The conference opened with its keynote presentation, watched in person by some 5000 SAS practitioners in Denver, Colorado, and streamed online to an anticipated 30,000 viewers.
SAS was founded on 1 July 1976, and has continued to record growth every year. The company remains privately-owned, invests heavily in research and development, and has a culture and workplace which provided inspiration to Google ’s development of its Googleplex.
SAS commenced life as a statistical analysis system (hence the name) in North Carolina State University as a project to analyse agricultural research, with NSCU faculty member Dr Jim Goodnight being a co-founder and, from the date of inception to now, 41 years later, the chief executive.
Things are very different from the days of an agricultural statics project; SAS had revenues of $US 3.24 billion in FY2017 and, according to IDC research, holds 30.5% of the analytics and predictive insights market, more than twice that of its nearest competitor.
The company is showing no signs of abating. “The SAS innovation engine has been revving at full speed,” Goodnight said.
Regarding modern technology, Goodnight said “your breakthroughs are happening faster and faster due to a convergence of factors”, – specifically, the processing and collaborative power unlocked by the cloud, which itself is enabled by the vast enhancements in technology today in computing power, storage, virtualisation and networking.
In many ways, it is as if the world has caught up with SAS. While Goodnight and his project partners saw the transformative power of data analytics back in the 1970s when computing power was far more restricted to academia and large institutions, it has only really become mainstream and a topic that has reached the ears of the entire C-suite within the last decade.
Certainly, my observations are “the cloud” has been the big trend in recent years as technology advanced sufficiently to make it possible. Yet, the cloud is not an end in itself; the cloud is an enabler, which brings great power, storage and capability to any business, no matter its size or income or industry, and now the cloud is established as “the new normal” way of conducting business, the new benefits it brings are now being seen. In 2017 the new trend I observed was machine learning, with companies striving to inject this into their applications, making smart decisions on a scale that no human operator could seek to compete with, creating efficiencies and unlocking new knowledge.
While ML is the modern trend, the mathematics underpinning it — making a model, training and refining the model using data, implementing an algorithm to make decisions and predictions — is the very basis of SAS.
For SAS’ 2018 roadmap, Goodnight explained the computing power now available accelerates artificial intelligence, and it also accelerates Internet of Things analysis.
IoT is a big one, SAS sees, in a world increasingly driven by data and connectivity. “By 2025 there will be 55 billion connected devices, and just next year, 2019, about 40% of IoT data will need to be acted upon,” Goodnight said. How can a human seek to keep up? Most IoT data gathered today goes unanalysed, but Goodnight says with automated analysis this will be possible. Consequently, he says, SAS will continue to build on its strengths but will add new strengths in IoT.
Oliver Schabenberger, executive vice-president, chief operating officer and chief technology officer, added, “A very bright light is shining today on analytics; it’s a differentiator between those who use it strategically and those who use it tactically. We can solve bigger and bigger problems with the cloud, server farms and the capacity of computing. Technology has driven analytics but not it is reverse; analytics drives technology and has become a disruptive force in itself.”
Schabenberger notes, “Artificial intelligence in the form of rule-based expert systems has been around for decades. The AI systems we celebrate today perform with super-human capabilities in image and speech recognition, can detect credit card fraud, can monitor health systems, and so many other things all built on optimisation techniques to find solutions to a problem.”
SAS was founded on the belief analytics is a transformative technology, Schabenberger said. “Analytics optimises workflow, reduces the cost of manufacturing, improves quality, enhances healthcare and so much more. At SAS, we believe in Dr Goodnight’s vision we can improve lives through analytics, and that curiosity is at the heart of progress.”
“In the hands of lifelong learners, the power to do good with data is limitless,” he said.
Goutam Chakraborty, chair, SAS Global Forum 2018, stated, “Passion is something at the core of our being. Passion defines us. It starts at a young age. It’s fuelled by our desire to understand the world around us. It makes us unique. It drives us to do the things others don’t. It makes us extraordinary.”
With this, SAS launched its Global Forum for 2018, challenging its user base to innovate, to be curious, to be passionate about solving problems, and ultimately to use the power of analytics to bring about good in the world.
The writer is attending SAS Global Forum 2018 as a guest of the company.