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SAP Bolsters NetWeaver's MDM Capabilities Part Two: xCat and SAP MDM

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: December 2 2004

What xCat Offers

SAP NetWeaver, has become the main pillar of SAP AG's (NYSE: SAP) strategy to remake itself into a platform vendor. With this and mySAP Business Suite, the broadest suite of enterprise applications in the market, SAP will sell possibly everything from application servers via middleware to Web services (envisioned, in SAP's case, to orchestrate business processes by means of packaged composite applications across and atop existing systems). In mid-July, SAP announced that it has acquired substantially all of A2i, Inc a Los Angeles, California (US)-based an d privately held software company, which, since 1993 develops and markets xCat, the platform for enterprise-wide product content management (PCM) and cross-media catalog publishing, but with the touted simplicity and accessibility of desktop applications.

Therefore, SAP and A2i tout the following potent capabilities of xCat:

  • Powerful product content aggregation and cleansing, management and product information editing. The proper PCM system should do more than store data that once resided in another system. Instead, it must include powerful and extensive capabilities for loading, restructuring, cleansing, normalizing, and transforming source data from a variety of electronic sources, including text, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, Structured Query Language (SQL), and XML for both flat files and relational data.

  • Classification into a taxonomy with category-specific attributes. Not only must the proper PCM systems have a completely flexible schema, it must also support multiple classification schemes, user-defined taxonomy hierarchies of arbitrary depth with category-specific attributes, multiple simultaneous taxonomies, and "drag-and-drop" taxonomy editing capabilities that allow the taxonomy of the fully populated repository to be completely restructured and refined over time.

  • Intelligent image management. Any system can easily store an image as a binary large object (BLOB). By contrast, the proper PCM system must support intelligent image management with an understanding of all of the leading image formats, the ability to automatically transform images for different publishing purposes, and optimized high-performance image access and efficient image caching.

  • Integrated high-performance product search engine. Search mechanisms offered by traditional systems are not precise enough for searching product information. The full-fledged PCM system must hence include a fully integrated multidimensional search engine that is optimized for product search, with support not only for drill-down, parametric, and keyword search, but also measurement search, partial/contains search, and other types of search. To that end, the ability to let customers search for goods without knowing product codes has become the A2i's Web slogan: "No part number, no problem".

  • Performance acceleration, with scalability up to millions of products. Traditional enterprise applications, such as ERP or CRM, are not optimized for heavy search and access loads. Similarly, a traditional relational database management system (DBMS) is slow on typical searches against large repositories, so relying on the naked DBMS is also a problem. Therefore, a proper PCM system must have a self-optimizing performance acceleration layer that is able to quickly serve up product information to users and other enterprise applications.


    Most catalog solutions are simple database applications that layer a thin veneer of functionality over SQL and they rely on SQL for all access to the data, whereby SQL works well with retrieving a single record from among thousands or even millions. Yet, to retrieve, for example, several thousand records from among a few million, and to limit across all of the different dimensions of the search for users to only see valid selections and valid values, that requires a multi-table join.


    Also, to interactively browse and sort search results, requires cursors and temporary files, which can also cripples the performance of a SQL-based DBMS. An example is having thirty thousand bearings with very intricate relationships of which bearings can be sold with which other bearings. This requires a system to manage and automate those relationships. Thus, xCat uses SQL-based database—either Microsoft SQL Server, IBM DB2 or Oracle—only as a container to store the product information, but then xCat completely bypasses SQL for almost all access to the data—searching, sorting, querying, limiting, masking—and thus avoids the "four dirty words" of SQL: no cursors, no temporary files, no joins, and no views.

  • Cross-media publishing (web and paper or CD ROM print). The appropriate PCM system must drive all product content initiatives, including tightly integrated functionality not only for internal PCM, but also multichannel syndication, deployment of searchable Web catalogs, and print solutions for catalogs and other printed publications. The things that people expect in a paper catalog in terms of layout, structure, and tabular orientation of product records, should also be deliverable to the Web. Additionally, xCat can reportedly slice-and-dice a single master catalog containing several million products into as many customized virtual private, personalized, subset catalogs as necessary. Each slice looks like a complete catalog, either to the user on the Web or when published to paper.

  • Database-driven print catalogs. A full-fledged PCM system that supports print catalog publishing must do so in a way that is completely database-driven, meaning it "pushes" product information into the page layouts, rather than simply using the repository to store product information that was first entered directly into the page layout application.

  • UCCnet synchronization. A proper PCM system must support UCCnet synchronization, and also be able to syndicate product information to multiple audiences, transforming it into a variety of industry-standard and user-defined XML and delimited text formats, on an ad hoc and scheduled basis.

  • Integrated workflow engine. The system must have an integrated workflow engine that can provide a framework for managing product information in a collaborative environment, and can function standalone or in conjunction with external workflow applications and systems.

  • Cross-platform compatibility as elaborated above; and

  • Enterprise scalability. The appropriate PCM system must offer an n-tier architecture, capable of easily integrating with various deployment architectures, including a full suite of security and encryption services as well as ability to integrate with leading user directories, such as Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). Finally, the PCM system must provide master/slave capabilities to enable a global 24/7 deployment consisting of both staging and publishing servers.

This is Part Two of a five-part note.

Part One began the event summary.

Part Three will cover the market impact.

Part Four will look at SAP and A2i.

Part Five will discuss challenges and make user recommendations.

SAP MDM

The A2i acquisition follows the late 2003 announcement of the release of SAP Master Data Management (SAP MDM), which, as mentioned previously, is an evolutionary new offering aimed at enabling companies to harmonize data across diverse applications and IT landscapes, solving the common problems generated by similar but different customer, product or vendor information stored across multiple systems. As the latest product addition to SAP NetWeaver, the component also aims at enabling large, geographically dispersed companies to manage master data in heterogeneous environments, across business units and the extended enterprise. As such, SAP MDM leverages SAP Enterprise Intelligence (SAP EI), SAP Business Intelligence (SAP BI), SAP Knowledge Management (SAP KM), and SAP EP components of SAP NetWeaver, which are all purportedly tightly integrated, eliminating the need for custom integration of various technologies at the customer's site.

SAP claims SAP MDM can be deployed on an evolutionary basis to minimize disruptions to the daily flow of business; it can also be reasonably quickly implemented without altering the existing system landscape; and it is flexible to adapt to established business processes and organizational structures. By improving the consistency of business-critical data, the new MDM offering should help companies across diverse industries accelerate collaborative business processes, reduce IT integration costs, and gain sound analytical insights to improve decision making and drive competitive advantage. Namely, deriving a common view of reference data—such as definitions of customers, suppliers, products and parts—should enable organizations to gain a long-term, strategic advantage.

To that end, SAP MDM integrates both the data as well as the applications necessary to support collaborative business processes, delivering analytical and search capabilities to identify identical or similar data objects across different systems and cleanse objects to keep master data consistent, whereby SAP MDM adapters receive all data from third-party systems and unify it into a common data format. For example, an aircraft landing wheel assembly may be identified by the manufacturer, its suppliers, and customers in a slightly different way—the manufacturer might identify the assembly as "assembly 85467", while a supplier's system tracks the same assembly as "a330 wheel assembly." Accordingly, SAP MDM provides a framework to define the reference master data and metadata associated with this assembly so that the aircraft manufacturer, customers such as airlines, and suppliers share a single definition that they can leverage in their business transactions.

To help companies avoid the complexity and costs of point-to-point connectivity, SAP MDM connects as a hub to multiple systems, enabling intersystem communication. It allows central data maintenance to group logically related objects and distribute these concurrently into designated systems. Automated publish and subscribe models ensure that the right information is easily and cost-effectively delivered to the right destination. Further, with its data consolidation, harmonization, maintenance, and distribution mechanisms for SAP and non-SAP solutions, SAP MDM aims at helping companies derive even more value from their existing technology investments in areas such as supplier management. For example, leveraging SAP MDM to harmonize data across supplier divisions, mySAP SRM should enable relatively effortless analysis to track spending by parts or materials sourced with suppliers across the globe. Empowered with consistent, reliable information, companies should better manage their bottom lines, reduce inventories, match prices, and streamline procurement processes. Companies operating various subsidiaries should more easily detect common suppliers, consolidate order contracts and negotiate higher discount rates.

SAP purports that SAP MDM also lays the foundation for efficient and accurate exchange of cross-business information. Consumer products companies, for instance, can exchange timely product information with retail distributors, avoid costly inaccuracies, enhance merchandizing, and improve supply chain operations. In the area of customer service, SAP MDM should help companies maintain consistent data even when customers are identified by different names or ID numbers. Last but not least, for companies involved in the manufacturing or assembly of physical goods, the storage, procurement and cataloging of parts requires tremendous enterprise resources, since redundant data can present a distorted picture of parts inventory, causing wide-reaching supply chain gaps. To that end, SAP MDM aims at helping manufacturers and suppliers to maintain accurate parts inventories, avoid gaps and redundancies in supply chain information, and smoothly execute collaborative processes in procurement, production, logistics and sales.

Most recently, on October 5, SAP announced a few new, immediately available capabilities to bolster SAP MDM's ability to manage customer, product and vendor information in heterogeneous IT systems. Accordingly, SAP NetWeaver now includes a reasonably flexible master data object modeling framework that should allow users to create and define their own master data objects with their own business-specific attributes. The user-defined object model works alongside the already available pre-built object models and leverages the same standard services, such as data normalization and sophisticated distribution, available with the SAP NetWeaver platform. SAP claims the concept of "user-defined objects" is offered exclusively by itself.

SAP also delivered out-of-the-box capabilities for administering master data through Web services. With an overarching goal of architecting all of its applications to be enterprise services enabled via the enterprise services architecture (EAS), SAP solutions should allow companies to create new business processes that orchestrate a collection of Web services into composite applications. In addition, new straight-through processing tackles the business challenge of loading millions of master data objects into a customer's information system from outside sources. The new optimized load process includes the flexibility to postpone the data normalization processes while making new incoming information available to other subscribing systems. SAP also announced it will soon add new standards-based GDS capabilities to SAP MDM.

This concludes Part Two of a five-part note.

Part One began the event summary.

Part Three will cover the market impact.

Part Four will look at SAP and A2i.

Part Five will discuss challenges and make user recommendations.

 
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