SAS Showcases Revamped BI Suite

Retooled SAS 9 suite includes integrated OLAP capabilities and a substantially retooled Web Report Studio

In the past, SAS Institute Inc. has used its SAS Users Group International (SUGI) user conference as a forum to launch new versions of its products, or—as was the case last year—to tout a significant revision of its SAS business intelligence (BI) suite. For a company with historical roots in the data mining and predictive analytics spaces, the availability of a full-blown SAS 9 suite was big news.

At this year’s SUGI, held last week in Philadelphia, the focus was once again on SAS’ BI offerings. While SUGI 2005 may not have played host to a blockbuster product introduction on par with the debut of SAS 9, it nonetheless set the stage for what SAS’ officials billed as the company’s most important product and services announcements of the year.

If SUGI 2004 was all about SAS 9, then this year’s SUGI was devoted to improving that product. At the show, SAS officials touted what they claim are more than 125 new additions and enhancements. Central to the revamped SAS 9 is new OLAP support, in the form of SAS OLAP Server and the company’s new OLAP clients—both of which ship free of charge with the core SAS BI Server.

“We’ve included within the packaging OLAP capabilities for cube creation and analytics, and we’ve included these without changing the pricing [of the SAS suite],” says Eleanor Taylor, director of BI strategy with SAS.

What’s so sexy about OLAP? More to the point, why would SAS trumpet free support for a relatively mature technology such as OLAP as one the high points of its SUGI confab?

It’s simple, Taylor says. The OLAP of today isn’t the failed dot.com-era OLAP of yesteryear. “I don’t think [OLAP] anymore [is] a market in and of itself. I think there’s a wide audience of people who want to be able to quickly view, slice it, dice, it, quickly support it,” she argues.

She points out that OLAP Phase 2.0 is different from its predecessor. The whiz-bang effect of being able to slice-and-dice large volumes of data—which arguably spurred the rapid ascendance of the OLAP market (and also contributed to its arch-competitiveness)—has since lost much of its luster. “OLAP was a very slick interface a decade ago, but we’ve kind of all been exposed to the slicing and dicing capabilities."

In OLAP Phase 2.0, Taylor argues, the killer app (so to speak) is the ability to expose OLAP capabilities to new or hitherto untapped user constituencies: “We’re the first to deliver [integrated] OLAP within the package [i.e., BI suite]. By doing so, it’s now possible for users to create cubes and view multidimensional data from within the reporting environment itself.”

The rub, of course, is that SAS isn’t exactly synonymous with reporting expertise, at least of the end-user production or operational variety. At last week’s SUGI show, however, the BI giant touted dozens of enhancements to its Web Report Studio. In fact, says Taylor, the lion’s share of the SAS 9 enhancements concern SAS’ end user reporting tool.

“Most of those enhancements are dedicated directly toward reporting. There’s some scalability and load-balancing enhancements, some user-interface enhancements we’ve made based on testing,” she says. In particular, Taylor indicates, the revamped Web Report Studio ships with a revamped UI. “These are improvements mostly around interactive design and the actual completion of tasks. It’s really easy to make a drop down box that shows every feature and function that you have in the product; it’s better to do it in the context of when it’s appropriate.”

Nevertheless, Web Report Studio doesn’t yet boast pixel-perfect capabilities—although, Taylor says, SAS is getting “closer and closer” on this front.

Elsewhere, the revamped SAS 9 also boasts new integration with the ArcGIS server from geospatial-mapping specialist ESRI. Geospatial mapping is very important in specific verticals—such as government and retail—according to Taylor, and has a role to play in the emerging market for data-visualization solutions, too.

“It allows us to overlay our ESRI capabilities with our OLAP capabilities, so you can use a map to drill down and look at things from a geographical perspective,” she explains. Unlike the bundled OLAP server, the ArcGIS engine isn’t included free of charge.

Other SAS 9 enhancements improve its usability. “With version 9, there was a huge push around SAS and making it easier, and one of the things we focused on was we certainly increased the ease of use. We have had a huge focus on that, with continuing the usability improvements, but also to make it easier to buy, and easier to manage,” she says. “The way business intelligence [solutions are] packaged is confusing and difficult. There’s a lot of overhead. So one of the things we did in Version 9 with the packaging around BI was to include all of the infrastructure and client on a per-server basis. You buy that based on a server and then have unlimited clients of all of the different components within the package.”

Industry watchers say the new features and other improvements are important deliverables for SAS. “[This] includes new functionality and aggressive packaging that should help SAS expand the breadth and depth of its decision-support presence in existing accounts while enabling it to better compete with query, reporting, and OLAP vendors,” comments Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc.

Taylor argues that in spite of its historical roots in the data mining and predictive analytics spaces, SAS is a BI vendor on par with Business Objects SA or Cognos Inc. In fact, she notes, SAS’ annual revenues are about double those of both companies. “SAS does so much that a lot of times we get lost in the mix when you’re talking about a BI-specific product. A lot of times when people talk about BI, they’re just referring to query and reporting, and a lot of times when you say query and reporting, SAS is not the first vendor that comes to mind, even though I would argue that BI entails many more capabilities than just query and reporting.”

Current Analysis Schiff thinks it’s a mistake for SAS to aggressively take the fight to Business Objects and Cognos—at this stage of the game, at least.

“SAS is going out of its way to position itself against Business Objects and Cognos, two companies that certainly deserve a place at any BI leaders’ table,” he points out. This is a mistake, Schiff argues, because while SAS and arch-competitor SPSS Inc. may be the vendors to beat in the data mining space, “it would be ironic if SAS’ efforts to associate itself with the broad market BI leaders while disparaging their technology, managed to unite two arch-rivals—Business Objects and Cognos—even temporarily, against SAS.”

Instead, Schiff counsels, SAS should focus on what it does best in the here and now. “SAS has solid query, reporting, and OLAP technology to offer and it should focus its efforts on winning initial SAS Enterprise BI Server deployments in both SAS and non-SAS shops,” he concludes. “It can then focus on expanding these deployments, perhaps at the expense of traditional BI vendors, in the future.”

About the Author

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