Why get access to a practice system? Is it useful?
This is the key question. When you sign up for a class with SAP or an authorized training provider you are generally given access to a system and a set of exercises to perform. This is useful because you have a specific framework (situation --> problem --> resolution). You are given a pretty narrow/specific set of conditions and all the information you need to solve that specific problem. If you get stuck you have an experienced teacher you can ask for clarification. This can be true for in person or on-line training if the class is set up correctly. Once you complete the class, though, you generally lose access to the system. The best case scenario is that the person asking this question (access to a test system) has finished a class and wants to run through the exercises again on their own. This can be successful in some cases but at times if the data/configuration in the non-class system is not the same as what was present in the classroom system, you may end up frustrated and unable to complete the exercises. Also, at this point, you won't have access to anyone who can help you if you get stuck, which may also result in more frustration and confusion.
I'll only cover one more use case because all other situations are worse than the one I just described. A more typical scenario is that the person asking cannot afford to attend training and thinks that all s/he needs is access to a system and s/he will be able to figure things out from there. I'll talk about this in a moment, but first, a story.
I once had a friend who, for some reason of his own, announced to all of us at work one day that he was going to quit IT and become a golf pro and go on the PGA tour. This came as a bit of a shock to all of us, since no one knew that he even played golf. Turns out, he didn't. His plan was to spend 8 hours a day at the driving range until he perfected all of his strokes (and putting at the putting range) and only then would he play his first round of golf. He fully expected to be able to join the PGA tour at that point after playing a few rounds. When asked why he had decided to take this approach, he told us that playing 18 holes of golf was too expensive and that he'd never get good enough, fast enough that way, so his plan was to focus on practicing on the practice range until he was perfect, thereby saving money. He also planned to not take any formal lessons, because how hard could it be anyway. You just hit a ball with a club. Simple physics, right?
I don't think it will come as much of a surprise to many of you that after about 6 months of practice, he reported that his plan was a failure. Not only was his swing inconsistent (and he didn't know why), he played a few rounds of golf and found out that golfing 18 holes was significantly more difficult that hitting drives and putts on the practice range. To the best of my knowledge he still works in IT.
For all those who fall into this category with SAP. I admire your desire to succeed and work for a better career. I would rather you spend the same amount of effort and money on a path that leads to eventual success than spend 6 months on the driving range and find out that you've really not learned a thing at all. I'm not affiliated with any training program. I don't have a hidden agenda. I think there is plenty of room for folks in the SAP world, especially folks who are willing to work hard and learn something new every day. As I discussed in Advice for Recent College Graduates, if you didn't attend a prestigious MBA program and get picked up straight out of your program, then your best bet is probably to follow a more tried and true path of gathering domain experience first, then slowly migrating into the SAP world.
Yeah, yeah, whatever, but I still want access to a system.
Ok. You've waited long enough. Best advice aside, here are your options for getting access to demo/trial systems. SAP has an Internet Demo and Evaluation System that is useful for these sorts of things (more information here and here). If you work at a company that already has SAP installed and you are part of the Basis team, you will be able to download SAP's IDES system. Then you'll need to acquire sufficient hardware and install it. I recommend that every company install one as a sandbox training system for employees if they don't already have a copy of their production system (with data sanitized) already available. The advantage of IDES is that most of the SAP training classes use IDES for their exercises, so if you are repeating exercises you took in class, you have a pretty good chance that they'll work. (This was true as of a few years ago. If SAP training classes have changed from using IDES, someone please let me know in the comments!)
Another option which may work well for folks wanting to be functional SAP consultants is the ERP Simulation Game. I don't know too much information other than what's in the link I've provided, so if anyone has experience with this, please leave a comment! It looks like Baton Simulations is selling the ERP Simulation Game now, but there's no information on pricing on their web site. You can sign up for a webinar to get more information at Baton Simulations.
Another option is to install a "vanilla" SAP NetWeaver Application Server ABAP. This is a generic system like you would have at the beginning of an implementation with no configuration and no data. Again, you need a server and the technical ability to install the software (which is not as easy as most think). The vanilla systems are great for practicing ABAP or JAVA. You have your own system to play with and you're not going to mess anyone else up. You can even install one of these on a laptop if you have the right OS/HW. The down side for functional folks is that the system is completely devoid of configuration and data. You will not be able to repeat exercises from a class. You can try to configure your section from scratch, but unless you have a whole team working on configuration of all the various parts of the system, you'll never end up with a functional system. Also, you'll have to hand key in all the relevant master data and transactional data. In short, for functionals, it's a nice place to visit, but not much use for learning solo.
This all sounds like a lot of work. I want it NOW!
If you don't have your own hardware and/or the ability to install the software correctly, you have a few options. SAP provides a list of authorized hosting and/or cloud service providers. You can search by region and type of service offered. These offerings appear to be targeted primarily at large enterprises so for folks looking for individual systems, these may be cost prohibitive. If anyone goes through the list and finds a company they would recommend, please leave a comment!
Fair warning: The next paragraph is not an endorsement of any web site. I have not tried any of them and for all I know they're traps to get your personal information and steal your identity. Personally, I would not use any of them because I am a Basis guy and have no problem using the above approaches. All I did for the next paragraph was a google search. Use the services at your own risk.
I honestly don't know what SAP's stance is on these IDES hosting companies, free or paid. I think that charging money for access to the IDES system is against the terms of service, but I don't know for sure. I'm pretty sure I've heard some stories about SAP going after some of these companies to get them to shut down, but I can't remember any specifics. If anyone from SAP training has official comments, please do so!
Once you have access to a system, if you're not going over old exercises, your best bet is to probably buy a book and explore the system as you read. Both SAP Press and Amazon have books that might be suitable. (Again, I'm not an affiliate or anything, this is just for the benefit of the general SAP population.) I would be very interested in specific book reviews if anyone has one they think would be particularly helpful in this regard.