What Sybase customers should expect from SAP

Users and analysts discuss the possible scenarios

Sybase users and partners are wondering how the company's technologies will fare under the pending ownership of SAP, but some of the answers are easier to come by than others.

SAP announced the US$5.8 billion deal on Wednesday. Once the deal is complete, SAP plans to set up Sybase as a separately branded unit, as it did after purchasing BI (business intelligence) vendor Business Objects in 2008. Just like with that acquisition, customers will want to see SAP quickly announce future plans for the two companies' products, of which there is limited overlap, said Forrester Research analyst Paul Hamerman.

In a statement Wednesday, SAP said it will "continue to support" both road maps while also enhancing the products. More specifics could be on the way soon, according to Hamerman.

SAP "did a very good job in clarifying the road maps fairly quickly" after buying Business Objects, although company officials had worked on them prior to the deal's close, Hamerman said. Still, "I think you'll see something here with Sybase [within several months]."

The vendor is buying Sybase for its mobile technology platform and database technologies, and will also inherit Sybase's PowerBuilder application development tools. Interesting questions are hovering over PowerBuilder, given Sybase's work to support Microsoft .NET application development.

"PowerBuilder has been a cash cow for a while," said Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammond. "I don't see that this strategy will change, at least immediately." The question is whether it will continue to make sense for SAP to remain in the discrete market for .NET development tools, Hammond said.

It would be preferable if SAP doesn't spin off products like PowerBuilder, said Don Clayton, president of Intertech Consulting in Houston, a heavy user of Sybase technologies.

"There's a heck of a lot of PowerBuilder code that's mission-critical out there for a lot of companies. I know it's a good technology," Clayton said. However, "bottom line, I'm cautiously optimistic" about the merger, he added.

Another user expressed similar sentiments.

"My main hope is that SAP allows Sybase to continue with what they are doing. My main concern is that people will jump to conclusions with regards to PowerBuilder's future before they wait for official announcements," said Brad Wery, creator of a PowerBuilder-focused Web site and president of WerySoft, which makes a database development tool. "It's the same with any merger, we now have an environment of uncertainty and speculation."

Meanwhile, there seems to be no chance that SAP will starve out or divest Sybase's mobile technologies, given how heavily the company's acquisition announcement focused on mobile.

The number of inquiries Hammond has received from Forrester clients seeking advice on mobile development has "just exploded" in the past couple of quarters, he said. "[Mobile] is one of the hottest areas for future growth."

The outlook is less clear with regard to Sybase's database products, said Curt Monash of Monash Research.

It's likely that SAP will eventually de-emphasize its own MaxDB, which is used by many customers to support SAP applications, in favor of Sybase's Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE), Monash said. "That would be an incentive for further [SAP] investment in ASE."

Meanwhile, Business Objects currently partners with rivals to Sybase's IQ columnar database. "It should be possible for IQ to remain independent, in co-opetition with everybody else, but there's some risk that [it] will get swept up in SAP's grander strategies," Monash said.

SAP could also be overreaching in its embrace of in-memory database technology, which it will gain more of from Sybase, Monash said. "Building [databases] is hard, and it's very easy to think that a niche database technology is more broadly applicable than it really is. SAP is showing signs of having made that error. If they impose that error on Sybase, that would be unfortunate."

One user took a measured view of what may come.

"Those of us interested in continuing our Sybase database careers are anticipating the indication that SAP is interested in allowing the existing Sybase database strategy not just to continue, but flourish, and grow," said Kevin Sherlock, a database administrator and member of the Team Sybase user organization, via e-mail. "Hopefully some of that comes with integration into the SAP core suite, and a sharing of SAP's in-memory technology within the two engineering groups."

It's unlikely, though, that SAP will out-and-out jettison many Sybase products, according to analyst Ray Wang, partner with Altimeter Group.

"There's really no reason for a software vendor to kill a product unless there's not enough people [paying for] maintenance," Wang said. "That's not the case with the Sybase stuff."

However, Sybase customers should brace themselves for potentially higher license fees, as SAP hiked prices for Business Objects products and discounted less, Wang said.

But SAP inherits Sybase's challenges as well as a set of potentially lucrative products.

Sybase has "a failed strategy" for educating users about its technology, said one long-time user, who asked for anonymity. "The main reason people move off Sybase products today is because they can't find the people."

There could be logistical bumps in the road as well after the merger is completed, evidenced by the temporary but disruptive troubles SAP experienced when migrating Business Objects customers to its own support systems.

One of those users wasn't pleased by SAP's announcement.

"Between Business Objects buying Crystal, then SAP buying [Business Objects] we've had quite a few years of upheaval. I was looking forward to getting some products that actually work well together, and they go and buy another company," a poster wrote on the unofficial Business Objects Board. "I guess we'll see how it turns out."

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