By Cindi Howson, BI Scorecard
SAS laid out its plans for visual analytics, big data and cloud at its annual analyst summit last week in Steamboat, Colorado. SAS has come a long way since it first set its sights on the BI market back in 2004. With Visual Analytics, the company now has a visually appealing product that combines ease of use with SAS' mathematical brain power.
Visual Analytics (VA) was first released last March, leveraging in-memory processing with a new visual interface. It has since had two subsequent releases to boost the product's flexibility, dashboard design, and Android support.
CEO and Founder Dr. Goodnight demonstrated the next release of Visual Analytics 6.2, due mid year. Its forecasting abilities are a clear differentiator. A few visual data discovery products will do a simple forecasting based on a moving average or linear regression, but Visual Analytics supports six different forecasting algorithms including Holt-Winters method to account for seasonality. The 6.2 release will also allow users to specify which variables to use in the forecast, as well as simulation. For example, if an analyst is trying to forecast utility costs, they may weight variables such as demand, gas prices, and temperature in the model. Allowing a user to easily specify different gas prices, for example, is as one product manager described, "what-if analysis on steroids." CMO Jim Davis emphasized that the advanced analytics capabilities in the product will continue to be a differentiator. A preview of a new decision tree capability again showed the combination of ease, beauty, and analytic power.
SAS is clearly playing to its analytic strengths in the visual data discovery market, but its BI positioning and understanding of that segment seem less clear.
SAS' current BI product, the Enterprise BI (EBI) platform is a separate architecture, interface, and set of capabilities. SAS' revenues in this segment grew only 3.2% in 2013, in contrast to most BI vendors' double-digit growth rates. SAS envisions that Visual Analytics will one day supplant the capabilities in its EBI platform, but it offered no roadmap for how to transition customers or when customers would need only VA. Currently, if a user wants to access data in the data warehouse or relational data store, they would use Web Report Studio (the business query module of EBI). VA Explorer and Designer may offer a more modern and appealing interface, but only when data has been loaded into memory on the SAS LASR Server. SAS has sometimes downplayed the importance of reporting and sometimes relegates BI to only reporting. I have often said though, that there is little point in predicting the future if decision makers don't know what's happening right now or even last week. In the advanced analytics space, SAS grew a healthy 8.8% and many of its solutions, that leverage VA and the advanced analytics, grew in double digits.
SAS also elaborated on its plans in the other industry hot topics of big data, cloud, and mobile. The SAS LASR Server is the underlying platform for Visual Analytics, using in-memory processing and the Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS). SAS claims that its ability to process models in parallel across multiple nodes is a differentiator. It has a strategy to run alongside analytic appliances such as Teradata and EMC Greenplum, a smart strategy in my opinion and in contrast to some competitors who suggest the data warehouse and analytic appliances are dead. With this architecture, the data does not need to be moved out of the database, but Hadoop is still used for the mathematical processing. While SAS would like also to support SAP Hana, the engineering teams have not collaborated, not surprising as SAP has launched its own efforts in the advanced analytics space with SAP Predictive Analysis. While the customer portion of the summit was under non disclosure, an early adopter of SAS High Performance Analytics said the platform allowed them to bring in more unstructured data into their models, significantly reducing the model's misclassification rate.
For cloud, SAS laid out plans to support the gamut of private cloud, public cloud for platform as a service, and software as a service for certain solutions and products throughout 2013. CTO Keith Collins demonstrated the concept of vApps (virtual apps) where in a few short clicks, an administrator can deploy a fully configured instance of a SAS product, such as Visual Analytics, either on an on-premise virtual machine or in the Amazon Cloud. While SAS has a long history of offering its customers hosted solutions, this is the first that SAS is committing to public cloud deployments. As a baby first step, Visual Analytics free trial version is hosted in the Amazon cloud.
SAS' Mobile story was shorter on details. While the use of the iPad was demonstrated in a number of keynotes, currently iPad and Android is supported only for Visual Analytics and certain pre-built solutions. The EBI platform and Web Report Studio content is not supported directly by SAS, but instead, through a technology partnership with Roambi. The vendor currently takes a native app approach, the right approach (for now) in my opinion. When asking Dr. Goodnight about his plans for an HTML5 version, he said they are watching the market closely but noted that Facebook tried for three years to develop an HTML5-only app and gave up. The current mobile app is good but not great, lacking some of the native gestures (annotate, pinch to zoom, sort) that competitors such as MicroStrategy and SAP have, as well as Roambi.
An always refreshing part of the SAS analyst summit is how candid this privately-held company is about its performance, its views, and its vision. Try to pin down a public company on how much BI revenues grew in 2013, and the answers range from evasive to inflated earnings that include consulting services. Public companies are only clear when it's clearly good news. Dr. Goodnight and Jim Davis seemed nonplussed about the less than stellar performance in the BI segment, suggesting maybe some of the deals gave less credit to BI and more to Customer Analytics. Oh, to be privately held, only to be beholden to customers, rather than shareholders! No wonder the likes of Dell and Heinz are changing tact.