Why we helped Microsoft build an SAP monitoring product to compete with our own.
By Matt Lovell
22 July 2020
On the 15th July 2020, Microsoft announced Azure Monitor for SAP Solutions is now in preview. We are very excited to be part of this great initiative. I thought I’d explain why we chose to join Microsoft in this open-source collaboration, rather than keep our monitoring expertise locked within Centiq.
The Monitiq and Optiq journey
Centiq has been helping customers manage SAP platforms since the turn of the century. During the early days it was all about IBM POWER/AIX but as the SAP Business Warehouse Accelerator (BWA) gained in popularity so did Linux in the customer base. We found the open-source tools clunky at the time, the commercial tools too expensive, and neither offered the features we needed. So we started building our own tools to cope with new monitoring needs and the “Monitiq” tool was born. When HANA was introduced in 2011, we were first-to-market in the UK, implementing and supporting what was the market-leading HANA appliance from IBM (before they sold the x86 business to Lenovo). We had to learn fast what the challenges would be with managing a leading-edge, in-memory platform. Code releases came out fast, memory leaks and critical bugs were common during those early years and we became an essential lifeline to SAP’s customers, who struggled to support these new workloads.
We quickly identified many new monitoring needs for these HANA systems and codified them in the form of metric collectors, graphical displays and alert rules.
The challenge of capacity planning for HANA proved to be particularly complex and demanded a new UI we called “Optiq”. The Optiq/Monitiq toolset is still a key part of the Centiq’s Managed Service in 2020.
The exciting new SAP on Azure opportunity
Skip forward a few years of merrily deploying and supporting HANA appliances from Lenovo, Dell and HP, the hyperscalers bring to market VMs certified to run HANA. Centiq spots the new opportunity to help customers with the next generation of platform transformation. This coincides perfectly with our DevOps and Infrastructure as Code (IaC) revolution and we become a favoured partner for building SAP workloads on Azure. This naturally leads us into more support contracts with customers and the Optiq toolset continues to deliver value for the Centiq managed service.
A move from “best-of-breed” to “Azure-first”
For decades before the hyperscalers arrived, customers would be keen to assess the market for the best hardware and software tools to deliver and support their IT systems. Each customer would have a different combination of network, backup, replication and clustering tools to complete their chosen architecture. As customers moved to the Azure platform we have found many of them shift the “best-of-breed” habit to an “Azure-native-first” policy. Azure offers an ever-expanding wealth of platform components that can be used in place of 3rd party hardware and software.
Customers often find the Azure-native load balancers, firewalls, backup software and monitoring good enough to achieve their goals despite the limited feature set they sometimes have. Motivation for this shift from best of breed to Azure-first stems from the desire to simplify the set-up, the software licencing, purchase decision making and in some cases to reduce cost. Microsoft tends to have a strategy of consumption-based billing for Azure services. So there are no large up-front licence decisions to make, start using and track your consumption. Tool setup can be done through one common interface in the Azure portal or through code interfaces, opening the door to more opportunities for IaC opportunities. We’ve seen customers make some large tradeoffs for functionality from their on-prem tool-set to the Azure-based alternative, trusting that the Azure roadmap will evolve and fill the gaps on-demand as the service matures.
Why SAP platform monitoring is a problem worth solving
One of the biggest challenges with monitoring is the alignment of information with people. We talk a lot about the importance of the alignment of people, process and technology at Centiq. The technical community can often get so focused on the technology that the other two can be forgotten. What we have found in the SAP world is that the toolset that delivers the monitoring capability is often designed and built by different people to those that manage the systems. Operational staff might have access to information that they are unable to act on. Conversely, those that have the power to impact change are unable to get the information needed to make changes.
In one example I remember well from a few years ago, we were keeping a keen eye on the dramatic growth of a HANA system for a retailer. I spoke to them to let them know that the continuous growth would cause them performance challenges within 6 months if direct action was not taken to address the situation. The senior customer contact reassured me that the archiving project team had implemented changes that would reduce the size of the HANA database at the end of the week. When we checked the impact on the database using our tool at the end of the week there was minimal size reduction. I spoke again to the customer, who was very surprised to hear that the problem had not gone away.
This example demonstrates a disconnect between the key information (in this case size of database) and the people/process that could impact those measures (in this case the archiving team and the Programme Manager that was ultimately responsible for the project’s success). The SAP tooling is always very extensive and can present a challenge to install, configure, manage and understand. It’s often last on the project list and will not always get the attention it deserves. Creating a central tool that is easily deployed that can be viewed by all who need it, is a great way to help narrow the gap between the people, process and technology.
Microsoft offers Azure Monitor for SAP Solutions
When Microsoft first started the Azure Monitor for SAP Solutions project we had mixed feelings. Should we compete with our own tool in Optiq, or join them and help them push forward a new Azure-native toolset? This decision was similar for us to the decision to help with the open-source SAP build project – a classic “beat them or join them” decision.
The overwhelming motivation for collaborating with Microsoft in both of these open-source projects is the desire to improve the customer experience for the lifecycle of what SAP describes as “on-prem” deployments (i.e. not their SaaS offerings). Whilst we accept the continued trend for organisations to adopt SaaS offerings like SuccessFactors and S/4HANA cloud, we believe that there remains a need for more flexible deployments via the on-prem licence model. Many customers are not ready to write-off decades of evolution that have driven them to today’s solutions.
What these customers need is the ability to accelerate evolution on a flexible, reliable platform like Azure. The closer we collaborate with Microsoft on this, the better chance we have in succeeding. There are so many problems to solve in the build-run-retire SAP lifecycle, that we need to embrace Microsoft’s desire to invest in solving some of these challenges. We know that there will always be plenty more challenges that Centiq can invest in to keep a competitive edge and deliver superb customer service.
So we chose to work with Microsoft and reuse some of our existing research and development into HANA monitoring. Our first collaboration has led to the development of the Backup and HANA System Replication (HSR) monitoring. We hope to continue to deliver further waves of functionality in the future and look forward to getting valuable feedback from the customer/partner community.
Robin Webster, CTO