Agile & DevOps

How APIs can help unlock SAP agility

There’s a big challenge facing business in today’s digital world as they strive for agility.

The need for companies to adapt and respond to change has never been greater and the speed at which they can do so will determine how well they fare against their competition. In this regard, software and applications are critical to delivery of the products and services that bring innovation to the forefront of their offerings.

We all have smartphones, we all use Apps and we all receive constant updates to them providing enhancements, bug fixes and new features and services.

Our desire to interact digitally with companies is clear but this reveals some limitations.

The issue for many IT organisations is that the back-end systems that support those Apps are often highly disconnected. Take SAP, for example, where stability is king and long release cycles hinder agility. The outdated processes that are used to manage many SAP systems can stifle the ability to deliver at the speed customers are coming to expect.

I’ve written and spoken a lot about Agile and DevOps as solutions to the problem of keeping ‘systems of record’ like SAP in step with other IT systems, and there’s no doubt that their adoption has worked wonders in many cases. The challenge is that the successful implementation of these methods requires business leaders to commit to the idea of process evolution and whilst this is certainly the right way to go, it will naturally take time.

So what if there were some shortcuts or alternative approaches that could move things along more quickly?

APIs are key to unlock agility

This is where APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) can come in to support and serve the business processes that drive customer and partner engagement.

APIs provide IT with a framework to unlock back-end systems, securely exposing the data, resources and internal application capabilities that are needed to enable front-end ‘systems of engagement’ such as Apps and websites.

Rather than having to constantly build or enhance functionality between front and back-end systems – which will naturally place a burden on available resources and result in wasted, recurring effort – a good API strategy provides the necessary services on demand. If you need to supply customer, product, pricing, stock, etc. data to a mobile App you can provide the relevant API and off you go.

The beauty of this for SAP is that IT can continue to update back-end systems as they do now without negatively impacting other applications. These simply continue to access the services that they need via the same common set of APIs, without the need to wait for SAP change and release processes.

Of course, there needs to be some governance over this process so that the right combination of APIs can be created and managed to support the needs of the business.

APIs as products

One way to do this is to productise the API process. This ensures that they are treated in the same way, and given the same level of importance as, existing business products. Specific ownership and accountability is needed, along with a strong connection to the business and other product teams.

In turn, implementing an agile approach to the management of APIs as products will enable requirements to be aligned with business goals so that a library of services can be provided that supports both application and business needs.

With this approach the strategy, design and standards of the required APIs can be effectively managed and you can reap the benefits.

It’s important to consider up-front what you need the APIs to do so they can be built in such as way as to be re-used, and to avoid duplication and redundancy. And you’ll want to look at the expansion of the APIs from merely accessing back-end system data to performing business transactions and processes.

APIs help to deliver agility

A productised and properly managed set of APIs can ‘oil the wheels’ between many systems, allowing applications to react more quickly and flexibly. In particular, many organizations that are moving to a cloud and/or mobile strategy are seeing the benefit of using a standardized set of APIs.

“If a partner asked for scheduling data we could give them an API key and tell them to fill their boots”, says Paul Clark, online CTO at broadcaster ITV.

In SAP the agility enabled by a solid set of APIs can provide tremendous benefits. SAP systems tend to be stable, but generally slow moving, and sometimes can’t easily keep up with the required pace of change.

By putting APIs between SAP systems and external applications, agility and flexibility can be achieved without affecting the underlying stable system. Why? Because without those APIs it’s necessary to request, approve, build, test and deliver SAP changes to support external system requirements – a process that typically requires significant waiting time.

APIs enable projects to be accelerated as they don’t need to wait for SAP changes to be released. If designed well, the APIs can also be reused for other projects and functions, amplifying the value of the initial investment.

They add versatility and flexibility, effectively unlocking the value of existing data and services and enabling businesses to operate at the speed and scale of the digital economy. That means they contribute real business value, just like the products you actually sell to customers, and as such should be managed with no less strategy and rigor.

To learn more about the application of Agile processes in SAP, take a look at this eBook on some key steps you should take to get started.

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