SAS Showcases Next-Generation BI Platform

Company’s SAS 9.1 boasts usability improvements

As expected, SAS announced several new products at this year’s SAS Users Group International (SUGI) conference, held last week in Seattle.

New BI products unveiled included SAS Web Report Studio, SAS Report Studio, and SAS Office Integration.

For the privately held SAS—which boasts annual revenues in excess of $1.2 billion—SAS version 9.1 could be its most significant product launch to date, as the company has recently sought to retool its stable of best-of-breed BI tools in an effort to make them more suitable for less sophisticated BI constituencies. SAS 9.1 is slated to ship by late this year.

Eleanor Taylor, manager of BI strategy with SAS, says that many of the changes to SAS’ existing tools have been inspired by feedback from the company’s customers. “The customers that we have … do amazing things with SAS, and yet we know that SAS still wasn’t something that could be used by the mainstream. There were still things that were difficult to do for average users.”

As a result, Taylor says, the SAS 9.1 suite will include new and enhanced client tools that are tailored to the needs of different kinds of BI constituencies, from users on the shop floor on up to the executive suite.

For example, SAS’ new Web Report Studio and Report Studio boast wizard-assisted report generation, while SAS Office Integration lets users leverage the most ubiquitous of client applications—Microsoft’s Office productivity suite—in tandem with SAS’ BI tools.

Furthermore, Taylor explains, SAS 9.1 builds upon the SAS Intelligence Architecture that SAS introduced slightly more than a year ago. The SAS Intelligence Architecture integrates SAS' data warehousing, BI, and analytic intelligence products in a single platform. Intelligence Architecture includes a meta data layer that can restrict user activities and provide access to SAS applications based on pre-determined roles and settings. “We can hide the data, we can put business rules in the meta data based on [a user’s] job position, we have different security levels for different users. This can all automatically be leveraged across different SAS products.”

Central to SAS’ work with 9.1 is the notion of so-called “self-service” BI tools that allow users to work with greater independence and which decrease the dependency of BI constituents upon IT. Two examples of SAS’ new emphasis on self-service BI tools are its Web Report Studio and Report Studio. Both plug into SAS's underlying Intelligence Architecture and facilitate wizard-assisted report generation. This is especially crucial in a space—namely, the market for end-user reporting tools—in which, some analysts say, SAS has been eclipsed by competitors such as Cognos and Business Objects. Notes Wayne Eckerson, director of research for The Data Warehousing Institute: “Somehow [SAS] allowed Business Objects, Cognos, and other firms to take a commanding lead in providing query and reporting tools for business users.”

As important, Taylor stresses, is the work that SAS has done to simplify its BI client tools. “As the competition and the race was going on as to who could put more things in the drop down boxes and the features boxes, they weren’t really organized as to what they were going to do. Now what’s happening is that people are getting their hands on these tools and coming up with mixed results.”

In this respect, Taylor concedes, the BI tools in SAS 9.1 replace older products that emphasized overall platform portability at the expense of client usability—possibly to the detriment of business users who needed to create custom reports or views of data. Because developers with SAS-specific programming skills most effectively exploited some of SAS' older tools, Taylor acknowledges, there was a perception among some potential customers that the company’s products could be difficult to use.

This is a charge that has largely been fomented by SAS’ competitors, suggests Mike Schiff, a principal with data warehousing consultancy MAS Strategies. “There’s a myth spread by some of the competition that SAS can only be used by actuaries or very technical people, and [SAS 9.1] should help dispel that.”

This charge also masks the reality, as Schiff and other analysts point out, that SAS enjoys immense popularity among its substantial customer base. “SAS has the most loyal customers I’ve ever seen. It has incredibly low [customer] attrition. It’s almost a cult,” he notes.

Schiff’s perception was largely borne out at this year’s SUGI conference. To a person, the SAS users with whom we spoke expressed admiration for SAS' quality and reliability, and also said that they were impressed with the responsiveness of its technical support. Attendees also gave the software points for its stability.

In the midst of near-unanimous praise for SAS, we did hear grumblings from some users about the company’s licensing policy, which got poor marks for its flexibility, largely because SAS charges customers a flat fee of 50 percent of the cost of a new license each year.

As MAS Strategies’ Schiff notes, however, there are at least two different ways to approach this issue. “Right now, people want to pay less in maintenance, but SAS could easily charge them a much higher list price. Compared to some of their competitors, their list price is low, but their maintenance costs are higher.”

Because pricing and packaging for SAS 9.1 haven’t yet been finalized, SAS’ Taylor declined to speculate how, if at all, the next version of her company’s BI suite will address these concerns. Instead, she argues, customers who adopt SAS tend overwhelmingly to stay with its products. “A lot of people don’t like having to pay the annual fees, but if they really had a problem with them, they would leave. A lot of our competitors charge three or four times [the cost of our maintenance fee] in the initial investment, and you also have to pay for upgrades to their new software.”

Although SAS 9.1 is still several months away from broad availability, analysts such as Eckerson and Schiff are bullish on the company’s prospects. “The new tools will help SAS catch up in an analytics market they should have dominated a long time ago,” Eckerson says.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.