SAS has been around for a long time and you have to admit it has been a very successful company announcing USD $2.8 billion in revenue lately, while remaining privately owned and focussed on delivering Analytics and related Business Intelligence software.

But it’s never been a company I would call Innovative.  Then again it hasn’t needed to be.

What it has been good at is keeping up with change.  It moved from terminals, to client-server, to n-tier web technology when the time was right and in the right time.

Some would say SAS was a little late on the tablet deployment front, but then apart from MicroStrategy who in the BI space wasn’t and SAS along with most of the vendors partnered with RoamBI to fill the gap.  SAS have started releasing their native tablet interfaces, one of which is part of SAS Visual Analytics which we will get to later.

And in hindsight Mobile BI is still on the left of the adoption curve so it hasn’t been a biggie.

So we come to the world that is Big Data (that’s called a segway ;-). Segways are so last version now by the way, Segway style UniCycle are the new Big.

SAS have had a play in the land of big data for a while, from its In-Database offering with Teradata and its High Performance Analytics (HPA) re-plumb of the old SAS Proc’s.  But a lot of the feedback Im reading say that neither of these have really sparked into masses of customers.

Some interesting comments on this here.

So last year SAS released a new product called SAS Visual Analytics.

When it first came out I thought it was just another pretty front end, designed to take on ClickTech and Tableau .  More tailored to data exploration and visualisation (hence the name) than the other SAS reporting tools (like eBI).  Of course that is confusing because JMP amongst other SAS components/products was already tagged as providing this capability.

And then combine that with the fact that there wasn’t a clear story about how it was related to SAS Enterprise Business Intelligence server (eBI), SAS Solutions and the statistical (True) Analytics stack then I got even more confused.

The last thing to add to my confusion was the constant reference to analytics but the fact that no actual statistical capabilities were built in / available within the initial release of SAS Visual Analytics.  So was this SAS succumbing to the view that “Business Analytics” was just drag and drop data exploration and an excuse to say they were part of the “Big Data” phenomenon because they now used Hadoop?

We have spent a bit of time working through the SAS VA offering in various ways over the last weeks. So my observations:

  • SAS VA puts SAS firmly into the Big Data, Data Discovery hype cycle with all the other players
  • The UI is sexy & web/tablet based and we all know sex sells
  • Version 6.2 will be based on 9.4 meaning it will fit nicely with any upgrades to 9.4
  • Version 6.2 will include stats based forecasting capability, which means im guessing its only a matter of time before some of the Enterprise Miner routines start appearing in it
  • 6 monthly release cycle means lots of new functionality, a lot quicker than we are used to.
  • A large portion of the SAS BI dev team are now focussed on SAS VA, rather than the other BI tools.
  • A lot of SAS VA looks like new build rather than leveraging the other SAS stack (new data loading vs EG/DI Studio/Data Flux)
  • The new baby VA single server and virtualised offerings will enable it to move into the SME market, not just be for the big boys
  • The sales teams are very focussed on selling SAS VA

Cindi Hewson has some more insight on her BI Scorecard blog here:

The other thing to note is that this is the first time SAS have offered a free try before you buy.  They have had hosted offerings for a while now in the USA, but that was always for paying customers.  To buy you always had to talk to a direct salesforce bod or a SAS reselling partner.  The ability to use a SAS VA online demo whenever you feel like it is a true Innovation in business model for SAS. And then couple that with the fact they use Amazon to host it not their own SAS solar powered farm, things are starting to get funky in Carey.  Heaven forbid we might see a new licensing model arrive sometime that moves them to a more services related model than the old buy a CD model.

As an aside it reminded me of when I was in Vegas for SAS forum a few years ago and talking to one of the guys from R&D.  He mentioned that they were using Amazon to burst their dev servers when their internal data centre was full.  Not because they couldn’t add more capacity to their data center but because Dr Goodnight had decided that the ability to have 1,000 virtual SAS environments running at any one time in the R&D data center was more than enough capacity,  He apparently refused to approve the purchase of more disk so constraining the capacity (and no doubt hopefully improving the efficiency of the use of current capacity).  So looks like that foray into using Amazon was a precursor to the SAS VA try before you buy offering.

So my view is that SAS are betting the boat on this puppy.  Well one of the life rafts maybe ($2.8 billion is a big boat ;-).  And after looking at it for a while and from a few different directions, I think the OptimalBI team are going to be very focussed on become the SAS VA expert team in NZ for the next wee while.

The only downside for us is we have to deal with the usual lack of information on the roadmap from SAS, which makes it harder to support our customers (remember the move from MDDB to SAS OLAP anyone?).  A statement on what SAS VA means to eBI customers would be greatly appreciated right now, perhaps it will come out at SAS Forum 2013?  Oh and throw in a few published reference architectures for good measure.

But then if I wasn’t convinced it was good for our customers or that SAS were dedicated to it in the future we wouldn’t be jumping onboard the SAS VA express.  And we are so I am!

And remember at the end of the day it’s about whipping your iPad out and demoing SAS Visual Analytics, because sex sells!