Sunday, May 6, 2012

Business Analytics & The Next Wave of SAS Solutions

I had the privilege this past week of attending the Forum analytique SAS de Quebec and the Forum analytique d'affaires SAS de Montreal, two of the leading edge user groups in Canada.  These groups are formidable in structure and in scope, and last week's meetings were no different.

Both groups are strongly supported by SAS Canada solution specialists which means that they have the opportunity to have the newest SAS solutions presented and demonstrated by some of the brightest in Canada.  The theme for both meetings this past week was high performance analytics (HPA) with a strong focus on the new SAS Visual Analytics solution, which featured heavily at SAS Global Forum in Orlando.  I, for one, was extremely excited to see the talks on the slate.

I've been fascinated by HPA long before Dr. Jim Goodnight demonstrated the unbelievable hardware power required to perform billions of calculations in minutes at SGF... with the aid of a hologram, no less!  I'm one of those data geeks who really loves efficiencies of all kinds.  If a few hours, minutes or seconds can be shaved off a task, I'm immediately interested - although given my proclivity for coffee breaks during this time, perhaps my local barista doesn't necessarily share my excitement given the sharp drop in business which will inevitably follow. 

Both groups featured Ron Allard giving an overview of the challenges of Big Data which make HPA such a game-changer. His talk was entitled 'Le "Big Data": Pourquoi les entreprises devraient s'en préoccuper et quels sont les moyens d'y faire face'? or in English, why organizations need to pay attention and how to do so most effectively.  Ron's talk certainly sparked some great conversation in Quebec where a small but engaged audience found a lot of value out of his talk.  Ron nicely framed out the consideration around what Big Data actually is - no small task in a rapidly changing discussion space.  He also gave an overview of some of the hardware requirements necessary to use HPA effectively and discussed the difference between in-database and in-memory analytics. His talk also nicely set up Andre Lafreniere who would be carrying the majority of the meeting with an overview and demonstration of the SAS Visual Analytics solution.

Now, I've seen VA demonstrated a few times.  I first saw a sneak peek of it at our annual kick-off meeting in January.  Of course, we saw a lot of it at SAS Global Forum as well.  Now I don't know about you, o gentle reader, but I often wonder if the products work as quickly as they do when they're not the feature component of a huge conference or presentation.  After last weeks meetings, I can happily attest that the answer is 'yes'.  I was blown away with how quickly the drag and drop functionality worked.  Andre was able to run logistic regressions against a fairly robust dataset in mere seconds... and the GUI interface was as slick off of his iPad and laptop as it was on the big stages of the past few months.  True, I'm a SAS employee, but I con honestly say I was blown away by the possibilities allowed by the combination of HPA and VA.  No more subsetting data for the sake of saving time?  Visual data exploration, real-time drilldowns and easy drag-and-drop?  Sign me up!

The Canadian SAS user groups are traditionally a great way of supporting SAS users by offering tricks, tips and hints around optimizing existing SAS implementations.  This often means speaking to the vast number of SAS programmers out there who are doing amazing work with a tried, tested and true system.  I'm glad I had the chance to get a glimpse at the future of SAS and analytics... who knows, in 5 years or so, perhaps we'll be seeing tips and tricks on SAS Visual Analytics.  I think the users who attended were impressed by the next wave of SAS solutions and I hope we'll see even more talks as they become prevalent in industry moving forward.

Speaking of moving forward, I have a hectic week of user group meetings coming up.  Toronto Data Mining, Saskatoon and Winnipeg are all on the docket for me this week with my manager Wally Thiessen making the short hop down to Hamilton for the GHSUG user group meeting on Friday.  You'll be hearing a lot more from me over the next seven days or so, I can guarantee you that!

Until then...

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