What is SAP HANA?

Find out everything you need to know about SAP HANA

SAP Innovation Center

SAP HANA is an in-memory database platform that allows data to be analysed at high speed by processing information stored in RAM memory, rather than having to access it from a hard disk or SSD. This enables other programs to work with vast quantities of data much more rapidly than they would otherwise be able to.

As the name would suggest, SAP HANA was created by German software giant SAP and is still a proprietary product. However, many of the large enterprise hardware vendors, such as HPE, IBM and Dell Technologies, have products and services that are optimised for the software.

How does SAP HANA work?

SAP HANA, at its core, is a relational database management system. While that may sound rather boring and straight forward, if you want to carry out advanced data analytics at speed there's a lot more to get excited about under the bonnet.

HANA is built on another piece of SAP software, SAP In-Memory Database. This is a massively parallel processing data store that brings together column-based, row-based and object-based data storage methods. This foundation means that HANA can rapidly access and analyse data from most structured databases, as well as applications and systems, without any intervention or need for additional products to translate the information into a form that the software can read.

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Depending on the source of the data, it can use three different types of data replication: Sybase (also known as Log-based); extract, transform, load (ETL)-based; and trigger-based. This replicated data is then stored in-memory (i.e. in RAM) so the applications connected to HANA can access it rapidly in real time.

What is SAP HANA used for?

SAP HANA is used for Big Data processing and analytics. Its function is to make the information stored in different databases and in different forms readily available to other applications.

While this may sound dry, it opens up a world of possibilities for new, disruptive businesses to emerge.

For example, French insurance firm Meteo Protect uses SAP HANA to generate weather insurance quotes for farmers based on the latest climate and weather data. The CEO, Gabriel Gross, credits HANA with enabling the company to go from being a startup pursuing a new form of "parametric insurance", to trading on Lloyd's of London insurance and reinsurance marketplace just seven years later.

It also opens up the possibility of optimising existing processes, like monitoring and optimising telecoms networks or energy usage.

When is comes to the kinds of applications that access SAP HANA in order to perform analytics, one of the most common is the confusingly named SAP S/4HANA. This is SAP's enterprise resource planning and business intelligence suite, which is available both on-premise and in the cloud, and incorporates technologies like AI and machine learning.

SAP S/4HANA can, for example, provide real-time product availability to customers placing orders, help create more effective and efficient supply-chain management, and use predictive analytics to identify and mitigate possible delays in delivery.

What are the benefits of SAP HANA?

Did we mention that SAP HANA is fast? Because it really is, and this is its primary benefit. There are myriad other Big Data analytics services that can draw information from various sources, both structured and unstructured, and divine insights that can improve the way an organisation runs. But in the main, they can't do it in real time and at scale in the way that HANA does.

The platform is also updated with new features regularly every quarter for the cloud-based version and once a year for on-premise which most recently has included enhancements like AI and ML.

What are the drawbacks of SAP HANA?

In-memory computing comes at a cost. Not only do you have to pay for the software itself, but particularly if you are running SAP HANA on-premise or in a hybrid environment, you have to shell out for the hardware and RAM is significantly more expensive than other forms of memory, meaning the cost per bit is higher with SAP than most other database platforms.

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Another potential on-premise problem is that HANA must be run on SAP or SUSE Linux-certified hardware, which could prove extremely costly if you need to buy everything in.

Ultimately, SAP HANA won't be useful for everyone. If you're an SMB that produces a minimal amount of data, there's no real point in investing in the software. Similarly, if your data is largely or completely unstructured (which is to say documents, emails and other information that can't be stored in database format), then there's no real point in investing in SAP HANA, either.

However, if you have the right use case for rapid analytics and you have the budget for it SAP HANA may well be worth a look.

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