weekends and much of his free time creating ABAP. His efforts paid off: that’s the power of one.
SAP’s developers used ABAP/4 in the early 1990s to program every module in SAP R/3. As the company expanded into new markets abroad ABAP was renamed Advanced Business Application Programming.
According to Karl Kessler, a product manager who joined SAP in 1992, “A large part of SAP’s DNA is coded in ABAP. Fifty percent of SAP R/2 was coded in ABAP and 100% of SAP R/3 applications is ABAP. So, it played an incredibly central role.”
He added that ABAP always needed to evolve to stay relevant as new software emerged, whether this was the Microsoft tools in the 1990s or cloud-native tools more recently. “ABAP was always able to integrate innovation coming from the outside while optimizing business processes along the way. And in this respect, I believe, ABAP’s role has not fundamentally changed over the past 40 years.”
ABAP has come a long way since its inception. In late 2016, when everyone was talking about cloud computing as the next big thing, SAP began questioning whether the company should still invest in its proprietary programming language.
Harald Kuck, who was then in charge of the ABAP platform, together with Boris Gebhardt, the chief product owner, told the Executive and Supervisory Boards they firmly believed the company should continue its ABAP investment. In fact, Kuck said, “If this were my company, I would hire 100 young ABAP developers to ensure we can meet the future ABAP demand of our customers, partners and SAP.”
That argument, among others, worked and they managed to get the go-ahead to launch the next chapter in ABAP’s success story. SAP BTP, ABAP environment connects the original SAP technology to the world of cloud computing and has already helped many SAP ERP customers transform to the new cloud world with SAP S/4HANA and SAP Business Technology Platform.
Today, ABAP Cloud is the development model used to build cloud-ready business apps, services, and extensions on SAP BTP ABAP environment, the public and private editions of SAP S/4HANA Cloud and the on-premise SAP S/4HANA.
“It’s important not to confuse classic ABAP with ABAP Cloud. With ABAP Cloud, the classic ABAP has been completely refactored,” Kuck says. “ABAP is the ERP platform market leader for on-prem, and ABAP Cloud is our best bet for cloud ERP. ABAP Cloud offers exactly the path between our ERP variants that our customers ask for [for example, clean core].”
Think about ABAP Cloud this way, he says: “Apple is hugely successful today with iOS and that is a refactored Unix system with roots that are even older than ABAP’s.”
Kuck is convinced that the true innovative potential of ABAP Cloud lies in the fact that it is “a single engine that can run both in the cloud and on premise, and thus optimally support hybrid scenarios — with a path for custom code from on-premise to private or public cloud, or even to SAP BTP.”
According to Kuck, enterprise-readiness is built in through ABAP, today, just as in the past. And that is exactly what our customers need in order to transform their extension codes into the cloud environment.
“Only SAP can offer the advantages of ABAP Cloud. There are no competitors here,” he says. That’s why he believes customers, partners, and SAP need to attract a new generation of ABAP developers.
The Voice of a New ABAP Generation
An entirely new generation of developers has come to love and respect the language. Felix Draeger is a 28-year-old who works on the ABAP platform as a user assistance developer.
“I think ABAP is here to stay,” he says. “It has a lot of pre-configured entities. For example, a lot of database tables already exist and a lot of infrastructure is provided by ABAP. This is, for example, not the case in Java where I may have libraries and other helpful things, but I would have to develop everything from scratch, from the database tables to the application. And that is a long process. So, I would say ABAP is efficient in this respect.”
He enjoys working with ABAP because “there are always things to discover. You need to think very deeply, do research, and acquire expert knowledge. We can really connect through ABAP. There is an entire community of ABAP enthusiasts.”
Since the start of the 2000s, ABAP has adapted with the times, and together with ABAP Cloud, continues to have a significant impact on the future success of SAP and its customers.