SAP announced the S/4HANA business suite refresh in February 2015, and since then, many longtime SAP-enabled businesses have evaluated whether it is time for a major architectural and user interface update. The announcement also attracted the attention of businesses looking to join the SAP family because of what this modernization delivers. The latest version of SAP's business support software is a two-pronged re-engineering effort. One aspect targets the database and IT support area, while the other addresses and evolves the mobile- and cloud-driven world for businesses.

Under the hood

The HANA part of S/4HANA brings a fundamental revision to the database that supports SAP functional interfaces such as customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and finance. Historically, the database took advantage of aggregate and duplicate tables to accelerate functions. This was done to minimize the impact of less-efficient hardware, and it necessitated increases in storage requirements and associated operational costs. This architectural choice also led to delayed or locked data updates, since changes propagated via batch processing.

HANA is a significant rationalization of the data schema that uses memory processing capabilities to achieve accelerations. This means there is a small data footprint and reduced infrastructure costs. It also results in real-time updates that better serve cloud and mobile functionality. IT decision-makers may want to weigh the ongoing operational cost reductions against the one-time data migration costs. Business leaders also need to consider these improvements' technology capabilities as they relate to business strategy.

Facing the business

The companion S/4 functionality — short for Suite 4 — addresses the user interface and experience across SAP applications. Built on the SAP Fiori framework to deliver an experience grown from modern design principles, it is designed to deliver a suite of upgraded applications on any device and can be supported through on-premises, cloud and hybrid deployments.

The design presents standard business processes that minimize the number of steps users need to navigate their work. Navigational optimizations are vital to reduce the employee training hours, eventual workflow efforts and number of errors caused by complex user interface designs.

The mobile-first design ethic ensures businesses can extend their office functionalities beyond the physical building. As cloud integration is supported through either a full or hybrid cloud deployment, mobile access is presented as a seamless continuum from the desktop user experience.

Bridging from old to new

When the benefits of adopting S/4HANA become a viable business proposition, there is a clear migration path to move from historic SAP implementations. However, this clear path is not a minor undertaking. If migrating to the HANA database is involved, an SAP service partner can add significant value to ensure the project stays on track. Partners with the experience executing these complex projects are particularly adept at ensuring both the migration effort and critical data reach the appropriate destination.

The S/4 component migration will be an exercise in change management. Custom business processes will require additional work either done manually or using an automation service provider to transform the code and functionality into the new landscape. Also eventually some organizational retraining will be required so users can perform their roles and the business can realize its anticipated return on investment.

Jason Hannula is a seasoned IT business analyst who has worked with various agencies to deliver transformation projects that improve business processes and data usage. He has also been writing about the impacts of emergent technologies and trends on businesses for since 2013.