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Beyond Statistics: SAS Takes On Mainstream BI

SAS Enterprise BI Server and Web Report Studio make business intellience accessible to all.

Excel Add-In: A Killer App

For existing SAS customers, the Add-In for Microsoft Office will easily become a must-have, but it's not currently sold separately from the BI Suite. For new BI customers, this product could tip the scales in SAS's favor. As the name implies, the add-in supports not only Excel, but also PowerPoint and Word. Reflecting its analytic roots, the add-in handles large data sets, eliminating users' concerns about Excel's native limit of 64,000 rows. The add-in leverages the SAS Enterprise BI Server so users can scroll through data chunks before bringing too much data back to Excel. Also, any data residing on the server is available for users to chart in Excel; it doesn't have to be pulled into the spreadsheet first, which lets users chart data sets with more than 64,000 data points. Furthermore, the add-in brings additional charting abilities (Pareto charts, maps and random samples, among others) into Excel through ActiveX controls.

PROS
•Stored processes easily used in Excel or Web Report Studio
•Accesses many data sources in multiple ways
•Subscription-based pricing minimizes shelfware
•Powerful Office add-in
CONS
•OLAP Viewer and Web Report Studio won't work with third-party OLAP products.
•Web Report Studio lacks toolbars and visual appeal
•Administrative tools and workflows can be cumbersome

The best thing about the add-in is that "users can ask and answer their own questions," says one SAS telecommunications customer. While most BI add-ins can only access prebuilt reports, the SAS add-in lets users create new queries off a single table or a SAS stored process. This is a differentiator, but for a broader-based solution, I'd like to see SAS also provide access either to the Information Maps or to Web Report Studio reports. SAS says it plans to add support for Information Maps in a release due out at year end. The add-in works well when accessing SAS data sets, stored processes or single tables, but without this additional integration, it's not suitable for dimensional models that require joins to dimension tables.

Hit or Miss?

The SAS solution is by no means perfect. Some of its workflows, such as adding data sources to Information Maps or deleting columns from cross tabs, are awkward. While its reporting and OLAP integration are good, the interfaces within the Enterprise BI Server can't yet access third-party OLAP databases, a limitation for a company looking for an open BI solution. Report bursting and scheduling, missing in the first release of Web Report Studio, are still relatively basic, as are report formatting options.

Despite these limitations, SAS has hit the mark on a number of key business requirements. Its subscription-based pricing model, while criticized by some analysts, seems yet another selling point for customers: It reduces the risk of shelfware, lowers the upfront investment and ensures SAS has a stake in customers' successful use of its products.

• For pricing information on Enterprise BI Server, go to www.sas.com.

Cindi Howson is the president of ASK, a BI consultancy. She teaches the Data Warehousing Institute's "Evaluating BI Toolsets" and publishes independent BI research on BIScorecard.com. Write to her at [email protected].