SAP jumps on AI-assisted coding wagon, but uses its own ABAP language

The cloud-only move may leave out devs writing for on-prem systems, which still make up the majority

SAP is the latest to bring a set of AI-assisted coding features to its cloud-based application development environments, joining a slew of vendors making similar announcements. However, developers and analysts say they're concerned the same tech is not be available for on-prem systems they are working on migrating and lifting to the cloud.

Announced at TechEd, SAP's AI-assisted coding comes in two forms. Firstly, there is SAP Build Code, an extension of the SAP Build low-code environment in its cloud-based Business Technology Platform (BTP).

Employing AI co-pilot Joule, the system is designed to help create data models, app logic and test scripts in JavaScript and Java. Meanwhile, ABAP Cloud Environment, the cloud-based development tool for the SAP-specific language is also getting GenAI-assisted coding. Both features are in preview and set to be launched next year.

ABAP Cloud Environment replaced Embedded Steampunk, a tool also known as SAP S/4HANA Cloud ABAP Environment, last year, as if cementing SAP's reputation for confusing naming conventions. SAP recently celebrated the 40th birthday of its ABAP language.

Speaking at its TechEd developer conference, Juergen Mueller, chief technology officer, said SAP Build Code offers simplified developer experience through a unified lobby in BTP.

"This makes collaboration between citizen developers and professional developers very easy. We are infusing generative AI capabilities to increase developer productivity," he said.

In addition to Build Code, SAP also spun up an SAP BTP Developers Guide and SAP Build Coach. Build Code and the SAP BTP ABAP environment can be used together to create apps and extensions in S/4HANA.

"Doing that is of course, extremely important in the context of a keen core strategy with S/4HANA," Mueller said.

SAP maintains that keeping a "clean core" for its flagship ERP system makes it easier to upgrade, whereas customization to legacy systems, including ECC, has added to their complexity, making upgrades more difficult.

Speaking at TechED, Michael Ameling, SAP chief product officer, said the AI-assisted code generation is built into ABAP development tools. "You simply enter a prompt explaining the app and you can see the artefacts being generated, which is written to other transports [a package transferring data from one SAP installation to another]."

The announcements, however, underwhelmed some professional SAP developers. "My overall feeling is SAP has thrown a lot of glitter in the air and we need to wait till it settles a bit to see anything clearly," Jelena Perfiljeva, developer expert at SAP specialist Mindset Consulting, told The Register.

Tobias Hofmann, another Germany-based software developer and consultant, said it was disappointing that the ABAP Cloud GenAI tools would not be generally available until 2024.

He also pointed out that the majority of SAP development is still to be placed on on-prem systems, so the new releases would not help them.

"Would have been nice to see how AI can help to prepare for the cloud, for example, how it could refactor the current apps, legacy apps and ensure that apps are written with cloud in mind," he said.

Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, said SAP's move into providing AI-assisted coding was "due" as it was becoming more common in development tools.

As if to underscore his point, NoSQL database MongoDB and AWS are working together to optimize Amazon CodeWhisperer, an AI code generator, to suggest code for application development and modernization on MongoDB, which is popular among developers of web-native applications. Microsoft made Copilot available for the Dynamics application suite in March.

Most vendors will be likely to include some genAI code assistance on their platform during 2024, Mueller said.

Due to the proportion of legacy SAP systems in the user-base, SAP should have focus on ABAP first, not Java Script or Java, because "most customer code has been built there," Mueller said. But SAP customers would want to focus on moving on-prem code to the cloud. "I am not sure why SAP does not apply code translators here… but this is what needs to happen," Mueller said.

Also at the TechEd conference, SAP announced a vector engine for its HANA in-memory database, to launch in the first quarter of 2024. The vendor said it would help in similarity search and content-based filtering. Vector features have become popular in mainstream databases with the rise of large language models, which represent words or sentence fragments as vector embeddings. MongoDB, Oracle, PlanetScale, Cassandra, PostgreSQL, Redis and others have announced support. More specialist databases like Pinecone and TileDB aim to enable high-performance vector search. ®

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