SAS gets tough with rivals

Takes off gloves, cracks knuckles

Despite the fact that SAS is by a long way the largest business intelligence vendor in the market, it has regularly faced claims from Business Objects and Cognos that these are the leading suppliers in the BI space, writes Phil Howard of Bloor Research.

The reason for this is that Business Objects and Cognos have largely had the mid-market for BI to themselves, while SAS has focused on high-end, sophisticated stuff. Well, no more: SAS is taking off its gloves and plans to get down to some real bare knuckle stuff in order to take on its erstwhile rivals on their own patch.

Actually, it's not just the BI vendors - SAS has its eye on just about every aspect of business intelligence, in its widest sense, including ETL, data profiling, data cleansing, data warehousing. You name it, SAS wants to get involved.

As a point of fact, SAS has had pretty much all of these solutions for some time but they have disparate, disjointed and not fully fledged. With the release of SAS 9.1, which was first mooted earlier this summer and will become generally available towards the end of the year, it will have a much more complete and integrated platform at a technical level, which will from the basis of its higher level horizontal and vertical solutions.

As far as the technical platform is concerned, this will consist of SAS ETLQ, which is the company's ETL and cleansing tool; SAS Intelligent Storage, its data warehousing solution; SAS Business Intelligence; and SAS Analytic Intelligence. However, while covering the products you can buy, this doesn't tell the whole story.

Building a complete, integrated offering

Let's start at the back end. Here, in SAS Intelligent Storage, you can store data in three ways: in SAS data sets, the SAS Scalable Performance Data Server or in SAS OLAP Server. While the first and third of these should be obvious, the second is a parallel, multi-threaded database in much the same way that DB2 or Oracle is. Except that it doesn't have any of the transactional paraphernalia that they do.

On top of the storage product, SAS is introducing the SAS Metadata Server, which provides a consistent metadata layer that is leveraged by all relevant SAS products. This product (though it is not available separately) conforms to the CWM (Common Warehouse Metamodel) standard but SAS is also building a wide range of meta brokers to support non-CWM products.

In terms of tools, the first is not actually ETLQ but is the data profiling and analysis capability provided by Dataflux, which is a wholly owned SAS subsidiary. The same company also develops data cleansing and quality control software, but this is embedded with ETLQ. This is pretty much unique in the way that it supports the extraction of data. While you can extract data in the normal way, you can also, if you have Base SAS installed, transform the data on the source system and then extract it. This should provide significant performance improvements during the extraction process.

At the front-end, it is in SAS Business Intelligence that the company is introducing some significant new features. In particular, SAS wants to offer a BI environment that caters to as wide an audience as possible within the organisation. To this end the product will ship with five different user interfaces: SAS Web Report Studio, a J2EE thin client, for "information consumers"; SAS Add-in for Microsoft Office, for those familiar, particularly, with Microsoft Excel; SAS Report Studio, which provides desktop-based reporting and is aimed at power users; SAS Enterprise Guide, which is fully .NET enabled and is targeted at business analysts; and, finally, administrative interface for managing metadata, developing business intelligence applications, and managing the BI environment. In addition there is, of course, the SAS Portal, which spans its BI and analytic products for presentation purposes.

The question is how successful SAS will be at competing directly with the likes of Business Objects and Informatica. This is by no means merely a technology issue and the jury is still out. However, what is clear is that SAS no longer intends to give its smaller competitors an easy ride. ®

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