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Expand your horizons with SAP Unicode upgrades and conversions

What is Unicode?

Unicode means that rather than using a single byte of data to represent a character or number, it instead uses two bytes.

With only a single byte, this means you only get 256 combinations of characters. For western languages such as English, German and French, then this is absolutely fine.

For English, there are only 26 characters in the alphabet, multiplied by 2 for both upper case and lower case representations, and then our favorite 10 digits.

You then of course get all of the other characters that you can see on the keyboard sitting in front of you, ranging anywhere from ampersand (&) through to question mark (?).

These all, of course, still fit well within the 256 limit.

However, when other languages such as Chinese are involved, then it is possible to have many more than 256 combinations of characters to represent the many thousands of words and symbols in the Chinese language.

This is why Unicode is necessary. If you want to allow business users in China to log on in Chinese to your global SAP system, or produce invoices to Chinese customers/companies from your all powerful SAP system – ensuring your SAP system is Unicode enabled is essential.

With two bytes for every character/symbol, you get over 64,000 possibilities – just enough for the Chinese character set (which has over 50,000 characters!).

Do I need to upgrade my SAP system to be Unicode compliant?

Unicode for SAP became a reality in version 4.7 of SAP. This was on the WAS ABAP 6.2 and 6.4 technology platforms which weren’t around for all that long but did enable the SAP system to become a web-server.

This means that if you’re on an earlier version of SAP (say 4.0, 4.5 or 4.6) then you’ll need to upgrade. Most customers will of course upgrade to the absolute latest version of SAP – namely ECC6 with it’s latest enhancement pack. This is running on the Netweaver 7 technology platform.

Am I Unicode compliant if I’m on ECC6?

The answer is “not necessarily”. Both with versions 4.7 and ECC6 of the SAP business suite, it was, and still is possible to have an SAP system where Unicode is not mandatory. So while the system is capable of Unicode, not all ABAP programs are forced to be Unicode.

There is a basic setting in your SAP setup which mandates whether Unicode is enforced or not. In the case where it is enforced, then all ABAP programs are checked for compliance. If they do not comply then they contain errors and this means that the code cannot and will not run on that particular SAP system.

Why should I upgrade or enforce my system to be Unicode compliant?

Now we come to the crux of the matter.

Many businesses are moving to expand into countries / territories that require Unicode compliance. I deal with many US and European based companies, and one of their key growth strategies is to expand and sell into Asia.

Essential to this strategy is that the underlying IT infrastructure enables Unicode compliance.

Many CIO’s are being beaten up at the moment by the CEO’s, CFO’s, board of directors and shareholders since their slightly aged SAP systems are not able to support the company’s growth initiatives. IT is supposed to be an enabler. In the case of Unicode, it can often be a barrier.

What are the challenges of a Unicode upgrade for SAP?

Many businesses we work with are performing Unicode upgrades. The good news is that you can perform a Unicode upgrade relatively easily. There are a number of tools out on the market that allow near-zero downtime to systems during cut-over.

Also, the upgrade process itself can be done within a small number of months rather than 6 months+. This is often called a “technical upgrade”, since all you are doing is having exactly the same SAP system at the end of the upgrade, it is just Unicode compliant.

If you are also going to re-engineer business processes, implement new features, or build new processes to enable specific functionality for the regions you are moving into, then this is where the time-frames for upgrades to Unicode can take longer.

The challenges you’ll face, with both approaches, is around ensuring that business demands are met whilst the upgrade is going on.

All SAP IT departments are already maxed out supporting demands from the business.

Telling the business that they have to put all changes on hold for 3-6 months or more will never go down well with them. IT and SAP will be given the cold shoulder, yet again, for not being “flexible”.

This is just one of many factors to consider when upgrading a SAP solution. We’ll cover some of the other important points in future blogs.

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