The first version of SAP's HANA (High-Performance Analytic Appliance) software is now shipping and the vendor has also announced the first in a planned series of specialised applications that sit on top of the technology.

Unveiled in May at the Sapphire conference, HANA employs an in-memory computing engine, where data to be processed is held in RAM instead of being read from disks or flash storage. This gives a performance boost.

SAP intends HANA boxes to be attached to its own ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, sucking in and analysing transactional data in real time. However, HANA's "agnostic" data access functionality means any information source can be used, according to the vendor.

There is "a lot of friction and latency" in businesses today, and by the time executives get hold of data, it has gotten stale, SAP CTO Vishal Sikka said in an interview.

In addition, in many cases it is "so summary and so aggregate, that you can't dive into the details," he added. With HANA, SAP is claiming to deliver a much more effective and elastic way for users to crunch corporate information for insights.

In one sense, SAP has a head start in selling HANA to its installed base. Many are already familiar with HANA's core concept, having invested in previous SAP products, such as Business Warehouse Accelerator, that employ in-memory capabilities. But SAP must also tout the added benefits of HANA while reassuring customers that those predecessors will continue to be supported.

SAP is also hoping to capture spending its ERP customers might otherwise use on competing next-generation data-processing platforms, such as Oracle's Exadata machines.

Many an SAP ERP instance runs on top of Oracle's flagship database. Those same Oracle sales representatives are likely making the case for Exadata, which the company has called the most successful new product in its history. Earlier this year, it emerged that SAP was working with Oracle to certify Exadata.

SAP does not view Exadata as a competitor, as HANA's architecture and intended purposes are too different, Sikka maintained.

HANA will also be aligned with a series of specialised applications aimed at specific business problems. The new Strategic Workforce Planning application based on HANA was created in 70 days, according to SAP. Managers can use the software to simulate and determine what sort of staffing changes might be needed in the event of an acquisition or foray into a new line of business.

Unlike Exadata, which runs on Oracle's own hardware, HANA appliances will be built with iron from multiple vendors, including IBM and HP.

Customers have been giving SAP data sets culled from various business scenarios. SAP is then using that information to show them how HANA-driven analysis can help improve those processes.

The HANA platform includes a modeling environment that is simple enough for business users to work with, according to an SAP document. Supported client interfaces currently include Microsoft Excel and SAP's Business Objects BI (business intelligence) software. A road map for third-party BI tools support wasn't available, but SAP intends to foster such development, Sikka said.

Pricing was not available, but SAP expects the systems to be sold in "small, medium and large" sizes. Specific configurations will be left up to the hardware partner and a customer's particular business requirements, he said.