In recent times I’ve noticed heightened interest by SAP customers in the potential of deploying SAP NetWeaver Business Client (NWBC) to enhance the user experience for SAP end users. This is a good thing, because in my opinion NWBC (or more specifically NWBC 4.0 onwards) is one of the under appreciated gems in SAP’s usability offerings. The focus has shifted to SAP Fiori, but whilst Fiori can spearhead your usability strategy to deliver a highly attractive web user experience for smartphones, tablets, and desktops, you can simultaneously upgrade the user experience for native SAPGUI users by encapsulating SAPGUI in NWBC, and at the same time surfacing alongside it the hundreds of potential web dynpros and list views (POWLs) etc. that SAP has delivered over the past decade in various enhancement packages.
How might you position NWBC in your UI strategy? In the past a common pattern for customers was to deliver web user interfaces to casual users via the SAP Portal, and to deliver SAP GUI to professional users.
Now we see SAP making a heavy investment into SAP Fiori as the next generation user interface for end-users. However when you take into account the platform dependencies for SAP Fiori, and that SAP will likely never convert every existing function to Fiori, many on-premise customers will be waiting awhile before they see a strong Fiori footprint in their landscape. Until then any Fiori deployments may be limited to basic casual user functions such as time entry, approvals, leave requests etc. Right now, SAP customers have the opportunity to enrich the user interface for professional users using NWBC. With NWBC (desktop edition) you have the opportunities to still offer your users a purely native SAPGUI experience for SAPGUI transactions, whilst at the same time unlocking many of the out of box Web Dynpro / POWL and other scenarios that SAP has invested in delivering over the past decade but which many customers have yet to take advantage of. Here is a potential modern-day pattern for delivery of user interfaces for SAP on-premise customers …
Note that the above assumes you don’t require an SAP Portal in your landscape to deliver extended capability such as intranet, knowledge management or collaboration-style functions, federation, or consumption of non-SAP content. For many customers, that is the case because they might use for instance a Sharepoint environment for collaboration functions and simply use their SAP Portal to deliver ESS/MSS application access.
After working through a real-world NWBC implementation, here are some of the benefits I’ve noticed that can be unlocked for end-users
- UI technology unification. You can surface your native SAPGUI, Web Dynpro, UI5, BSP, and Analytics scenarios through a single user interface. I emphasize here the ability to deliver a native SAPGUI user experience with the desktop edition of NWBC. For many professional users a native SAPGUI experience is always preferred to the SAPGUI for HTML (also known as WebGUI) user experience. SAP Fiori launchpad offers the ability to launch SAPGUI for HTML, but in my opinion professional back-office users will still want a native SAPGUI experience where possible. NWBC (desktop edition) provides that.
- UI enrichment via side panels. The side panel in NWBC (desktop edition) allows you to unlock additional SAP-provided content, as well as to deliver some of your own value-added additions such as context sensitive help. You may well already be licensed to consume that additional content (of course check with your SAP account executive), so why not actually make use of it?
- High speed menu traversal and discovery. Once your NWBC menus are propagated to your client (desktop) for the desktop edition, menu navigation and local menu search can be extremely fast. This is because traversing your menu is client-side, as opposed to traversing the menu in a SAP Portal or SAPGUI which depends upon round-trips to the server. And once downloaded your menus are cached on your desktop (there is an elegant process by which NWBC detects whether the menus need to be refreshed, which I will not go into here). The benefits of this are not to be underestimated. I once worked at a site years ago where the customer deployed and maintained half a dozen portals around the world just so that the portal navigation response time to end users was marginally faster. With NWBC (desktop edition) the architecture is such that it is like having a high performance menu server running locally on your computer. Because of this, it also supports a high-speed type-ahead (Google-like) search mechanism when searching for items in your menu by description or even transaction code.
- Role-based access. NWBC offers the ability for users to be delivered role-based menus (similar to SAP Portal). This means users should only see what they need to see based on their role in the organisation. It can dramatically cut down the number of menu options that they need to traverse and thereby improve usability. And it also means users shouldn’t see the dreaded ‘no authorisation to execute this transaction’ error. Compare this with the classic approach in SAP GUI of delivering the colossal SAP menu hierarchy and leaving it to end users to find the right functions, even when they have no authorisation to execute the majority of them.
- Landscape rationalisation. If you currently utilise SAP Portal only as an ‘applications’ portal for SAP scenarios such as ESS/MSS (ie. you don’t make any real use of collaboration and knowledge management functions), then you may have an opportunity to decommission your portal and surface the equivalent functions using NWBC (HTML edition). Note that NWBC server-side technology is embedded in your ABAP server (eg. ECC System) … you don’t need a separate server. Even better, if you currently utilise another portal technology such as Sharepoint for your intranet and collaboration functions, SAP offers you the ability to embed NWBC (HTML edition) scenarios into that 3rd party portal technology. Note however that you may still require a Java stack to run services such as Adobe Document Services.
- Skills rationalisation. At the same time that you may be able to decommission (or avoid implementing) an SAP Portal, you similarly won’t need specialist consulting expertise in this area. Building menu structures in SAP Portal is a specialized skillset (I know because I did that for some years), whereas building menu structures in NWBC simply requires knowledge of the transaction code PFCG and is a much simpler process.
- Old school navigation support. So you have some users who have been using your system for years, who couldn’t be bothered with hand-crafted navigation menus for themselves, who can remember the 100 transaction codes that they typically use, and just prefer to use the old techniques to launch SAPGUI transactions (ie. /n, /o etc)? Well, they still work in NWBC if you want them to.
That said, implementing NWBC is not without its challenges. Here are some of them …
- Inertia. Some consultants still seem to be more comfortable implementing yesterday’s SAP, not tomorrow’s SAP. They can tend to be more comfortable with what they know, which is SAP GUI and SAP Portal. In my opinion, this is why there are still new customers implementing just SAP GUI / SAP Portal. I have seen for instance a SAP portal consultant recommend implementing SAP Portal over NWBC, simply because that is all they were familiar with (in fact they were unaware you could surface ESS/MSS in NWBC).
- Authentication. NWBC authentication begins with an ICM (installed with an ABAP web application server) interaction. Whatever mechanism you can use to authenticate into your ABAP system via web channels, you can use for NWBC. This can include for instance standard basic authentication (using username and password), SAP login cookie authentication (using a ticket issuer, such as a SAP Java server), SAML authentication, and x.509 client certificate-based authentication. Additionally, if you are consuming user interfaces from multiple backend SAP systems into NWBC, you will need to designate one as your hub (typically ECC) and establish trust relationships with the others. Setting up authentication for NWBC can be easy, or difficult, depending upon whether your team has leveraged the available authentication approaches in the past.
- Menu construction. Constructing the information architecture (menu hierarchy) for your end users can be time consuming. And bear in mind that if you want to unlock the benefits of role-based menus, you will need to construct different menu structures for however many different roles you wish to support in your organisation. An example role might be ‘Accounts Payable officer’. This needs to be a focussed piece of work and can benefit from some user experience analysis to structure menus in the manner that your users might wish to see them. Note that SAP offers the ability for menus to be ‘merged’ (eg. ESS menu + Accounts Payable officer menu) when delivered to an end-user, allowing you the ability to componetize your menu definitions into sub-menus.
- Desktop deployment. Deploying the desktop edition of NWBC obviously entails an installation on your user’s machines. This is however not unlike SAPGUI. And for those concerned that NWBC (desktop edition) is a separate installation from SAP GUI, the upcoming next major release of NWBC (hopefully by end 2014) will offer a unified installation package of NWBC with SAPGUI built-in. It should be noted that the desktop edition of NWBC offers real performance benefits when compared with the HTML edition of NWBC, including a native SAPGUI experience.
It is important to note that NWBC does not solve all your usability concerns …
- Unlike SAP Fiori, NWBC does not provide real support for use through different channels such as mobiles. That’s why I see the future of NWBC in the professional user space on the desktop, for those users still needing to access native SAPGUI transactions.
- NWBC does not solve any usability issues with what you see within the underlying applications that it surfaces (apart from the ability to enrich the information available via side panels, and providing theme alignment using the Corbu theme). It does not for instance re-model the layout of your SAPGUI transaction. That’s when you might need to overlay other solutions such as SAP Personas.
So, if you are seeking to uplift the user experience for your SAP end users, consider the benefits of NWBC alongside Fiori.
Co-Founder Blue T
John specialises in SAP user interface technologies, mobile enablement, and web development technologies. He is the author of SAP-related native iOS and Android apps, a regular blogger, speaker at conferences such as Mastering Enterprise Mobility, and he is an SAP Mentor alumnus. Before co-founding Blue T, John previously worked in both consulting and solution architecture roles for companies such as SAP, Ariba and Accenture.