Semantically Speaking

My friend and fellow SAP Mentor, Ethan Jewett, and I, have had a series of good conversations.  We kicked things off with my original post on the rift between BW-types and BOBJ-types.  It caught attention and we had some great community discussion.  In the spirit of our conversation, Ethan followed that up with his thoughts on why we are all just services as he contrasted SAP BW to SAP BusinessObjects.  Following that, our friends in the community continued to weigh in and help break down barriers.  Ethan and Josh Fletcher have spent HOURS on G+ Hangouts shooting video to demonstrate how SAP BW and SAP BusinessObjects/SAP Data Services play together.   Not only that, but our pal Jon Reed lead a discussion with a host of BI experts on the state of analytics which, later, set Jamie off to write a very thought provoking piece. From a customer point of view, Jamie spoke all about the semantic layer-stew that is brewing at SAP.  That is where I’m going to bring the blog portion of the series to a close here and we are just going to go record an episode of the Diversified Semantic Layer.

Whether you are coming at this from a BW point of view or a BOBJ point of view, one fact stands out for me.  SAP purchased Business Objects for their capabilities as a BI suite.  The underpinnings of the capability was the tried and true semantic layer, the Universe, and the Services Oriented Architecture (SOA) brought together with the Crystal Decisions integration.  Yes, the Universe has had its problems.  Not the point.  The point is, the semantic layer made BusinessObjects of old strong.  It made it flexible.  It gave developers a mechanism to obscure complex business rules with a pretty wrapper.

Jamie very clearly articulated a customer’s point of view in the confusion that now we have a semantic layer in more than one tool in the SAP portfolio.

“The bigger problem with the current state of the portfolio is a burgeoning list of Semantic Layers for the SAP Analytics tool set (see around 17:19 of the video). We have the Universe (the one that SAP paid €4.8 billion for in 2007 and temporarily referred to as the Common Semantic Layer in BI4 until they realized it wasn’t), we have the BW semantic layer, and we have the HANA semantic layer, and none of them talk to each other particularly well (or at least best practice is that they shouldn’t).*”

While there is integration points between many of the reporting tools and the semantic layers, that comes with ambiguity.  Sure, there are technical use cases and explanations on where to use what all over the SCN.  Why should really smart SAP people need to travel the world to tell people which tool should be used by the right person based on the right data source?  Why should that have to be presented at all?  Why doesn’t it make more sense to open any of the 8 or 9 or whatever BI tools in the portfolio, use a common semantic layer, and get to the same answer or…wait for it……………single version of the truth.

If SAP did not purchase Business Objects to take advantage of the reporting suite, then perhaps BEx still has its place and I am mistaken.  But customer perception WAS that this was the case I believe.  Customers want better reporting across larger facets of SAP BW without slogging together multi-providers.  Customers do want an efficient way to create a multi-source universe to combine data across disparate data sources via federation.  Customers do want simplification in designing a semantic layer to create a common framework for creating reports.

It has been said that the Universe does not have its place in BW reporting because customers have BEx.  And now, the same may be said for SAP HANA now that it has its own semantic layer.   It has also been said that this provides customers with choice.

I’ve not heard a single customer ask for more choices in semantic layers.  I’ve only heard customers ask for simplification and a clear roadmap.  Jamie also carried this topic over to the SCN at the request of our friend and SAP Mentor, Corey Adams.  You can read the full commentary there to soak up the discussion that happened. But Corey, in a customer’s perspective, left us with a very pointed assertion here…

“Whilst it is good to have flexibility and choice, SAPs customers (me especially) are looking for a clear strategy, best practice, and concise recommendations.   But I don’t call what I have now “Flexibility”, as it stands now, if I want to use all the tools, I have to use all the semantic layers.”

If the answer is that the Universe does not do enough, it’s time to close those gaps.  If the answer is that it is not appropriate to ask customers to change to the Universe then, pick a path and consolidate in it.  It has been done in other areas of the SAP technologies.  The path to simplification for customers is not necessarily more choices.  If that means development on any one of these semantic layers to get to a sweet spot that creates consistency, pick a layer that gets us most of the way there, plugging gaps as we go.  Just do us a favor and pick the Universe.

You have to know as I write this I have absolutely nothing against SAP BW or SAP HANA.  It’s quite the opposite.  They are two technology platforms that have tremendous strategic value to SAP’s customers that coincidentally have their own semantic layers.

Back when Ethan and I started this he made a very astute tweet.  I can’t quote it today but he really rallied around it in his blog.  To his point, he called out the fact that an individual level, we gravitate towards what we are comfortable with.  Those in this debate that are long time BOBJ-types are confident that the Universe is the answer.  BW-types that are passionate about its semantic layer don’t see a reason to replace it.   I don’t believe the answer is the longevity of the existence of both (or all three in this case).

This does not have to be a contemptuous conversation.  Some may disagree and you are entitled to your opinion.  But if you see it the same way but from your own point of view and regardless of your area of expertise, you should at least be able to get behind the idea that there can should be only one (did you get what I did right there?).

5 thoughts on “Semantically Speaking

  1. Eric, well written mate!

    Sooner or later, one of us will be able to string the right words together to gain a level of comprehension in SAP and effect some change. On that note, thank you and Jamie, and everyone else for your contributions and confirming for me that I am actually not alone in the BOBJ/BW/HANA ecosystem.

    I sense there are many in the wider SAP ecosystem (and SAP itself) that still do not understand the offering and value of the Universe, or a Common Semantic layer. They see value in having a method so Webi can connect and extend Bex Queries, but beyond that, they miss the point. This is where comments like “you don’t need to put a universe on it” come from, because these people don’t get why you would want to and the idea of having a semantic layer for each source is fine.

    Hoh Hum!

    Moving on, ever so slightly different from your view, I think there is a very basic need to provide these “baby” semantic layers (and Bex is not likely to go away), but there absolutely needs to be a “Big Brother”, a “Best Practice”, a “Common” semantic layer that ALL the tools can use. Further, any content that has been developed in the other tools needs to be able to extended or converted or upgraded to the Common tool.

    As I posted on Jamie’s blog on SCN….What I want is…..

    A single common semantic layer that is smart enough to determine the language, strengths and weaknesses of my underlying data source, one that all my BI tools can leverage.

    SAP, Make it so!

    As an aside, “Technically” as I understand it, what is refered to as Bex is actually two things, Bex Query and Bex Analyser, the later is a reporting tool, the former a query tool, calling either a semantic layer is incorrect. The output of the Bew Query tool is a Bex query, it is a query, not a semantic layer. The semantic layer in the instance of connecting Webi to Bex sits between Bex Query and Webi. This semantic layer is created virtually and on the fly when you make the connection and does not persist in this case. We all know what you meant mate and it’s not meant as a criticism, just wanted to make sure you were technically correct.

    Happy Days 😉

  2. Semantics! I think as we saw on twitter there are even differing opinions on whether BEx is really a semantic layer or not.

    What is harmony? I don’t think I have the answer. What I do know is SAP needs a semantic layer. That layer should be a core framework within any and all SAP platforms as ubiquitous as JAVA or .NET in SAP-speak. It shouldn’t alienate BW customers. It shouldn’t alienate BOBJ customers. It should open the door for HANA customers. If any given platform only needs parts of that semantic layer capability, your idea of “baby” semantic layers sure fits.

    Maybe this bun is already in the oven, and maybe it isn’t. But it seems to me to be a step in the right direction to get the platforms on track and create an enterprise architecture that really and truly brings SAP data together across the board as well as other data sources.

    Now, pinch me, so I’ll wake up.

  3. I’ve just read this post and two others on your blog and I find myself awash with emotions. I started out, from an IT background, with Seagate Info 6 and Crystal Reports. Mostly I just did the technical architecture and a little bit of reporting. Then came the move to Crystal Enterprise and the move from a desktop application to a browser based application. The stuff that got left out left users and administrators with nerve-jangling pain until Crystal Enterprise 10. At least Crystal Reports stayed good and got better. It did everything except allow users to create their own reports.

    Then, just as things were settling down again along came BusinessObjects who had a great concept of flexible reporting and a semantic layer but not such a strong enterprise architecture. A whole new world of pain and confusion arose as we tried to upgrade customers from BO6.5 to BO XI (no Deski, a barely-there Webi) and connect Crystal to a Universe (the memory still hurts).

    XIR2 was better, by XIR2 we were rock’n’rolling and ignoring the disaster that was SP1, by SP2 things were good.

    Then came XI3. Oh dear. Let’s just jump straight to XI3.1 – this was life being good again. The came SAP acquisition and my first attempt to integrate BO with BW. Like everyone else we tried to deliver the “sexy” Webi against BW and let’s just say after the global escalation and the customer reverting to BEx I was glad I still had RDBMS customers to serve while we waited for the golden bullet, BI4 which would fix everything and make us rich beyond our wildest dreams. Just, you know, wait a year.

    Then (eventually) came BI4 and at the same time a global project to deploy it against BW7.3. No confusing multiple sources of data just ERP and BPC to BW and BI4 on top. Sadly the last 18 months have been the hardest, most confusing and frustrating years of my life working with BO.

    1. While I’m absolutely positive there are many more out there that have felt the pain of reporting with SAP BusinessObjects on BW, I can’t say I’ve heard anybody that distraught. I’m thinking of a new support group and a 12 step program to help those trying to integrate BOBJ and BW. Want to be my VP?

  4. haha, I think I’m qualified now.

    Pains have been around the transient universe when the semantic work is already done – so products like A-OLAP connect to OLAP perfectly but CR4E to a query via the transient universe has been soul-destroying. I wish they had offered direct BICS with no transient unv but it seems that CR will never be properly OLAP aware. Also, just the total loss of functionality in CRE compared to CR 2011 and predecessors.

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