In-Depth Review: SAS Enterprise BI Server - InformationWeek

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01:25 PM

In-Depth Review: SAS Enterprise BI Server

Our expert explores the strengths and weaknesses of SAS' flagship business intelligence entry, and outlines how it stacks up within an increasingly complicated BI marketplace.

Say "business intelligence" and "SAS" in the same breath, and one doesn't think report-writing, online analytical processing (OLAP), and extract, transform and load (ETL) -- the core BI applications. Yes, users may very well think of SAS with analytics, statistics, predictive analysis and optimization -- the so-called "top tier" of BI -- but not the operational core of BI. That's the domain of players like Actuate, Business Objects, Cognos, Informatica, MicroStrategy and now the three big database vendors (IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle). But Enterprise BI Server from SAS is the culmination of several years of product development and is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in BI. Here's why.

SAS' BI Presence

SAS has presence right now in the core BI marketplace. For example, according to Forrester Research, SAS is second only to Informatica in the ETL market and growing fast. And IDC ranks SAS first in the data-mining software market. But despite having a combined multidimensional OLAP and hybrid OLAP engine using the latest Microsoft standard APIs for multidimensional and database access, Nigel Pendse's OLAP Report gives SAS OLAP server less than 1 percent of the market.

However, if you look at the lineup of BI components in SAS Enterprise BI Server, it's pretty comprehensive:

  • Base SAS: a statistical analysis engine with database and procedures
  • Information Delivery Portal: a portal engine
  • OLAP Server: includes OLAP Cube Studio
  • Web OLAP Viewer: Web browser-based OLAP presentation
  • Web Report Studio: browser IDE for producing reports & cubes
  • SAS/Graph: charts and data visualization
  • Add-In for Microsoft Office: brings SAS BI & analytics to Office
  • Metadata Server: key component for easy SAS Data Access
  • Information Map Studio: sets up by Metadata Server access maps
  • Integration Technologies: APIs, components for access to all SAS servers and data. Includes important asynchronous access.
  • Management Console: control and Admin interface for BI Servers
  • AppDev Studio: powerful Java IDE for Portal, Console and SAS apps
  • Enterprise Guide: .Net IDE for creating advanced BI apps

The latter two are extra-cost components for Enterprise BI Server, but considered a part of the SAS BI family. As we'll see below, they're the foundation of BI Server's analytic advantage. However, even more interesting is that SAS Enterprise Miner and SAS ETL Server and Studio aren't part of the Enterprise BI Server package.

If we compare the upcoming Microsoft SQL Server 2005, it costs $25,000 per server with its bundled ETL, notification services, analytic (both OLAP and data mining) services, reporting, and BI Studio. This versus approximately $50,000 for the Enterprise BI Server. One can see the competitive pricing pressure SAS is under. However, SAS has some distinct advantages as well.

Input Interoperability Advantages

SAS has data input interoperability advantages not just against Microsoft but also its other BI competitors. A number of the servers in the SAS Enterprise BI suite run in a broad range of OS platforms: IBM AIX 64-bit, HP/UX 64-bit, Linux for 32- & 64-bit Red Hat and Suse, Open VMS Alpha 64-bit, OS/390 Version 3, Solaris 64-bit, Windows 2000 to Windows 2003 64-bit Server, and z/OS Version 1, among others. Only perhaps Oracle has the same reach.

In BI, nearness to the target data has distinct rewards. Being able to collocate BI servers on the same platform where data resides shortens not only the path to data but also to the local experts who manage that data. On this score, SAS will give BI architects much more flexibility than Microsoft, which will require of its users that data be brought to them.

In the bringing of that data, SAS has clear benefits. First, SAS has climbed to second position in the ETL market, with good technology such as its DataFlux and other data mapping and cleansing methodologies. Moreover, SAS Data Access has a broad array of connectors to just about every popular database, storage container, and file system. SAS Data Access connects to popular applications from Siebel, PeopleSoft, Oracle, Baan and SAP. In addition, through SAS Integration Technologies, BI developers can create native connectors to and from critical SAS Services using low-level APIs or wizard-driven components to bring data to and from SAS BI systems synchronously or asynchronously.

Like Actuate, Business Objects, and Cognos, SAS has strong metadata services that simplify not only ETL mappings but also the naming, formatting, and staging of data across the organization. These metadata services are crucial in making data easily and reliably identifiable by users who are doing more spur-of-the-moment, ad hoc BI analyses. Microsoft's greatly revised Integration Services starts to address some of these latter issues, but it's new and still-to-be-delivered technology for Redmond.

SAS may be burdened by a cost disadvantage to Microsoft or even Oracle or IBM, but it more than makes up for that with lower operational costs and risks. These benefits accrue not just with the flexibility of architecting and modifying its BI systems but also with the interoperability and data-movement supported by SAS BI. And this is before considering the distinct competitive advantages SAS has in advanced analytics, predictive analysis and optimizing methods.

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