SAP sees BI on tablets gaining ground with mobile workers

Software maker has 3,500 iPads in the field connected to business intelligence software

BOSTON -- SAP AG has deployed 3,500 Apple iPads globally, mainly for its software developers and sales executives who use the tablets for real-time access to vital business intelligence data, SAP CIO Oliver Bussmann said in an interview Wednesday.

When the iPad 2 ships on Friday, SAP will begin using that device as well, with hopes of taking advantage of its two cameras for mobile videoconferencing, Bussmann said. The same applies to the upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. SAP expects to deploy PlayBooks because they can be tethered to existing BlackBerry smartphones, reducing the cost of cellular plans, he said.

SAP makes BusinessObjects, a widely-used suite of business intelligence software. Pairing BusinessObjects with an easy-to-use tablet like the iPad has been a solid hit with users who constantly consult sales-related databases to spot trends and predict demand, Bussman said.

The iPad roll-out at SAP began last May, with SAP software developers getting the first 1,000 iPads, he said. With the imminent arrival of the iPad 2 as well as the PlayBook next month, Bussmann said SAP and other organizations have to recognize that tablets will have an irreversible affect on business workflow.

"You cannot avoid [the impact of tablets]," Bussmann said during an SAP event here. "Tablets are something that have to be managed in a proactive way."

Managing the lifecycle for thousands of mobile devices "is critical" and with new tablets hitting the market this year "that's the responsibility of the CIO," Bussmann said.

Bussmann also argued that consumer-focused tablets should "not be a show stopper" for an enterprise. "It will not be one device that's coming, but they will change the speed of innovation."

The biggest downside felt widely by iPad users at SAP is Apple's lack of Flash player support, Bussmann said. That means that certain presentations and videos cannot be viewed by iPad users in the field.

Sales personnel use the iPads for many things, including access to software to place orders from customers. Coupled with SAP In-Memory Computing technology (which uses a High Performance Analytic Appliance, or HANA), sales personnel in the field began last September to the iPad to check sales information in mere seconds. That process used to take two hours before HANA, Bussmann said.

HANA at SAP helps sales personnel search 12 million records, which remote users on iPads can access. On a daily basis, that enormous database can be updated or altered up to 650,000 times, he added.

Vishal Sikka, a member of SAP's executive board, said the combination of real-time BI and mobile devices works in myriad ways. "What if you want to see your sales for the last three hours? Or your sales for the last three hours in China?" he asked.

SAP has deployed the iPads with a variety of third-party tools to improve security and manageability, Bussman said. Those tools include an integrated VPN and Citrix, as well as software from Sybase Afaria that helps SAP separate personal data on employee-owned devices from corporate data. Sybase Afaria helps SAP wipe corporate data off a personal device without affecting a user's personal applications.

"The worst is if [an employee] leaves the company and we have to wipe the entire device," Bussman said. "But we have a clear separation between what's employee and company data. That's a topic most corporations are facing going into the tablet [rollouts].... Executives and consumers are driving the corporate mobile strategy."

Since SAP already has BlackBerry smartphone users as well as the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, Bussman said the Playbook offers a distinct benefit through its coming ability to tether to a BlackBerry smartphone.

"Typically, a mobile user might have a cell phone, tablet and maybe even a laptop, so we can be paying for three data plans," he said, noting that the Playbook and tethering would cut out one data plan per user. "Data plans are a big cost for us."

SAP will also consider using personal MiFi hotspots for iPads, he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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