SAS Institute has joined the growing list of IT vendors with a more prominent focus on support and services for health-care customers, forming a Life Sciences Organization that will operate within its Americas sales division.SAS Institute\u00a0has joined the growing list of IT vendors with a more prominent focus on support and services for health-care customers, forming a Life Sciences Organization that will operate within its Americas sales division.Although the company has offered life sciences products and had customers in those markets for years, it hasn't had one division dedicated to coordinating among different health-care groups. The Life Sciences Organization will focus on supporting health-care providers, health insurers and biomedical companies, which includes pharmaceuticals, said Chris Glass, SAS life sciences strategist, who is attending\u00a0the SAS Users Group International conference in Seattle, where the new organization was announced Monday."What we see happening in the market is that these biomedical companies, the health insurers and the (health-care) providers are all getting closer together, so what we're doing is positioning ourselves so that we can facilitate communications," Glass said. "Their conversations are all about data."What SAS can help customers do is to create and track paper trails for various aspects of life sciences, including clinical drug trials and provide the ability to aggregate data from various sources to help, for instance, design trials based on larger populations, Glass said.Besides marketing existing software through the division, the company will also develop new products for the life sciences, building on its existing "strong foothold" in clinical research and development, he said.The move also complements a company reorganization of its sales force to focus on key vertical markets such as financial and health-care industries, as detailed by company officials recently.While SAS has a history in life sciences, its decision to dedicate a business unit to that area follows a general IT vendor trend that includes IBM, HP -- which became the top IT vendor in terms of revenue in that space after it scooped up Compaq -- and Oracle, which is an SAS competitor.The SAS Life Sciences Organization is welcome news to Kim Price, a decision support coordinator at Centra Health, a hospital system based in Lynchburg, Va., which has used SAS products since 1993. Centra Health runs two hospitals, nursing homes and psychiatric facilities. Price runs a department charged with taking information from various systems, including mainframes and desktops, and pulling it together for analysis in a number of areas such as administration and marketing. Among other things, her department answers clinical questions, looks at doctors' practice patterns and tracks how drugs are used."We're pretty excited about it because I think in the past when we utilized SAS, particularly their consulting services, we'd have to more or less start from scratch each time and we'd have to explain our business to the technical types," Price said. "This is going to allow me to have access to people who already know my business, know my acronyms ... It's going to be a group of people who are up on health care, who know the trends."That will allow her, she said, to expect more when she calls SAS and will also allow faster turn-around time when she needs assistance.The new organization ought to boost an already stable, successful company, said Michael J. Barrett, senior analyst at Forrester Research. SAS analytics software is already considered the de-facto standard among big pharmaceuticals companies, so it's wise for the company to emphasize that side of the business."I think SAS is wise to make the pharma focus more explicit because they need to capitalize on their number-one positioning. On the other hand, I must say, it does not seem to be in any danger," he said. "This presumably is a matter of a successful company remaining paranoid in the best Andy Grove sense. Only the paranoid survive and you need to stay paranoid when you're number one or someday you'll be number two."Like other vendors, SAS faces a "serious challenge in support and service" with pharmaceuticals companies because that market "is losing lots of money and lots of sleep around integration of products." However, again, "SAS appears to recognize this."It may also recognize that the life sciences industry, including the\u00a0Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is moving toward "end-to-end electronics around product development, whether it's drugs or devices. You need to have a SAS transport file that not only permits the trial sponsor to do internal analytics, but permits the easy transfer of all the data to the regulatory agency and even the states or in Europe. Now here SAS faces some additional challenges, which reorganization by itself can't solve," Barrett said."The FDA is moving slowly but surely toward the use of XML\u00a0tags for data," he said to cite a particular challenge. "This is going to affect the way SAS-created data is transferred."The SAS Life Sciences Organization might indicate that SAS anticipates those challenges. "If true creative paranoia is to reign, SAS has to use this new bastion, this new encampment, to solve the next set of problems coming down the pike," he said. "They ought to be up to it. As long as they listen to their customers."