SAS launches new BI software platform

CARY, N.C. – SAS Institute Inc., the quiet business intelligence giant based in Cary, N.C, on Tuesday released its latest software upgrade — SAS 9. Billed as the “most significant release in its 28-year history,” the newest incarnation of SAS business intelligence software is less a version upgrade than a wholesale overhaul.

SAS 9 sits on an entirely new platform, called the SAS Intelligence Platform, where the seven reworked software solutions sit. These will be released in stages throughout the year beginning with marketing automation. The others are risk dimensions, strategic performance management, financial management solutions, supplier relationship management, activity-based management and IT management solutions.

“Intelligence is the most strategic asset that businesses have,” said James Goodnight, co-founder and CEO of SAS at the launch. He said the newly designed interfaces make the technology accessible to anyone in the enterprise, not just the power user.

With the release, SAS is responding to an often-heard criticism that its software, though deemed to be some of the most powerful in the industry, was difficult to use. It was often said that SAS was the business intelligence software of the “rocket scientist.”

In fact, Tim Sanders, chief solutions officer with Yahoo Inc. said the days are over when only “rocket scientists” could use SAS. “It has got such dramatic usability,” he said. He was visibly thrilled that he was going to be able to learn how to use SAS 9 himself and no longer have to rely on techies to get him the data he needs.

For a company like Yahoo, the ability to gather extremely detailed Web-traffic intelligence is a market differentiator. Since search activity closely approximates real market activity, Sanders said, companies like Pepsi and the Gap are interested in geographic-specific search patterns (Yahoo gets about a billion searches a day) to see how well advertising campaigns are doing. If Yahoo can’t get the data, it has nothing to sell.

Guy Creese, an Aberdeen Group research director, agreed that a more intuitive user interface was needed and that by making its technology easier to access it can now offer customers a one-stop-shop for business intelligence. SAS 9 has a Microsoft add-in which allows users to access SAS analytics from Office applications. “That has been a conscious decision in the design of this,” said Jim Davis, SAS’s chief marketing officer.

Though the increased usability is the most notable change, it is not the most dramatic. SAS 9 was designed with corporate data continuity in mind. Goodnight referred to it as a “unified technology platform” where companies will have a single version of the “truth.” The idea is for all corporate data to flow into servers running the Intelligence Platform. From here, individual solutions, say marketing automation, can run advanced queries. Regardless who is running what, everyone will be using the same data. Creese agreed that this single version of the data is important since “the days of silos…are quickly fading.”

Davis said other vendors like Oracle Corp, PeopleSoft Inc. and SAP AG are good at the operational data level but have little to “support strategic decision making.”

Another change with SAS 9 is the speed at which it runs. Goodnight said SAS software was always fast but with the latest release combined with multiprocessor machines and multi-threading capability (the latter in the future) it will be “unbelievably fast.”

The speed impressed Tony LoFrumento, executive director of business intelligence and CRM with Morgan Stanley. “Getting the right answers faster is the ultimate competitive advantage,” he said. In the banking industry, being able to predict ahead of time what valued customers will want and need is necessary to make sure they stay customers for life.

In order for SAS to design the new platform, it had to pretty much start from scratch. It was a “long time in development,” Goodnight said. There are over 3.5 million lines of Java code, which even he admitted in a subsequent interview was buggy and delayed the release until all the bugs were out.

For a company as tightly knit as SAS this release took an obvious toll on its staff, most of whom appeared pretty exhausted. But when Goodnight poured the champagne and all the workers got their glasses, the smiles came. Even the generally reserved Goodnight seemed relieved. “I’m always so careful with these things,” he said as he popped the final cork. “Oh, to hell with it, today I’m going let the damn thing fly.” And he did.

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