With the new Zero Downtime Option, SAP is delivering a groundbreaking concept for the future of software maintenance.
The SAP project team responsible for developing the idea was recognized for its efforts when it received the prestigious Hasso Plattner Founders’ Award on October 20. This prize is awarded annually to employees who demonstrate innovative flair, entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to take risks in the pursuit of an exceptional goal.
Businesses and IT managers are painfully aware of the financial losses that occur when production stops or when inventory starts piling up in the warehouse. Even planned system maintenance downtimes can result in follow-on costs running into many millions of euros. Today’s global corporations, in particular, expect to be able to operate their systems 24/7 without interruption. And it is precisely this group of customer “heavyweights” that has been putting pressure on SAP to finally remove the curse of downtime for upgrades once and for all.
But the main motivation for the project was not purely financial, as project lead Christoph Luettge from SAP Cloud Lifecycle Management (CLM) explains. Enterprises, he says, tend to drag their heels when it comes to importing new software versions or performing system maintenance. He knows from experience that businesses tend to view any upgrade project as a “terrifying prospect, a taboo that is best avoided if possible.” But, as long as customers continue to cling to their outdated versions, SAP has little hope of bringing its innovations to them.
Which is why the topic of reducing downtime has been on SAP’s agenda for years. Although some progress had been made in the past, the real breakthrough didn’t come until recently, when Christoph and his fellow team members succeeded in developing a procedure known as the “Zero Downtime Option” that totally eliminates downtime. This is highly significant when you consider that a conventional ERP upgrade puts systems out of action for between 24 and 36 hours. A single hour of downtime costs a consumer goods manufacturer about US$1 million; in the financial sector, that loss figure is closer to US$8 million. The Zero Downtime Option is designed to allow customers to perform their upgrades whenever they want to and as often as they need to. And that applies equally to customer-specific systems containing custom enhancements and modifications. In either case, the system continues to operate normally throughout the upgrade.
What makes the Zero Downtime Option particularly attractive is that it is integrated in the Software Update Manager that customers use to install Support Packages and import enhancement packages. So there are no extra licensing costs to pay, and system administrators can perform upgrades as they did before.
The new procedure promises a welcome escape from a dilemma that has plagued customers for years. Currently, when a company wants to import new software or maintain its systems, it has no option but to factor in a certain amount of downtime. This is to avoid conflicting database access between application users and the upgrade. One common solution to this problem is to create a complete system copy, or “clone”, for the upgrade. But this is both time-consuming and costly.
Mariusz Debowski from SAP Active Global Support explains, “In the past, our discussions focused on cloned systems – on how to replicate data efficiently. Ultimately, the solution we came up with was actually very different. But we didn’t make the crucial breakthrough in our project until we managed to abandon old ways of thinking.” It was only then the team realized database access conflicts actually only affect about a tenth of a percent of the entire database. The solution was therefore to replicate individual database tables rather than the entire system. This means that users can continue to access data in the original system during the upgrade; files are then intelligently merged once the upgrade is complete.
Hand in hand with customers
Close collaboration with customers was also key to the project’s success. As Volker Driesen, the project’s architect, reports, there were frequent discussions with customers right from the initial concept phase. This meant that the team could verify its proposals at an early stage and adapt them as the project progressed. Mariusz explains: “The downtime issue had been hanging over us for years, and the pressure from our customers to solve it was mounting. Ultimately, we were able to deliver a solution by collaborating closely with the customer base. It was a tough nut to crack, but we did it!”
The Zero Downtime Option has so far been developed for SAP ERP and SAP Extended Warehouse Management and has been available for deployment in projects at pilot customers since October. The first customers are already preparing to test the Zero Downtime procedure in their system environments and to deploy it for live upgrades. It will support other SAP solutions, including SAP Customer Relationship Management and those used in the banking sector, in the future.
No-downtime shift to the cloud
The Zero Downtime Option solves a significant problem for SAP’s installed customer base, but the project team is already turning its attention to SAP’s cloud operations as well. Gerhard Oswald, Member of the Executive Board and Head of the Scale Quality & Support Board area, comments: “This puts us in a league above other cloud companies and cements our lead in the cloud market.” That’s because, as a cloud supplier, SAP needs to guarantee the availability of its own systems, particularly if it wants to deliver innovations to its customers quickly and flexibly via this route.
Chris Lewis from SAP Active Global Support, who supports pilot customers for the Zero Downtime procedure in North America, agrees: “SAP is aiming for more than 50 million cloud users. In this new reality, there is no longer room for traditional SAP upgrades. New innovation without a single minute of downtime is an absolute necessity.”
The Zero Downtime project has resulted in more than ‘just’ a solution to a business necessity. In Christoph Luettge’s eyes, it reflects the mentality of SAP’s founders and their determination to see opportunities that others had overlooked in the past. “Zero downtime is an area where we can justly claim to have arrived there first,” he says.