Ade facto standard for data integration today, SAP's NetWeaver is used increasingly—especially by discrete and process production facilities—to optimize operations. The software unifies data integration technologies (e.g., service-oriented architectures and Web services) in a single application-building platform that allows companies to rapidly design, build, implement, and execute new processes or modify existing operations to support evolving strategies. The platform is based on industry standards and can be extended through the use of some of the industry's primary development tools, such as Microsoft .NET, J2EE, and IBM's WebSphere.
"A lot of our customers refer to NetWeaver as a composition platform," says Fergus Griffin, vice president, solution marketing, SAP NetWeaver. "They want to compose new processes. And they want to be able to compose these applications themselves on screen. Within this environment, composite applications actually pull in different information from across the IT landscape. NetWeaver is viewed as something that is used in a more granular, proactive way to serve the needs of the business, as opposed to being just an IT challenge of integrating the various pieces behind the scenes." Design and especially production engineers can benefit by understanding how sensor data fit into the overall data infrastructure, of which NetWeaver is a part.
The strategy behind NetWeaver hinges largely on what SAP calls an enterprise service-oriented architecture (SOA). In general, an SOA is an open approach that enables IT systems to talk to one another. The SOA makes existing systems in a company's information infrastructure accessible via Web services, based on standards such as SOAP (simple object access protocol).
By using this architecture, NetWeaver makes it possible for users to take advantage of its integration tools without having to worry about the protocols that the systems or programs are built on, whether it is Java, .NET, DCOM, or C++. All interaction among the company's systems is effected through the common medium of Web services.
Integration and Development Tools
NetWeaver is actually a stack of SAP software products that are offered under a single license. Combined, they enable the integration of information and operations and deliver the functionality to model and create or modify processes.
NetWeaver is made up of stacks:
- 1. Portal and mobile infrastructure technology provides users with personalized and role-based access to information that resides in the various systems forming the company's heterogeneous infrastructure. This ensures that users have all the information necessary to perform their jobs—whether they are working in their office or moving around the plant floor. It also enables collaboration.
- 2. Master data management promotes data integrity across a company's network of systems by delivering harmonized and consistent information to all the applications used by the organization.
- 3. Business intelligence enables managers and planners to identify, integrate, and analyze data from a wide variety of systems and applications.
- 4. Business process management technology lets you model and drive processes by combining the functionality of disparate applications. In this environment, you can build composite applications by using the design tools, methodologies, services, user interface patterns, and abstraction layers of objects provided by the software stack.
- 5. NetWeaver's auto-ID middleware directly links RFID data from readers with the company's information infrastructure. This ensures near-real-time updates of the organization's overall data pool and provides enhanced visibility of important operations, such as raw material deliveries and step-by-step tracking of products through the manufacturing process.
Whether you are building a new process or adapting an existing one, NetWeaver's business process management tools let you start at a high level and visualize the business intent and flow of an operation. You can drill into individual steps to look at the role being played, or go further down to determine—or specify—which systems are invoked or queried. You can also examine the interface for a particular interaction and see which enterprise services are being used.
These tools work with reusable pieces of business logic, or building blocks, which you can adapt to modify or manipulate the process. You can also examine each step and the roles associated with it to determine the type of interface required, design an appropriate GUI-based environment, and understand the logic used to process the enterprise services.
The Main Point
Although NetWeaver takes on the more prickly problems encountered in integration, a lot of its muscle is focused on devising and implementing rapid change and operational and process evolution. Although NetWeaver does not currently make special accommodation for sensor data—as it does for information derived from RFID sources—SAP's focus on the manufacturing environment and the increasing role of the sensor make it likely that future enhancements to the software suite will include a special place for sensing technology.
Tom Kevan is a freelance writer/editor specializing in information technology and communications.