SAP conducted a summit meeting this week in Boston involving software industry analysts and market influencers.  The purpose was to share updates on SAP’s strategic direction and of course to favor more influence in the market.  I had the opportunity to view the keynote presentations and one presentation in particular caused me to think about implications for the global supply chain community.

Vishal Sikka, SAP’s Chief Technology Officer and Member of the Executive Board delivered a keynote titled Laying the Groundwork for Future SAP Technology.  In his remarks, Vishal addressed the four technology disruption trends which SAP is leveraging in future product direction.  The trends were:

  1. In-memory computing, leading to new dimensions of analytics
  2. Expansion of cloud computing options
  3. Pervasive connectivity and mobile computing
  4. Services Oriented Architecture (SOA) and interoperable components

Trends one and three should especially capture the interest of the supply chain community. 

New developments relative to in-memory computing are leading to orders of magnitude performance improvements in storing data. Think about a database table of multiple rows and columns.  Traditionally, database systems stored data by records consisting of rows.  Today’s technologies are enabling the capability to store data by columns.  Also, the price of memory devices has been reduced dramatically.  The net result is that system developers can now design applications that can store a company’s entire supply chain planning or enterprise data in main memory vs. constantly accessing an external data storage or information warehouse. 

What’s even more interesting about this trend is the fact that it was advanced supply chain planning and analytical applications that originally utilized in-memory technology.  Who could forget the early releases of SAP APO that featured Live Cache, allowing supply, demand and associated transactional data to be accessed within the application. This original technology was not without lots of problems, and much learning has been gained.

The potential of this new in-memory technology is that aggregating global wide supply and demand plans could be performed literally on the fly, in real-time.  Vishal noted lab results where a billion rows of data are analyzed in less than a second, utilizing a half dozen cheap blade servers. That is truly amazing.

We have recently noted the continued introduction of layered, more rapid supply chain planning applications that begin to leverage these new technologies.  Rather than having a planning or MRP cycle that is weeks or days in duration, we can now deploy analytical and decision support applications that provide event-driven planning.  Your firm can quote or book a significant order and instantly see the impact to all tiers of inventory or production. Your S&OP process can conduct various scenarios of demand or supply what-ifs.  And the list goes on.

However, with all enthusiasm around new technology, there are reality checks for our community to consider.  The first and foremost is data accuracy and consistency, which has always provided significant challenges.  The analogy of garbage at the speed of light has an even more important significance when you think about these new trends, not to mention that the reaction time to fix any bad data will become ever more time sensitive.

Does your organization actively address data accuracy and consistency? The global recession has brought about many unfortunate reductions in organizational headcount.  How many of these lost people were instrumental in insuring master data consistency?  Perhaps this post can garner some reader comments on this situation.

The third trend, pervasive connectivity and mobile computing also triggers some comment.  Recall the initial promises associated with the deployment of RFID technology as a mobile enabling technology to fuse the physical world of inventory with supply chain planning and execution applications.  The potential leverage of the technology has been limited by the current realities in the cost of RFID tags and infrastructure deployment. Vishal’s presentations included demos that featured user input of a queery and change of the plan on an Apple iPhone or other smartphone device. There is also the ability to review the latest sales and shipment plans on these same devices.  Really cool in concept! 

With the overall proliferation of these devices as a purely business tool, there are bound to be data security concerns if the device is stolen or misplaced?  Have we forgotten about those stolen laptop computers that had sensitive data compromised?

The takeaway is for readers to understand these technology trends that will lead to new innovation and streamlining of global supply chain business processes, but to add the practicality and context of what blocking and tackling issues need to be solved before considering future full-blown deployment. 

The continued agenda for the combined IT and supply chain functional community is to continue to context the opportunities that advanced technology can bring with practicalities of the process. The adage of plan ..plan ..plan always has a practical meaning.

Bob Ferrari

Disclosure: Neither this blog or The Ferrari Consulting and Research Group LLC has received any financial consideration related to influencing the above posting content.