SAS Says Improved Usability Give It an Edge

With BI powerhouses IBM, Oracle, and SAP nipping at its heels, SAS improves usability, readies new language converter

It's been a busy spring for SAS Institute Inc., which recently unveiled version 9.2 release of its flagship business intelligence (BI) platform, picked up additional text mining and analytic technology (by acquiring Teragram), and announced an expansion of its relationship with data warehousing (DW) powerhouse Teradata Corp. (see http://esj.com/business_intelligence/article.aspx?EditorialsID=8813).

Despite a year of unprecedented consolidation in the BI market by a trio of BI giants (IBM Corp., Oracle Corp., and SAP AG), it's business as usual at SAS, the Cary, N.C.-based BI, DW, and statistical analysis player, according to Ken Hausman, the company's product marketing manager for data integration.

If anything, Hausman argues, rampant BI consolidation has only helped SAS refine its message. "There's a certain part of our sales pitch that says SAS is a stable company, we've been around for 31 years, and we've had a fairly consistent focus over those years," he comments. "With all that's happened [with consolidation], that's [a pitch that is] resonating with customers." There's also SAS' focus on R&D, Hausman stresses. The company reinvests about one-fifth of its annual revenues into additional research and development activities.

You typically don't see R&D investment of that kind with publicly-traded companies, he argues, noting that publicly held companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders that places a premium on growth (either organically or by means of acquisition) at the expense of R&D.

"We've always been an R&D-driven company that says, 'We're going to build it ourselves and that everything is going to work together.' We have this core metadata infrastructure that connects all of our technologies, and, I think, provides the real value to the higher-end solutions that sit on top of these technologies," he says.

"If you invest in a company like an Oracle, that's their strategy: they buy company after company to grow [their market share and revenues], so there's always some level of uncertainty or upheaval [these] customers [have] to process."

Nevertheless, the growth strategies of IBM, Oracle, and SAP have helped those companies quickly cobble together market leading BI and PM platforms and helped them leapfrog SAS for BI market bragging rights. Hausman concedes the point -- to a degree.

"We may be behind in some features. We don't have everything that our competitors have in terms of specific capabilities, but what we have works with everything," he says.

"I like to joke about SAS being sort of like a battleship. You don't turn [a battleship] on a dime. Unlike our competitors, we don't come out with new products every quarter. Whatever we add, that functionality -- because it's typically tied to some metadata somehow -- it affects all of the other products. we can't just add a major piece [without thoroughly testing it]."

The Usability Gap

One area in which SAS has experienced a credibility gap is in usability. Because of its background in data mining and statistical analysis, competitors have had some success pigeonholing SAS as more of a tool for pointy-headed analysts than ordinary business users.

Hausman hopes that SAS 9.2 -- with its revamped, standardized GUI -- will finally put such concerns to rest. "The new GUI is just great. It's a fantastic-looking product compared to what we had, but it also isn't too much of a departure [from the previous look and feel]," he comments. "We've added a lot of features that we've been missing. There's more GUI-based debugging, so you're not going to need to know any of the SAS code. There's more metadata reporting, metadata [is] surfaced, [and you can invoke] metadata reports from within the GUI."

"There is a whole aspect of metadata administration … the idea of surfacing metadata attributes of the jobs that you're running so that you can manage performance and improve efficiency, so it's a way of looking at [it] both graphically and tabular-ly while you're running jobs -- [for example,] how much memory are you using? How many rows are being used? How can you optimize the jobs that you're running? Stuff like that."

One of SAS' strengths -- its SAS language facility -- has also become one of its vulnerabilities, Hausman acknowledges. Competitors like to cite SAS-the-language as just one of the usability barriers customers will face in adopting SAS-the-platform. For those who understand it, however, the language provides a powerful complement to the drag-and-drop capabilities of the SAS 9.2 GUI.

"One thing we constantly get dinged on … is the whole SAS language piece. We have a foundation of the SAS programming language for our whole platform. If you are looking to get beyond the black box, say you've developed a data integration application and something's not working, or you think you can squeeze some more efficiency out of it, you're stuck. You have a drag-and-drop GUI and that's as far as you go. With SAS, you can open up a window and you can see the code beneath it: you can fix it, or you can take code that you wrote before and drop it in and use that," he explains.

SAS-the-language could soon become less of a liability, Hausman contends: SAS is currently prepping a new code-to-GUI converter that it says can perform on-the-fly translation between SAS code and the SAS 9.2 GUI interface.

"This year, you'll see the first phase of a code-to-GUI converter. This is a first-pass attempt where we're going to be converting [SAS code] to a GUI. It's a first-step in doing what for most [of our competitors] is impossible because they don't make that sort of underlying technology available to their users," he argues. "It's not going to be something that we're going to really push, or advertise, but it's something we're going to keep working on."