July 3, 2012

Chips, Stats & Stones: A Morning with SAS CEO Dr. Jim Goodnight

Nicole Hemsoth

Every robust civilization owes its progress, in large part, to understanding agriculture. Ancient history aside, agriculture is also the foundation upon which one of the world’s first analytics companies rose to prominence—creating a “civilization” of its own, one that continues to stand despite the ravages of time, change, and a rapidly-shifting tech and business environment.

Dr. Jim Goodnight, co-founder of the SAS Institute, along with his other founders, built the base of the Statistical Analysis System (SAS) following experiences writing code for farming research at North Carolina State University. He has since gone on to head the analytics thrust of his independent company since the mid-1970s. The company has addressed far more than agriculture throughout the decades and keeps finding new markets to exploit, including emerging areas within financial services and healthcare.

If you didn’t already watch it above, I encourage you to at least skip around our interview for some keen insight from someone who has been in the business of big data since it took gargantuan mainframes to crunch datasets that are slim and simple compared to today’s volume and variety.

During the 30 minute talk, we discuss the early seeds he planted, the roots that developed, and how the company has blossomed.  The major branches of our conversation address evolution—in terms of high performance hardware, software, and the middle layers needed to make it work. Good stuff.

But the real story here, the one that doesn’t emerge during the interview, is about SAS as an institution—and about Goodnight himself. Still almost boyishly excited, especially when he talks about the newest blade servers and what is possible with real-time analytics, Dr. Goodnight maintains the co-founder spirit, not to mention one of the largest and most profitable software companies in history.

Next — Goodnight to the Datacenter >>

Goodnight to the Datacenter

When I arrived on the SAS campus to meet with Dr. Goodnight, the press folks who ushered me inside before our taped chat warned me in advance that he would show up right on time, clip on a mic, do the interview, and leave immediately.

I braced myself for the brusque.

Just on time, as promised, he lumbered in, a tall man surrounded by a small phalanx of PR troops, but with a casual gait—a southern gentleman (my last two years in NC have helped me spot rare, real ones in their native habitat). No sense of pretense or officiousness.

He approached me casually, sat down, and pulled an Intel Sandy Bridge swatch on me. He smiled softly, turning it over in his large hands, remarking on the evolution to multicore distractedly. I think he saw my delight; few things put me at ease like a chat about chips, so we struck up a conversation.( If you want to skip around and hit the hardware segment skip to around 20:00 on the video we talk more about the hardware angle).

Before the cameras rolled, we talked briefly about parallel programming challenges, big iron and big data, and new approaches to computing, including GPUs. We hit it off. So my iPad sat heavy on my lap, full of questions that I never asked. We just sat there and talked. It just happened to filmed. Not sure how many bigshot CEOs are capable of that, but something tells me I could count them on one hand.

Dr. Goodnight clearly hadn’t let his love of tech and statistics slip over the years—when he talked numbers and machines, his eyes lit up, especially when he marveled at the number of cores Intel and others are baking in these days.

Following the interview, Dr. Goodnight suggested that we hop in his vehicle (he may be one of the few billionaires that shuns a driver, at least when he tools around the SAS campus in his no-frills Lexus hybrid) and check out one of the company’s datacenters.

Now, just a side note here, but few companies boast campuses that have sprawl on the order of large, land-grant universities. Like Google, the SAS Institute in Cary, North Carolina is its own bustling and impeccably groomed metropolis. Set against rolling pastures that belie proximity to one of the east coast’s few true technology hubs, the campus supports the global operations of over 12,000 employees, many of whom call Cary home.

Datacenter-bound, we curved through several winding, fresh-paved roads that shimmered in the heat. Being the end of the June, few people were seen on the numerous paths and bike trails. People here live from May to October by constantly shuttling between one air conditioned environment to another, with minimal pause to take in the rather remarkable scenery.

Long driveways branched off the main drag, feeding into the network of monolithic corporate buildings, each unique, and each beset with an original, towering sculpture—evidence of his wife’s love of art.

Goodnight points a few artworks out in particular with a casual wave of the hand, commenting on select pieces, his eyes mostly focused on the road as he craned his neck to identify the datacenter, which was painted the same color as the land around it.

It’s quite possible to drive by the datacenter and never realize it. Metal poles high enough to crush the grill of a car block what I think might be the path. But these large, unwieldy metal pylons sink discretely into the concrete to reveal a clear driving path with a flick of Goodnight’s swipe card.

The datacenter is unremarkable, even in its size—at least at first glance. Inside, another story awaits as it becomes clear how far back into the woods this functional warehouse-looking building extends.

The transition from the still, humid day in the sweltering NC sun to the dim, cool hum of thousands of sentiment servers, chewing intently away took our breaths away for a moment. I saw Goodnight lurch forward slightly as we entered, either with fatigue or the unconscious reposturing of someone tall bending to be heard, in this case over what sounded like hundreds of fans blowing from all sides. We were silent at first, staring at the first rows of racks. Goodnight met each one in the front of the datacenter directly with eyes for a moment, like a general surveying his troops, swaying slightly, then turning to me with an eyebrows-up look that said, “hmm? What do you think of that now, young lady?”

The fact is, journalistic distance removed, I was thoroughly impressed. But then again, if you’ve ever strolled through a $70 million, 38,000 square foot chamber packed with aisles of slate server racks with the buzz of the air rattling your senses, you probably have felt that same sense of quiet awe. I got the impression Dr. Goodnight still gets that rush, that feeling, despite all the years he’s been active in datacenters.

We chatted loudly over the din about the diversity of vendor boxes we saw, as well as efficiency. We wove our way past commodity clusters from HP and a few statuesque Teradata and Greenplum machines, as well as by an Oracle Exadata cabinet that Goodnight eyed for a moment—perhaps because it appeared to be the only one. A number other cabinets lined a gated-off area off in its own corner, which we walked past.

While I knew that this datacenter was in large part built to house their cloud and on-demand offerings, what I found out later was that the small gated community of machines were chewing on hosted problems to turn over fast results on large datasets. In an interesting tying together I watched how these exact machines were being used to turn over data to customers who were tapping their SAS High Performance Analytics as well as the Visual Analytics platforms.

And on that note—it’s one thing to have a company market you with the term “real time” but another to sit in a room with a few stats folks, have them feed terabytes into analytics platform, and watch that data gets crunched before the sip of a coffee is through.

“How much does it cost to power this thing—you know, everything. Datacenters, campus, all of it?” I inquired, keeping in time with his long stride as he walked me over to the massive, echoing chamber of an empty extension warehouse for millions of dollars in new hardware over the next couple of years.

He chuckled. “Oh, a million two. Or something like that.” He scratched his chin absently. “That reminds me, we should go see the solar array…”

Over a million bucks a month in power?

Next – Fields of Gold…>>>

Fields of Gold

Noting my surprise about the power consumption, we loaded up yet again, this time bound for the massive solar fields so he could show that while they were big power consumers, they were doing what they could to minimize their impact.

When the second part of the solar farm was completed in October of 2010 (the first section was done in 2008), the company said that the 7 acres of 5236 ground-mounted photovoltaic panels had a 1.2 megwatt capacity, with an expected output of 1.9 million kilowatt hours each year.  The installation follows the ray tracking system, which automatically rotates the assembly for maximum solar effect.

We drove down the center of the field of panels, staring with pity at the overheated goats who were taking a break from their lawn-trimming duty under the lengthy canopy of solar wafers.

For the first time that day, a note of irritation infiltrated his voice as he told me about the unrealized promise of solar energy, at least for the company. He said that when they installed the solar farm (and that’s exactly what it looks like—row upon row of the reflective, heavy crops of the machine age) they thought they could offset costs by selling power back to the grid. While they still do, he said that the price incentive is far from what it used to be and the panels only generate a small fraction of the company’s overall power—something on the order of 17 to 20 percent.

As mentioned previously, the SAS campus is sprawling, acres and acres with land SAS owns stretching far past the developed, manicured lots. Goodnight tells me they rent some of the land off to the university for agricultural research. We drive through a few more areas, taking note of the green building techniques at one or another of the large, black-faced buildings with glass gleaming to ward off the sun.

At some point during our drive, the conversation turns from a chat about the land the campus was built on to geology—more specifically, rocks.

Some of us might fancy ourselves rock collectors, but Dr. Goodnight’s collection is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The entire campus is a testament to his love of unique pieces of earth, from petrified dinosaur eggs, to impressive, mosaic chunks of native granite, to large, glassy meteorites,  a tour of the SAS campus will sate any rockhound’s lust.

Goodnight is even-keel; his tone always flatline, his words chosen carefully, except for when he talks about chips, stats and, of course, rocks. His ever-expanding collection can be found mounted on crystalline bases in nearly every building, but is most impressively displayed in the company’s executive center. A hyper-modern building that houses the top brass and row upon row of glass display shelves.

I imagine him for a moment on Safari in Africa or climbing high in the Rockies to unearth his geological treasures. He chuckles at this.

“Oh no…No, I don’t dig ‘em up,” he laughs. I go to Salt Lake. That’s where lots of the good ones come from.”

His gets a pleased, faraway look when he talks about a big rock convention he goes to every year. Some of the most treasured finds from the show find their way into the displays near his office and through the halls leading to it.

The day after the interview, I spent time at Raleigh’s Natural Science museum and noted how the display bases looked very similar to those found on the SAS campus, while there was no sign indicating a donation, I have a feeling I know where at least part of the geology exhibit came from but still haven’t been able to confirm it. It wouldn’t be surprising, the Goodnight family is highly philanthropic.

Next — The Remains of the Day >>


The Remains of the Day

It seemed worthwhile to focus on Dr. Goodnight for this article, in part because the guy is certainly one of a kind. But more importantly, I focused on the person behind the company (versus its products—which I got full briefings on a few along with some demos) because too often we forget about the people and passions that power the companies we follow, either as investors, journalists, or plain tech news junkies.

Sure, I had some great conversations while I was there with others who are truly excited about the new turn tech is taking, including Paul Kent, who I sat down with for a casual chat about the company’s big data strategy before we ended up spending 40 minutes geeking out over coffee and an analysis of the Hadoop vendor wars.

But again, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do a profile piece on a person either if I didn’t detect the amount of genuine interest Goodnight has in technology.

He didn’t want to talk about money or succession or going public—none of the business side of the business. He wanted to talk about the evolution of technology. He wanted to talk about blade servers, about innovations in processing power, about hosted and cloud computing, about statistics and what they do now that they couldn’t approach before.

Most major magazines have often remarked on his executive leadership and vision as a business decision-maker. That much is clear, at least if you look at the company’s near-solid profit track record. But what too often gets left out is a story about a billionaire whose eyes shine during a simple chat about a rock collection and a server farm.