Last Friday morning I took a meeting with SAS CEO Jim Goodnight. Despite the hassle, I was happy to rearrange my busy schedule to squeeze him in.
Ha! Just a little joke there about my inflated sense of importance! Actually, the meeting was part of a regular series called "Conversations over Coffee", when Dr. Goodnight makes himself available for a small group of employees to talk about...well...anything that they want to talk about. Any employee can sign up to participate; with a cap of about 10 or so employees, it turns out to be a rather intimate crowd. This access to leadership is one of the things that makes SAS a great place to work.
I kicked off the discussion with a question about the biggest buzz here at SAS: SAS high-performance analytics. I knew that Dr. Goodnight and a technical-savvy entourage had just completed a "roadshow" across Europe to demonstrate these latest advancements from SAS, and I joked that I hoped he wasn't tired of talking about it. My question was: with all of the focus on these high-end technologies to solve specific (albeit huge) business problems, how will these advancements improve the lives of our foundation SAS users? You know: the folks who sling DATA step, SQL, and PROC code for a living?
Jim responded by first explaining the idea behind high-performance analytics and how SAS brought it to life. He explained the idea of rethinking huge problems that involve big data, and how SAS applies state-of-the-art computing technology to solve those problems in a small fraction of the time. Using hand gestures, he showed how with today's hardware, data can be loaded into memory and operated on across thousands of processor cores and...wait, instead of reading my report on this, you can watch Jim explain it himself. I'll wait.
So, do you get the picture? Dr. Goodnight is enthused about this stuff, and justifiably so. But back to my question: how will this focus on high performance help today's SAS programmer and BI user?
The answer, without getting too specific, is that we can expect the lessons learned from implementing high performance at the "appliance level" to work their way into the SAS language that we know and love. Already, we can see "HP" versions of the most computationally intense analytic procedures. It might take a little while, but as workstation-class and server-class hardware become more capable, the SAS language should evolve to take advantage of it.
I view it as similar to the space program in the US. For much of the 1960s, the nation was focused on a single goal: get a person to the moon. We reached that objective long ago, but we still benefit from the technology that was created as a result.
The analogy may be more appropriate than you think. During our Conversation over Coffee, one new employee asked Dr. Goodnight about his early career. Jim talked about several of his pre-SAS jobs, including a stint as a programmer on the Apollo space program. He knows first-hand the tremendous results that such an intense focus can bring.