SAS Reduces Complexity, Improves Usability of ETL Tool

Company plans to be more aggressive in getting its ease-of-use message to users

Who’s the number two ETL vendor in the business? According to Forrester Research, it’s business intelligence (BI) giant SAS Institute Inc., a company better known for its data-mining and analytic prowess than for the strength of its ETL solution.

The surprise announcement of a new version of its Enterprise ETL Server signals a more aggressive marketing stance from SAS, which veteran industry-watcher Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with Current Analysis Inc., has in the past termed “The Gentle Giant” of BI.

“We haven’t done a really good job marketing. We haven’t done a lot of this type of press release that says, ‘Hey, we do that!'” agrees Bill Prentice, a technology strategist with SAS. “SAS has traditionally been a research-driven company. We’ve really only had an in-house marketing group for the global company for the last four years or so, so this is part of the maturity of our marketing efforts.”

Prentice, for example, notes that SAS has been reaching into esoteric data sources for decades, thanks to the pervasiveness of its data-mining (and, more recently) analytic solutions in research environments and specific vertical industries: “The underlying power of SAS is the ability to connect to a number of databases and the ability to read and write data in many, many formats.”

SAS, like ETL competitors Ascential Software Corp. and Informatica Corp., argues that ETL development is still more involved than it has to be. And—like Ascential and Informatica—SAS says its revamped Enterprise ETL offering helps reduce the complexity associated with ETL development by making it easier, via wizard-driven interfaces and other ease-of-use enhancements, to access external data sources without writing custom code.

“What this release does is expands the breadth of the automation of those transformations to get to data in many formats and to bring it into the ETL process and also to write it back out,” he explains. “So we’ve built wizards and we’ll continue to expand the number of wizards that makes that a very easy-to-use, point-and-click process.”

It’s in this respect, claims Prentice, that SAS’ more-recognizable ETL competitors come up short. “We’re trying to eliminate the need for manual coding to get to those external data sets, and a lot of our competitors, particularly on things that aren’t an Oracle or an SAP or a Siebel [data source], still require a substantial amount of [manual coding],” he argues.

This includes facilitating painless access to data sources in the course of ongoing maintenance, too, says Prentice. “Not only can you use the wizards to create the initial mapping and connectivity to the database, but as you go back to maintain it, that wizard again is used to do the updates."

Similarly, Enterprise ETL has long featured integration with messaging queuing technologies—such as IBM’s WebSphere MQ, Microsoft’s Message Queuing Server, and TIBCO’s TIB/Rendezvous. Here again, Prentice says, the revamped release emphasizes ease-of-use enhancements: “We’ve always had connectivity to those interfaces in our past iterations, but, again, we’re making that less labor intensive, more easily maintained—a point-and-click environment.”

Most ETL products provide data lineage and impact analysis capabilities, Prentice acknowledges, and the revamped Enterprise ETL product maintains a full history of changes made during a project's life cycle, which lets organizations reconcile ongoing projects with other sources of information. One upshot, officials say, is that organizations can be more confident that the information derived from their ETL processes is correct. In the age of government regulations, that’s a powerful comfort. “This is a really important feature, particularly in light of Sarbanes-Oxley and the need to understand where your data has gone and what changes it’s gone through,” he argues.

Going forward, it looks like SAS plans to shrug off the trappings of The Gentle Giant and opt for a somewhat different approach—perhaps that of The Mercurial Giant. Prentice says the company plans to more aggressively market its ETL solutions against its more recognizable competitors, for starters.

“You’ll be seeing some additional press releases coming out in things like performance and other unique differentiators in the next few months,” he says. “We’re very proud of the ETL products that we have, and I think we’re very positioned to go after this market.”

Related Articles:

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About the Author

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