How automation improves SAP customers’ IT operations

‘This transformation was necessary: we need more speed and less work’

Sponsored Most business leaders at companies that use SAP understand that the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system plays a crucial role in supporting day-to-day operations. But few of them have any idea of the substantial behind-the-scenes effort it takes to keep that system up and running.

If they did, they’d probably be dismayed, or downright shocked, says John Appleby, CEO of AIOps tool company Avantra. At the same time, they might also receive a valuable wake-up call as to why their organisations consistently struggle to meet innovation goals and achieve their digital transformation ambitions, he adds.

“Today’s SAP systems are complex and require specific skill sets to maintain, which are difficult and expensive to acquire, and many hours of work spent on routine tasks - all just to keep the lights on and to put fires out,” he says. “What we see here is a whole industry, involving hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, dedicated to work that adds no new business value.”

To get a clearer view on this situation, Avantra recently conducted a poll of SAP users in partnership with ASUG, the Americas’ SAP Users’ Group. It finds that two out of three (66%) organisations spend their time executing current strategies, rather than innovating new ones. In fact, they’re spending about twice as much time on the former, leaving little time for the latter.

When asked to list top challenges associated with SAP operations, respondents pointed to lack of resources (52%), high costs (45%), lack of consistency (35%) and human error (32%).

An automation opportunity

The good news, says Appleby, is that automating routine maintenance tasks can provide a clear pathway for innovation, making transformations possible to achieve with fewer resources and no disruption to day-to-day work.

SAP systems, he points out, churn out stacks of reports, metrics and alerts on a daily basis, but many of the required responses and fixes can easily be handled by machine. Automation, he points out, is faster, more cost-effective and more accurate than human intervention. After all, when faced with a mountain of tasks requiring manual effort, it’s not uncommon for IT staff to miss a few along the way.

“Plus, the bulk of the monitoring effort is spent verifying that processes are working properly, rather than addressing genuine pain points and incidents,” says Appleby. “Nobody really wants to do this work. It’s tedious and it’s a waste of human capital, because it prevents skilled SAP administrators from getting involved in more valuable work that really contributes to new business initiatives. At a time when digital transformation is increasingly seen as crucial to future competitiveness, it’s entirely unacceptable that people are carrying out mundane, repetitive tasks that could easily be automated instead.”

With this in mind, Avantra is a cloud-based system that provides real-time monitoring and automated daily checks for SAP installations. Once installed, the Avantra agent automatically identifies the various SAP system elements and versions in place and then applies the appropriate monitoring and alerts to them, according to the specific operating system, database and SAP components involved. When new SAP systems come online, it identifies their components, too, adding them in to the overall solution.

Changes to SAP system configurations, profiles and parameters can be tracked and escalated via notification, which offers an extra layer of security. They can also be used during an audit to demonstrate proper change control tracking. Automated reporting shows service and performance level metrics, which can be viewed on smartphones and tablets, as well as laptops and desktops.

Monitoring aside, Avantra’s workflow automation engine also enables IT administration staff to script and automate interactions with SAP components: for example, stopping and restarting them during maintenance windows, running operating system-level commands, interacting with databases, or pausing systems until a check comes back with a specific result.

Getting started

When new customers install and switch on Avantra for the first time, says Appleby, “the dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree.” That’s a real eye-opener for the customer, he says. “They suddenly have a very impactful way to see all the issues they’re facing, but also a means to apply automation to getting them tackled. It’s not like those issues weren’t there already - but now they can see them, as well as those issues they might have been missing, and get on track with delivering fast and effective fixes.”

From there, it’s a question of thinking about their priorities. “A great place to start with automation is maintenance windows,” he says. “That’s a really quick win for most customers - because when you’ve got to decide what you can fit into, say, a two-hour maintenance window, there’s a lot of pressure.”

Typically, multiple teams performing numerous hand-offs between each other will be required just to get the ball rolling: logging out users and shutting down the system, along with its various operating systems, databases, VMware hypervisors and so on. “But Avantra can do all that automatically in about 15 seconds, so there’s a lot more time left in your maintenance window. And on top of that, most maintenance tasks - if not all - can be performed automatically by Avantra and accurately recorded for auditing purposes during that window. It’s a quick fix for a major organisational headache,” he says.

A popular second step for new Avantra customers is integrating the toolset with their IT service management (ITSM) workflows, typically orchestrated via the ServiceNow platform. The combination of Avantra’s automation capabilities with the governance provided by ServiceNow enables them to more closely monitor and manage their SAP environments, based on business needs, budgets, system performance and available maintenance windows.

Finally, using a tool like Avantra can be a big help to organisations that have previously struggled to make the case for upgrading their SAP system, typically to SAP S/4. “We would never presume to tell companies what SAP version they should run or judge their decision. We’re quite deliberate about that, because it’s not our place, and we know we can bring new benefits and add value regardless of version,” he says. “But having said that, automating IT tasks that currently consume significant time and effort means an organisation has new resources at its disposal when it’s time to take that step.”

More resources for innovation

Regardless of how customers choose to get started with Avantra, he says, they quickly find that time and money is freed up for digital transformation work. “Even small steps to improve IT operations by implementing automation help them lay the groundwork for innovation. And they tend to find that innovation quickly gains momentum when resources are freed up to focus on it without distraction.”

The ASUG survey bears this out. Organisations with an automation strategy in place, it finds, are less likely to experience ITOps challenges. For example, high costs are a challenge for 67% of organisations that have no automation strategy, but for just 34% of those that do.

As one respondent at an organisation that has embraced automation for its SAP environment puts it: “This transformation was necessary: we need more speed and less work for our team.”

By “less work”, of course, they mean less routine work, but more work, hopefully, that drives the business forwards. Says Appleby: “In my conversations with SAP customers, they tell me that they’re generally satisfied that they’re doing the work they need to do in order to survive - but at the same time, they’re painfully aware this won’t be enough in the long run, in terms of staying competitive. Now is the time to do the work needed to thrive, and Avantra provides them with a way to achieve that.”

Sponsored by Avantra.

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