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What Does SAP Say About the Future of ABAP?

One of the hottest topics at SAP TechEd 2007 was the changing nature of the SAP developer skill set. It’s easy to see why people care so much about this topic: SAP customers don’t want to find themselves with a development team that lacks the skills to implement the latest SAP functionality, and SAP programmers are facing enough challenges without having to worry that their skills will no longer be needed on project sites. So what’s the latest on the future of ABAP?

I have written about the evolution of SAP programming on this blog before (check the "ABAP" category at the bottom of this entry for more posts on this topic). It’s a subject I will return to frequently. I also touched on these themes during my "TechEd in Review" podcast with Krisha Kumar of Enterprise Horizons.

  One of the benefits of going to TechEd is talking directly with folks from SAP about the road ahead. So when it came to the future of SAP programming, who better to ask than the SAP Labs team? One of the guys at SAP who is doing the most interesting thinking on SAP development is Thomas Jung. His four hour sessions at TechEd on "ABAP Development: Update Your Skills to SAP NetWeaver 7.0" were some of the best attended workshops at the conference.

I wasn’t able to attend one of those workshops, but I did have a chance to speak with Thomas in the SAP community room. I’m hoping to have Thomas on this web site, as his schedule permits, either for a guest blog entry or a guest podcast. In the meantime, you can track Thomas via his excellent weblog on the SAP Developer Network.

In the following section from my longer piece on TechEd, I incorporated a few of Thomas’ insights with some of the most memorable comments I heard from Vishal Sikka, SAP’s Chief Technology officer. Here are the highlights from that part of my article:

I get a lot of questions from readers who worry that ABAP is dead. They point to ominous signs: they tell me that all the new SAP programs are written in Java (not true), and they are concerned that the NetWeaver CE is an exclusively Java-based environment (true). The NetWeaver Developer Studio is also almost exclusively Java-based (also true).

But ABAP is not as dead as some might think. During my group interview with SAP CTO Vishal Sikka, he said that there are still 238,000,000 lines of ABAP code in SAP. The message? ABAP is still entrenched in SAP, and SAP is still entrenched in ABAP. Vishal also noted that while some new SAP programs are written in Java, some are written in ABAP too.

ABAP is still making its presence felt: some of the new NetWeaver PI functionality was written in ABAP. You might not see it when you work with PI, but the ABAP is there underneath, keeping things humming along. True, I talked to some SAP representatives who didn’t even know if ABAP was part of NetWeaver at this point, but the SAP Labs team assured me that it is.

Thomas Jung of SAP Labs, who writes an outstanding developer’s blog on SDN, told me that some of the underlying NetWeaver functions were written in ABAP, and of course there is the Web Dynpro for ABAP. Jung also told me that the ABAP Workbench is indeed part of NetWeaver, and is being equipped with many of the bells and whistles that the Java side of NetWeaver is receiving.

So, ABAP is still a valid part of the SAP landscape. But there’s no question that when it comes to designing new enterprise services, Java is the language of choice in most cases. No, we can’t say that the ABAP outlook is dreamy, but it’s not going away anytime soon.

On the other hand, we must remember the warning Vishal Sikka gave me during our interview. He feels strongly that the entire SAP landscape is changing, and that the emphasis on ABAP versus Java is not the right way to understand the transitions that are underway. The design of the new eSOA NetWeaver development platform is specifically intended to make it irrelevant which programming language you are using. The eSOA layer is designed to work with any open standard, so between eSOA and PI, programmers should be able to use their environment of choice and be interoperable with SAP.

Of course, Vishal would go farther than this, as many executives did, to emphasize that SAP’s modeling tools (Visual Composer, the upcoming Aris for NetWeaver, as well as a new Eclipse modeling environment) are all designed to change the development process and emphasize the design of re-usable components over arduous hand-coded customizations.

Soon, these modeling environments might even generate enough automated code to make it possible for the "Business Process Experts" of the future to do all the development work. Some have suggested that as much as 70 percent of all hand-coding will go away once these tools are fully realized.

So that gets us beyond the ABAP-versus-Java debate to a much broader debate on the future of development work in general, inside and outside of SAP, in an SOA and visual modeling world. That discussion goes beyond the scope of this piece, but we’ll return to it in future columns and podcasts. "The future of SAP development," and more specifically, the skill set of the "SAP developer of the future," will be a common theme on this web site.

For now, I won’t go into more detailed advice for developers, except to try to get your hands on all the new modeling tools, to check out in particular the new CE environment on SDN, and to also check out the BPX community to get a better feeling for the convergence of IT and Business.

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