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Monday, 10 April 2017 16:05

SAS – saving analytics’ soul


The 2017 SAS Global Forum is over, so it is timely to analyse what the event was about – uncovering actionable insights from data using analytics. But it was so much more.

As a preamble, let’s start with the famous quote from Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister of the UK from 1874 to 1880: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics” and that is what many people and businesses still think. But if we fast forward to 2017 we see the opposite – enterprise and government see big data and analytics as the single most trusted source of truth and a vital element of almost everything we do. It is "Show me the data, not just the money" before decisions are made.

In fact, the term big data, which was first used in the 1990s, has seen data sets grow from megabytes (MB) to petabytes (PB).

  • 1024 Megabytes = 1 Gigabyte (typically DRAM DIMMs max out at 32GB and SSD at 500GB)
  • 1024 Gigabytes = 1 Terabyte (typically hard disks max out at 8TB)
  • 1024 Terabytes = 1 Petabyte (currently the largest single data sets)
  • 1024 Petabytes = 1 Exabyte
  • 1024 Exabytes = 1 Zettabyte
  • 1024 Zettabytes = 1 Yottabyte
  • 1024 Yottabytes = 1 Brontobyte (and after that Geopbyte).

Typical data growth rates of 20% to 50% annually are attributed to newer data sources, such as Web traffic, IoT sensor data, location and telephone call data. Exabyte-sized data warehouses will soon be the norm.

And it is no longer about data from one source – it is about the vast data lakes or warehouses created when you mix in your data with other relevant data from social media, finance, government, utilities, telcos, marketing clouds, even free public Wi-Fi, street cameras and mobile/computer logins.

As Gartner, a research and advisory company puts it, "Big Data represents information assets characterised by such a high volume, velocity, and variety to require specific technology and analytical methods for its transformation into value." And a fifth “V” has been added for veracity – it must be true to be of value.

A few years ago, you could ask if big data and analytics was a cure for insomnia and I would have responded, “Storage is snorage, Big Data is on Star Trek.” After a couple of years of writing about this field let me simply say, big data and analytics is hot, vibrant, immensely interesting and the next big thing.

This was my second Global Forum, my first was last year in Las Vegas. The forum attracts about 5000 people and a further 25,000 online participants. Sessions are video recorded and become valuable teaching aids – SAS has a laser focus on teaching the world about analytics and makes its SAS-on-demand software available free to students and institutions interested in analytics. It is all about what Goodnight calls making analytics “ambient”.

SAS 2017 GoodnightI interviewed its co-founder and chief executive Dr. Jim Goodnight, a focused, insightful 74-year-old who still drives the company and places his personal stamp on everything. “SAS was doing analytics before it was cool. It can do so much more to effect change for good,” he said.

SAS 21017 GuardI interviewed Randy Guard, chief marketing officer, a savvy, astute marketer who really understands data-driven marketing and where analytics is heading. Guard said, “The future drivers for analytics are what it can do for business of all sizes, IoT, and regulation/compliance. SAS is well ahead in all respects.”


SAS 2017 OliverI interviewed Oliver Schabenberger, executive vice-president and chief technology officer, who spoke “tech” with such a passion, and whose entrance onto the forum stage on a Segway mini-Pro was using technology the smart way – well it was a very big, long stage. He said, “Hype hurts promise. Everyone from small to large business needs to get serious about using serious analytics.”

SAS 2017 DycheI interviewed Jill Dyché, vice-president of Best Practices, about her role as an evangelist bringing the world of big data and analytics to help build company cultures that value analytics. “Don’t talk to me about the (SAS) product, talk to me about how analytics can enable your business. The truth is we are up to Analytics 4.0, but people still think it is a new thing,” she said.

I also listened to two very inspirational speakers – Captain “Sully” Sullenberger of the “Miracle on the Hudson River” fame, and Colonel Chris Hadfield, Canadian Astronaut and International Space Station manager.

Some of these interviews will appear in extended form soon, but more importantly, they gave me the valuable insights and framework that I could explore and action throughout the global forum.

First look at the business executive to technology user ratio. Amazingly it was about 50/50.

The C-level suits were there to learn what analytics could do for their organisation and enrolled in the executive program. They were keen to see how regulation and governance might affect their organisation. They were also keen to see how adopting a suite of SAS products, especially its new cloud based Viya (both a subset and superset of SAS 9.4), SAS Results-as-a-Service, visualisation with the new Visual Analytics suite, risk management, behavioural spend modelling, IoT and ESP (event stream processing), and best practices in general.

The technology users were there to learn more about analytics and enrolled in the user programme stream. They were focused on data management, programming, helping to align analytics to line of business processes, and generally to learn more and gain SAS Master Data Management (MDM) or other certifications and tertiary qualifications.

I decided to talk to a range of delegates to get their impressions about SAS and the field of big data and analytics.

First was a group of undergraduate students. “All the exciting jobs are in data science and analytics.” Of the group, four had already received job offers at the Forum that would take them down the path of becoming data scientists.

One undergraduate had a marketing focus and he was firmly of the conviction that the world could not function without data and analytics. As we spoke he wondered how I (born in the 50s) ever managed to build a business without data and analytics. “It is so pre-Matrix,” this student said referring to the movie of the same name and meaning that everything we do today, every decision we make, is backed by data.

I spoke to a few technology users who were there to hone analytics skills (and there were hundreds of learning sessions). “I have learned probably 50 new ways to use, manage, and visualise our hugely growing data – I would have been happy with one!” one said.

I spent some time with employees of a major Australian bank and long-time SAS user. One was from the C-suite and one in a more analytics-based role. The former was there to “visualise” how SAS could help the bank to be innovative in ever increasingly competitive times. The latter was there to see if he could do more with analytics. His comments were interesting, “Analytics starts with getting a few BI tools (shadow IT) and you start uncovering insights. But when you overlay SAS over those existing tools it uncovers so much more – no other solution comes remotely close.”

Dyche said as much too. “The biggest danger to analytics is not doing it properly from the start. A lot of companies start “easy” going after the low-hanging fruit not committing the resources and staff. Technically it is the difference between using entry-level business intelligence (BI) tools, many of which are simply dashboards and scorecard approaches, versus true analytics — heavy algorithms — that SAS has been doing for 40 years. You don’t see BI and shadow IT feature in the Forrester Wave: Enterprise Insight platform [industry rankings],” she said.

I spoke to the Diamond sponsors – Accenture Analytics, EY, Intel, and Teradata. The predominant theme was that SAS provides them with a major, trouble-free, powerful platform to solve customer needs.

Intel was there as a long-term SAS supporter as its Xeon E7 processors and SSD/memory are used in most SAS on-premise, hybrid and cloud servers. We chatted about the new Optane memory (iTWire article here) and there was a lot of excitement over what this radical 3D XPoint non-volatile memory could do for huge data sets and compute speeds.

There were many more sponsors and supporters but perhaps the most impressive were the range of academic institutions offering K-12 secondary school, education certificates, under/post graduate and Masters in big data and analytics. The recurrent theme was that big data/analytics “graduates” all got jobs, all received better money than the average, and had a real future. The secondary theme was how supportive SAS is in providing the free SAS OnDemand to teachers and students.

SAS 2017 PerezDuring a keynote session, Anthony Perez executive vice-president of strategy of the Orlando Magics (an NBA basketball team) and a SAS user, summed it up, “Innovation is a priority for all organisations. I think we’ve done a really good job in the space of sports. Being innovative is certainly helping with our mobile app. We were the first team to have that type of huge overhaul on our app and engage in the fan experience to those extremes. It has allowed us to innovate and figure out engaging ways for the fans to be involved.”

Interestingly SAS had done the analytics on the upcoming national championship NBA game between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Gonzaga Bulldogs. It predicted Tar Heels to win and it did – 71-65.

SAS 2017 mural

 The writer attended the SAS Global Forum in Orlando, Florida, as a guest of the company.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!



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