SAS9—Better Late Than Never

SAS makes its formal debut as an end-to-end BI player

Last week, SAS Institute Inc. unveiled SAS9, an end-to-end BI suite that it positions against similar offerings from competitors Business Objects SA and Cognos Inc.

In a Webcast that accompanied the new suite’s launch, SAS officials offered several variations on a common theme: SAS9 is the company’s most important product release ever. SAS president and CEO Dr. Jim Goodnight, for example, said that SAS9 is “the most significant software release in our 28-year history.” Elsewhere, Art Cooke, president of SAS International, described SAS9 as “our future. It’s the most important release SAS has ever had.”

There’s good reason for that. With SAS9, the company—long a powerhouse in the data mining and predictive analytics spaces—is projecting its considerable heft (including $1.3 billion in annual revenue) into the enterprise BI space, currently populated by Business Objects, Cognos, and other long-established players.

Then there’s the issue of tardiness: SAS9—or “Project Mercury” as it was first dubbed—arrives somewhat later than expected. After all, Cary, N.C.-based SAS first began previewing some of the SAS9 technologies more than two years ago. In April of 2002, for example, SAS officially announced the SAS9 base architecture—otherwise known as SAS 9.0—and promised availability by Q3 of that year. Then, at last year’s SAS Users Group International conference, held in April, SAS officials said that several SAS 9.1 products would ship later that same year, starting with a phased release in August (see http://www.tdwi.org/research/display.asp?id=6630&t=y). Over the same period, of course, BI stalwarts Business Objects and Cognos fleshed out their own strong all-in-one BI suites with respected enterprise reporting components.

Now, with its own end-to-end offering, SAS is taking dead aim at both Business Objects and Cognos. The new release buttresses SAS’ bread-and-butter data mining and predictive analytics tools—now packaged as SAS Analytic Intelligence, and including both Text Miner and its prerequisite, Enterprise Miner—with a new SAS Intelligence Platform. (SAS will continue to market SAS Analytic Intelligence as a separate offering from SAS9.)

SAS’ Goodnight says that SAS Intelligence “provides an optimized platform for business and analytical intelligence.” It represents the evolution of the SAS Intelligence Architecture—first announced by SAS in February of 2002—which integrated SAS' data warehousing, BI, and analytic intelligence products in a single platform, and which also included a metadata layer.

To that end, the SAS Intelligence Platform consists of a data warehouse, SAS Enterprise ETL Server (which includes data quality features), SAS ETL (a lightweight version that lacks data quality capabilities), SAS Intelligent Storage (which supports a variety of different logical structures, including SAS’ multidimensional database), SAS Enterprise BI Server, and SAS BI Server (a lightweight version of the Enterprise product). SAS9 also includes SAS’ Information Delivery Portal, which will continue to be available in a separate package.

As promised, SAS says its combined data mining and BI stack can be managed by its SAS Management Console. Similarly, SAS Metadata Server provides a foundation for metadata sharing among all SAS products, along with third-party software offerings.

SAS has also outfitted its Enterprise Miner and Text Miner tools with new Java interfaces designed for ease of use, officials say. Elsewhere in the ease-of-use department, SAS9 includes Web Report Studio, which facilitates wizard-assisted report generation.

At the same time, SAS disclosed plans to port at least seven of its analytic applications to the SAS9 platform. For example, the company says it will port SAS Marketing Automation by Q2 2004, while six other applications—including Strategic Performance Management, Financial Management Solutions, Supplier Relationship Management, Activity-Based Management, Risk Management, and IT Management Solutions—should be ported later this year.

Not surprisingly, SAS officials argued that end-to-end BI players Business Objects and Cognos aren’t giving customers the big picture. “Our competitors are calling themselves leaders in the business intelligence space, but their software only helps companies see the past, and past performance has never been an accurate indicator of future needs,” Goodnight claimed.

SAS also took up another theme that’s popular with many of its competitors: The idea of bringing BI to the masses. During the SAS9 Webcast, senior vice-president Jim Davis touted the new suite’s “ability to put the power of SAS in the hands of every decision-maker, through consistent innovation provided by new web-based query and reporting tools,” which SAS expects should reach 80 percent of employees. Davis also sought to differentiate the quality of intelligence provided by SAS’ offerings from the capabilities of ERP systems marketed by Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, or Siebel. “While these vendors do a good job at providing systems that manage individual transactions throughout an organization, they do little if anything to deliver the intelligence necessary to support strategic decision-making,” he claimed.

SAS says that it’s now shipping its ETL, data mining, and Intelligence Storage SAS9 packages, while the SAS9 BI and Information Delivery Portal packages should be available in mid-April.

A Different Approach

Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc., says that SAS is approaching end-to-end BI from a different end of the spectrum than its competitors. “There is no question of SAS data mining capabilities; while many other BI vendors have made occasional forays into the data mining space only to then retreat, SAS is moving down from the stratosphere to expand into other technologies including query and reporting,” he points out, speculating that SAS’ presence could cause many BI vendors to revisit their own data mining strategies: “This may serve as a catalyst for BI tools vendors to augment their data mining capabilities, perhaps with partnerships with SAS data mining competitors, in order to demonstrate that they too have this capability.”

SAS will leverage this expertise to “upsell” SAS9 into existing accounts, predicts Wayne Eckerson, director of The Data Warehousing Institute, who notes that although SAS9 has a “cleaner architecture” than competitors Business Objects and Cognos, it’s nevertheless a 1.0 product, and ships nearly a decade after both vendors started grabbing BI market share. “[T]he key for them is to upsell their huge installed base of SAS customers. It will be easier for them to disseminate their BI tools via their new business-oriented application packages than through their traditional channel of SAS 4GL programmers and analysts.”

Although SAS9 is a for the most part complete offering, Eckerson says that some work still needs to be done, at least with respect to pixel-perfect production reporting, which SAS doesn’t yet support. “Ten years ago, SAS Institute leapfrogged over IT and began selling solutions to the business, and now they're backfilling with SAS9 to deliver infrastructure that is architecturally acceptable to the IT group,” he observes.

About the Author

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