SAS continues to make analytics more approachable for business

Madan Sheina, Lead Analyst, Software – Information Management, Fredrik Tunvall, Analyst, Software – Information Management

SAS Institute recently updated Ovum on its rapidly evolving business intelligence (BI) and analytic visualization product strategy. It’s clear that SAS is continuing down a steady path to make its software more accessible to business end users. Its strategy builds off a functionally robust BI platform, to which the company has added self-service capabilities – notably around Office integration, data discovery, and advanced visualization products.

The challenge for SAS is not only how to present, but also price a broad mix of advanced analytic capabilities to business users. It all boils down to a key question: whether it is easier for a high-end advanced analytics provider to lower its sights to make BI and analytics more business-user friendly, or for a basic provider of BI software to smarten up to advanced, predictive analytics?

Making BI and analytics more “approachable” to business users

SAS has grown up providing advanced analytics, aimed at analysts and power users. Several years ago the company embarked on a strategy to reach out to a broader business user constituency. That remains a work in progress in the SAS BI Platform, punctuated by SAS’s recent announcements in self-service analytics, visual analytics, and mobility – all trademark technical features that typically drive so-called democratization of BI.

The latest manifestation of the SAS BI platform – comprising a trio of integrated technologies (SAS Enterprise BI Server, SAS Office Analytics, and SAS Visual Analytics) – provides the architectural lynchpin for SAS’s new strategy for delivering “approachable” analytics to business users. The core design goals are: out-of-the-box use, self-service balanced with IT governance, “anywhere-anytime” content delivery and consumption, and an integrated approach to analytics and visualization – all in a single platform.

SAS’s strategy hinges on driving analytic convergence between Office and visualization environments

It is no surprise that the still-dominant Microsoft Office desktops in enterprises are a key part of SAS’s strategy. User demand to apply SAS analytics directly from Office (predominately Excel) has made SAS Office Analytics a separate product (as opposed to merely an Enterprise BI Server add-on). It continues to be enhanced with broader and deeper integration across the entire Office suite, notably with SharePoint and Outlook for collaboration. For example, reports delivered in Outlook are now automatically refreshed with current data.

SAS, however, is by no means alone in targeting Office integration as “in” with business users. Most, if not all, BI vendors are pursuing similar strategies, including Microsoft itself. But as Ovum recently observed in a recent research note (“Microsoft introduces Power BI in the cloud”), there are still some concerns that Microsoft’s Power BI requires customers to upgrade to specific Excel (2013 Premium Plus) or Office (365) versions, giving other BI vendors, such as SAS, an advantage with better backwards compatibility.

Interestingly, Office content collaboration is also linked to the SAS Visual Analytics applications. Ovum believes this is a powerful combination, especially when SAS’s in-memory capabilities (LASR Analytic Server) come into the mix, facilitating a much better and quicker interactive ad hoc analytic experience. The final part of SAS’s strategy is flexible and easy deployment; SAS is also taking an increased interest in cloud deployment, leveraging public cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services, in particular for users in EMEA and Asia-Pacific.

SAS’s goal, unlike that of other data discovery vendors, is not to “land and expand”

SAS is not alone in targeting the broader business user community, which arguably represents a much broader licensing opportunity than high-end analytics. Increasingly referred to as data discovery, this is a crowded and competitive market. Established BI vendors, such as SAP (Lumira), IBM (Cognos Insights), Microsoft (Power BI), MicroStrategy (Analytics Desktop), and Oracle (Endeca), are all trying to catch up, and in some cases surpass, the trailblazing visual, self-service, and in-memory front-end products from QlikTech, Spotfire, and Tableau aimed at business users.

SAS is a relative latecomer to this competitive melee. However, in contrast to most other vendors, it is not following a typical “land-and-expand” strategy – where a single user or department tries the product and champions it via word of mouth within the organization. This strategy is often achieved by offering the product at a low or even nonexistent cost. QlikTech, SAP, and MicroStrategy, for example, all offer free perpetual, personal editions of their products with a goal of selling server licenses as the adoption (hopefully) grows. SAS has opted not to take this route, and instead offers Visual Analytics at a much higher price point.

The justification for premium pricing is that its solution delivers more advanced self-service (automated and visual) analytics functionality than most other data discovery solutions – including text analytics. The strategy seems to be working, driven by an aggressive global outreach and marketing strategy – including an (usual for SAS) “try before you buy” offer for Visual Analytics – that has helped SAS to amass over 1,400 new Visual Analytics customers to its roster in 2013. However, it is not clear how many of these “wins” are new customers picking SAS over other visual discovery tools.

A fool with a smart tool risks making him- or herself a much bigger fool

Ovum believes SAS’s aim to bring advanced analytics to a broader audience is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is obvious that everyday business users can benefit immensely from advanced analytic insights. On the other, there is an equally pressing need from IT to make sure they access and use analytic tools in a controlled and data-governed environment.

One of the main sticking points for self-service analytics has not necessarily been the slickness of the interface. Rather it is making sure that departmental end users work with a curated (i.e. trusted) set of data for consistent analysis results. To that end, SAS is fortunate in that it can rely on its (DataFlux) data management offerings to provide such a curated data environment. But to do so in a self-service way will be difficult, nay impossible. Ovum still believes it is too important a task to leave decentralized across business departments and is best left to a centralized IT authority.

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