Meet Hana, she’s SAP’s new goldmine

January 31, 2013, 3:25 PM UTC
Hasso Plattner

FORTUNE — The fastest-growing product in SAP’s 40-year history isn’t a business software application, and it wasn’t invented within the German company’s massive research and development labs at the request of its co-CEOs. Rather, HANA, a new in-memory database technology capable of speeding up complex computations, was developed by a handful of university students and spearheaded by none other than SAP’s 69-year-old co-founder and chairman, Hasso Plattner. In the early days, HANA was known as “Hasso’s New Architecture”.

A number of SAP’s (SAP) core business applications have already been rewritten to run on HANA. But Plattner, whose father was a doctor, is particularly excited about HANA’s prospects in the healthcare industry. Earlier this week, at a personalized medicine conference in Silicon Valley, he touted HANA’s abilities to quickly churn through massive amounts of medical information, like genomic data, in order to identify the best therapy for a patient. According to Plattner, SAP will launch a HANA-based healthcare platform in the “next few months.”

“Doctors are instant decision makers,” Plattner told the audience.” “And therefore the system has to be extremely fast.”

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HANA has quickly grown into a 392 million euro business for SAP, though it still comprises a relatively small percentage of the company’s total revenue. But SAP is already touting the uber-fast technology as a big success story. “You can see the acceleration,” co-CEO Bill McDermott told Fortune after the company announced its latest earnings report last week, adding that about half of HANA’s 2012 revenue came in the fourth quarter of last year. “It’s becoming a real brand, and a well-known solution. And guess what, we’re just getting started.”

SAP expects sales of HANA to reach upwards of 700 million euros in 2013. Though the technology is promising, it requires companies—including SAP—to rewrite applications for the new platform, a time-consuming task. But Plattner says all of SAP’s current and future applications will be “HANA-rized,” and that the technology will someday soon make up at least 20% of SAP’s revenue.

Of course, Larry Ellison, CEO of database leader Oracle (ORCL), has a different take on HANA’s prospects. Last year he suggested Plattner must be on drugs to think he can compete with Oracle, saying his company has been working on in-memory technology for a decade. Plattner’s response: “I never took drugs in my life,” he said in an interview with Fortune earlier this week. But SAP doesn’t have just Oracle to contend with. IBM (IBM) has already made a big push into healthcare with its Watson supercomputer, which relies on similar underlying technologies (like parallel processing) but also uses artificial intelligence to suggest diagnoses and therapies to doctors. Both technologies aim to comb through medical data much faster than a human physician can.

“The major message is we can do things faster,” says Plattner. “Faster is better.”