SAS Talks Up BI Improvements

It's a vendor is known for its high-end analytics, but it's also planning improvements to its business intelligence tools and interfaces. Here's where SAS falls short and where it deserves more credit.
"I want my BI to be better than anyone else's," said Dr. Jim Goodnight, CEO and founder of SAS, speaking at the vendor's annual analyst summit yesterday in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

After a full day of sessions in which SAS once again seemed to pay lip service to business intelligence, Goodnight's comment, in a one-on-one briefing, reassured me that this quiet vendor is still intent on carving its path in the BI space. The company recognizes BI's importance. They just don't like to talk about it much, and it's high-end analytics that most excites the company.

At the summit, SAS vice president Carl Farrell claimed BI is a commodity. It's a comment Chief Marketing Officer Jim Davis made a few years ago, one that I strongly disagree with and previously responded to here.

Both Goodnight and Davis explained to me that the issue of what is commoditized has more to do with their definition of BI and of analytics. SAS defines BI as query and reporting. I define it more broadly to also include OLAP, dashboards, visual discovery, Microsoft Office integration, and predictive analytics (see the free BI Scorecard BI Market segments report for more detail).

Even in the business query space, more powerful and appealing products command a premium price. Capabilities such as multiple star schema queries or merging data with personal data sources are standard fair in leading BI tools, but not in SAS Web Report Studio (yet), showing significant differences in capabilities. Further, what's free in the market place or bundled is not the most widely used. So I'd still disagree with SAS that even this particular BI module is nearing commoditization.

Of course, any vendor that has a greater emphasis on the higher end of the BI spectrum has reason to downplay the bread-and-butter aspects of BI. Being late to the core BI market could also be another reason to downplay its importance.

Of SAS's $2.43 billion in revenues, only 11% to 16% (depending on what gets counted) comes from core BI; SAS's core BI revenues grew 22% last year, faster than the industry average. A larger portion of SAS revenues comes from its high-end analytics and its industry solutions. These revenues are growing even faster, at around 26% last year.

I argued that core BI is important, because predicting the future is irrelevant if a company doesn't even know what is going on right now. Too many businesses struggle with "How much inventory do we have on hand? Can we fill an order from another warehouse?" Davis countered, "we want to tell you more than which warehouse has inventory; we want to recommend the best warehouse to source from, and at the optimal price." Well, yes, that would be nice, but I'm willing to start with the basics.

As an example of being quiet on the BI front, SAS released version 4.3 in Q4 2010. It may not have been a major product release, but it did include significant improvements to dashboard capabilities, improving ease of use and leveraging Flash. Most media and customers were unaware of it.

As well, SAS recently unbundled its Add-In for Microsoft Office (AMO) from the BI Server so SMBs could deploy it in stand-alone fashion, branding the solution Office Analytics. BI Scorecard rates SAS Office add-in capabilities the best among those from leading vendors. But in the past, users could only get AMO when they bought the whole BI server. So this unbundling is great news for customers, but again, there was no buzz from the company.

Looking ahead, SAS plans to release a new version of its BI suite this fall. The company has reorganized, focusing more than 300 developers on improving the user interface, a move that affects not only the BI suite, but also the presentation layer of its industry-specific analytic applications (SAS Solutions). SAS is increasingly leveraging Flash and is also looking at how to design once and render many ways as it moves to support BI anywhere (desktop, browser, tablet, smartphone) and in any interface (dashboard, visual exploration, query, or Office).

Also announced this week is a partnership with specialty mobile BI vendor RoamBI. As I've written about this vendor in the 2011 predictions and in my Cool BI classes, RoamBI takes a unique approach to mobile BI in that it is BI vendor agnostic for the iPad and iPhone. The product leverages existing report definitions and security for Microsoft, SAP BusinessObjects, and now SAS. SAS did not, however, elaborate on its plans for mobile on other devices, except to acknowledge they will support 20 to 30 devices.

Dr. Goodnight started the summit with the message that when customers and analysts think of SAS, he wants them to think Analytics. I'd say that mission is accomplished. When we think of SAS, do we think of BI? Not yet.

Cindi Howson is the founder of BI Scorecard , an independent analyst firm that advises companies on BI tool strategies and offers in-depth business intelligence product reviews.

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