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Vishal Sikka

An Ongoing Renewal

Posted by Vishal Sikka in vishal.sikka on Aug 25, 2011 2:35:50 PM

With the end of summer upon us, and the TechEds around the corner, I've been putting my thoughts together.  Then the events of this last week happened.  And I believe they signal, simultaneously, both the great shifts that are presently underway, as well as the beautiful permanence of change, of life's ephemerality.  First, Motorola's mobility business was acquired by Google.  Signaling, in my view, Google's adoption of an "Open+1" strategy: open hardware for any device maker that adopts the android platform, and a +1, Google's own device, wherein the entire end-user experience can be defined and delivered.  As my friend Padma, who used to run Motorola’s R&D, told me one evening over dinner, getting the end-user’s experience right is the necessary counterpoint to a great mobile OS platform.  Yesterday, Steve Jobs, arguably the leading designer and innovator of our times, announced his resignation as Apple's CEO.  A long-standing strategic customer and partner of ours, and a friend of my boss and SAP's chairman, Hasso Plattner, Steve has done more to bring beauty and design and purpose to products that we use, than perhaps anyone else in recent times.  Under Steve’s leadership, Apple has singularly redefined our product experience, and moved us several strides forward on empowering end-users and bringing soul to our work.  And also this week, HP, long an icon of our industry, announced fundamental changes to its strategy: intending to divest its touchpad and other mobile devices and operating systems, its personal systems business, known mostly for its PCs, notebooks, etc., but also the division that still makes the legendary calculators and other electronic devices, that HP long symbolized, and that became the basis of the electronic era and silicon valley, that HP heralded as much as perhaps any other company in our industry, and  is instead acquiring its way into enterprise software with platform technologies such as vertica and now autonomy.

It has been an amazing week.  But what is really going on here?  Well, of course there is the inevitability of change.  Change is as permanent as any other thing or notion we know.  As I've argued in timeless software, every entity, whether in the real world, or the digital one, has a timestamp, a life expectancy, and everything must change and evolve, more or less in accordance with these.

But this isn't all there is to it.  We are in the midst of a very significant shift.  A massive simplification is underway, and the signs we see all around us are of a fundamental renewal and reshaping: of the world of IT, of business and indeed our world.

It is clear to me that this renewal is being driven by technology.  Some people would argue that consumer expectations have driven the change, but I would argue that consumers didn’t know what was possible until companies like Apple and Google opened their eyes to the possibilities.  User expectations skyrocketed from there, at home and in the office.  Expectations for how technology can help businesses run better, have also increased: whether for the CEO or the end-user in a line of business.  The big data challenge is not a data problem for the IT department to solve.  The big data challenge is everyone, from the CEO to the end-user, wishing to understand, analyze and manipulate the fine grained details of his / her company and then do something about it.  The layers for him or her to get there are dissolving.  The interaction with data is direct and real-time, with easy and seamless interaction paradigms.  The ways people connect have also changed: direct, immediate, virtual, as groups, and without the traditional structures that slow things down, and this has in turn enabled people to organize themselves, debate and form their common views, however radical, and to mobilize around shared beliefs – mobilizing in numbers that overwhelm governments.  End-users are taking more and more control of their destiny, fueled by a virtuous cycle of connectedness that leads to disintermediation of layers, which drives end-users to become more empowered, demand better user-experience challenging us to create more connectedness.  In many ways this cycle has been underway for a very long time, from the industrial revolution, or even further back, Guttenberg’s printer, but it is becoming starkly evident now.  We are being better empowered than ever before in our history, with products that combine beauty and scale.

This change is forcing a renewal of the IT industry.  Starting with a renewal in the hardware business.  Fundamental advances in hardware, both technological, as well as economic ones, are becoming evident.  I believe this is why many business strategies of leading hardware vendors are changing.  A single machine of 80-cores, 2TB of memory and enough SSDs can serve massive data needs of enterprises; a cloud of these, a RAM cloud, can connect the whole world in a web of real-time trade.  And this hardware renewal, is renewing software’s layers.  Especially the relational database, the present incarnation of which was designed more than 20 years ago.  You’ve seen me argue this before and I think this is now quite evident.  Our own HANA, helps radically rethink the database.  Just yesterday I learnt that on a cluster of 4 machines of 32-cores each, we can run 200 parallel users, running a complex SQL query, on 800M records, with average response times of 450ms.  Each!  But beyond the database, this technology helps rethink the entire information management paradigm.  While autonomy (and verity, which autonomy acquired a few years ago) pioneered text search in the 90s, and vertica, which looked into a disk-based column store, are inherently different paradigms for managing structured and unstructured information, search and database technology is evolving in precisely the opposite direction.  HANA intrinsically combines a massively parallel in-memory column store with various data processing engines, that process sql, text and nosql style access uniformly, within the same SQL expression, and with breathtaking speed, as our customer Medtronic demonstrated at Sapphire in May.  Similarly, the so-called nosql approaches (e.g. The hadoop or map-reduce style programming models on distributed file systems and key-value stores first built by modern text engines such as Google) combine text and structured data processing on one foundation.  I believe this is the right direction, even though I fundamentally disagree on the NoSQL part; SQL is a great, declarative, timeless way of expressing a user’s query intent, independent of the optimizations of any wave of technology, and is thence used by 10s of millions of programmers around the world, but I digress.  So unlike past approaches, where structured and unstructured data was treated differently, as were the OLTP and OLAP worlds, redesigned software on modern hardware, can converge these two paradigms, in a way that is fundamentally simplifying, that continues to evolve with improving technology, and empowers end-users to interact and engage with data, whether structured or unstructured in a uniform, coherent way.

Closer to home at SAP, we see renewal in the software industry as well.  The good news from SAP’s perspective is that we have been focusing on this renewal, in my case for around 2 years, since Hasso laid down a profound yet inspiring personal challenge.  HANA is driving change in the enterprise and enabling companies to do things that were previously unimaginable.  HANA removes the inefficiencies that have developed over time but also finally delivers the unbelievable user experience that meets the skyrocketing expectations I talked about earlier.  For example, machines can now talk to each other and to the back end systems, help do their own maintenance, and help companies better schedule service runs.  Retail forecasts and customer incentive calculations can be done 1000s of times faster.  CPG companies can plan, and allocate, in real-time, products can be traced, across 10s of billions of entries, immediately, and companies can close their books whenever they want, dynamically, shaving off days from these cumbersome processes, and becoming vastly more agile in the process.  Services companies can now calculate and predict the margin on short and long term implementation projects.  A utility company can analyze smart meter data in real-time.  And these are just the beginning.  In all of these scenarios, HANA creates direct connections between people, businesses, data, machines, and causes disintermediation of unnecessary layers or steps and delivers ease-of-use.  Simultaneously enabling new horizons, and simplification of the existing layers of complexity, without disruption.

Lastly, there is a renewal happening that I am personally passionate about, and that’s the one taking place inside SAP.  This has also been driven by HANA, which has opened up new ways of working, new ways of thinking and new ways of developing software inside SAP.  All this has led to some truly exciting set of product innovations that we’ve been working on and strategies that we’ve been reflecting on.  All of SAP’s products will transform over time, whether our technology products, our existing applications, which we can now piecewise and non-disruptively renew, or totally new applications, which weren’t possible before.  And with this renewal of our products, our company is renewing as well.

So it will be an important series of TechEds this year.  Two and a half weeks until Las Vegas.  There is much to be discussed and news of innovation to be shared and I’m looking forward to seeing you there.

To close, in the words of Steve Jobs, quoting Stewart Brand (who was one of the inspirations for my work on Timeless Software): Stay hungry, stay foolish.

Best,

Vishal

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