SAP's Embedded Steampunk little use to those on anything but the most recent system

Effort to bring the ABAP programming language to S/4HANA cloud ERP system attracts criticism


Updated SAP is launching support for its ABAP programming languages to offer developers the possibility to build more features directly into the S/4HANA Cloud version of its ERP system.

Some developers were, however, underwhelmed, saying SAP had failed to back the release with a full spectrum of APIs. They also said a lack of availability on anything but the latest release made it of limited use to many SAP customers.

Speaking at TechEd, the German vendor's developer conference last week, CTO Juergen Mueller said supporting ABAP in the cloud was "closing this last gap between on-premises and in the cloud by offering a new truly cloud-ready ABAP environment directly inside S/4HANA Cloud."

The official name is SAP S/4HANA Cloud ABAP Environment, but as it is based on an internal project which earned the moniker steampunk, most developers would probably refer to the new product as Embedded Steampunk, he said.

The developer environment is available in the public cloud for selected customers on RISE with SAP, the vendor's lift-shift-and-transform partner plan, along with the S/4HANA Cloud 2108 edition, which hit general availability in August.

Developer advocate Rich Heilman said Embedded Steampunk allows developers to build custom code in ABAP on the S/4HANA public cloud system. "I'm really in the S/4 stack here, not side by side. I can directly select data from S/4 database tables using S/4 Core Data Services views, or I can call a local S/4 API. This way, I can build tightly coupled extensions which cannot run side by side."

But there were limits to what developers could code directly onto the cloud system. "This is not the classic freestyle ABAP you know from on-prem," Heilman said.

Harald Kuck, head of ABAP Platform, set the direction for the Steampunk news in a September blog, in which he said the SAP ABAP team had been "rejuvenated."

Steampunk is the name for ABAP on SAP's Business Technology Platform, a piece of middleware that sits between applications. That is what has now been launched directly on the application system S/4HANA in the public cloud.

Steampunk is designed to provide a "dedicated stable public interface between platform and solutions on top, ensuring upgrades without hiccups." It should provide "an enterprise-ready environment for Cloud development," including a new ABAP language version and the ABAP RESTful Application Programming Model (RAP). It creates a "cloud-ready" runtime environment with BTP integration, standardised system updates and configuration, and automated operation.

With Embedded Steampunk, things would "radically change," said Kuck.

"S/4HANA Cloud and Steampunk share the same ABAP Platform code line anyway (marked blue), with Steampunk being a kind of frontrunner for innovations. So, it is just a logical next step to embed the Steampunk development model directly into the S/4HANA Cloud stack," he added.

While welcoming the launch in principle, developers pointed out that the problem lies in API support for Embedded Steampunk, and a lack of availability on SAP systems released relatively recently.

Although SAP S/4HANA Cloud ABAP Environment is available now, in a limited sense, SAP application teams have yet to publish the APIs needed to express the full functionality and give developers the opportunity to build software that connects with other SAP systems, said Sören Schlegel, development architect, J&S-Soft, a Germany-based software development and consulting firm.

"They have delivered the technology, but the application guys need to provide more information. You're able to develop an S/4HANA cloud system using Embedded Steampunk, but you need the whitelist of APIs. If you don't have that many APIs, then what can you do? It's limited in the functionality and that's a big problem," he said.

How useful Embedded Steampunk would actually be in the real world was also limited by the versions of S/4HANA it was available to run on. The technology will not be available on S/4HANA 1809, launched in 2018, for example. At just three years old, that would be considered a recent release in SAP terms.

Schlegel said even customers with migrations already in play to S/4HANA 2020, 2021 or 2022 would not get access to the latest technologies, including the RESTful Application Programming Model. Because the test cycles for SAP upgrades were so lengthy, the technical pressure to upgrade to a more recent system began as soon as the current upgrade was complete, he argued.

Tobias Hofmann, another Germany-based software developer and consultant, agreed that lack of availability for older systems would limit the practical usefulness of Embedded Steampunk.

"Steampunk is very much welcome. It's a great technology that will help developers. But as always, it is only for the latest and greatest customers out there. If you are just a couple of versions behind, you gain nothing. Embedded Steampunk is just of the S/4HANA Cloud customers on the latest release," he said.

In other news from TechEd, SAP has launched a unified low-code/no-code development environment on its Business Technology Platform. The SAP AppGyver promises to allow business users to build new applications, extend existing ones, or automate complex tasks without adding workloads to stretched IT departments, according to SAP.

Hofmann said it was a strong idea, offering the possibility of users developing and prototyping concepts before bringing in developers to test their work, saving developer time and giving users a sense of ownership of their business applications.

But here too there are limits to what SAP is offering. For example, the documentation for the API hub is at a technical level, meaning users would need to involve developers to connect their systems to other applications in any case, he said. "The user is looking at GET and POST and thinking, 'Wait a second, I just want to consume a service'."

Schlegel also pointed out that SAP's recent efforts in low-code/no-code have involved a partnership with specialist Mendix and a different SAP technology called Ruum. Now users are presented with AppGyver, users might question why they should have faith in it when there had been so much recent change, he said.

We contacted SAP to give it the opportunity to respond to specific criticisms around both AppGyver and Embedded Steampunk. ®

Updated at 13:42 on 24 November 2021 to add:

In its response to The Register, SAP said it was working on building more APIs to support embedded Steampunk.

"The corresponding content is currently being evaluated as part of the early adopter program. It will evolve over the next versions. SAP plans to allow customers and partners to request missing APIs."

The German software company said it planned to make the technology generally available for SAP S/4HANA Cloud customers as soon as the feedback from the early adopters is incorporated. "Then we plan to roll it out to SAP S/4HANA Cloud, private cloud and on-premise. The technology cannot be downported to previous versions due to kernel dependencies," it said.

Defending the low-code announcement, SAP said: "AppGyver provides a facilitated way to define API integrations. While some technical background knowledge is required, full API integration can be achieved using no-code tools. In the future integrations particularly to SAP systems will become even easier to use. Additionally, SAP AppGyver provides extensive learning material for non-coders, including tutorials on API integrations."

The vendor added: "SAP's new unified low-code/no-code strategy includes SAP AppGyver, SAP Business Application Studio, and SAP Process Automation. SAP Process Automation uses the known capabilities from SAP Workflow Management and SAP Intelligent RPA, and builds on the learnings from SAP Ruum. Mendix continues to be a trusted SAP partner. SAP strongly believes in and supports an open ecosystem that gives customers choice."

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