SAS BI: Solid or Stolid? - InformationWeek
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2/14/2007
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Seth Grimes
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SAS BI: Solid or Stolid?

I agree with Gartner's assessment that "SAS offers the most comprehensive BI platform in the industry" with unmatched advanced analytics. My experience with the company's products over the years has rewarded my confidence. Yet Gartner also reports that SAS BI software is perceived as lacking usability. I agree with that assessment, too, and I've welcomed SAS efforts to counter it.

I agree with Gartner's assessment that "SAS offers the most comprehensive BI platform in the industry" with unmatched advanced analytics. It has been twenty years since I first programmed with SAS. I've invested thousands of hours in the company's products. I want the company to do well. And fortunately my experience over the years and my on-going monitoring of the broad BI market has rewarded my confidence.

Yet Gartner also reports that SAS BI software is perceived as lacking usability. I agree with that assessment, too, and I've welcomed SAS efforts to counter it. It has been a chronic limitation that SAS functions are incompletely exposed through the graphical interfaces and that the variety of powerful analytical and presentation modules are not well integrated. I'd like to know that those situations have changed.The company is anything but rash. Their product line is solid, they're privately owned, and they have a fanatically loyal customer base. They can afford to take their time to get change right. Yet I cringed when I followed links in the SAS-published interview, "The Business of BI," with Gail Kramer, SAS Vice President Business Intelligence Clients Division.

I hoped to learn about product improvements. Kramer addressed standards issues, for instance stating that portlets in the forthcoming SAS 9.2 release will conform to the JSR 168 standard, which I'll note was finalized in October 2003. And she addressed SAS BI's lack of dashboards, not surprisingly identified as a "big feature" in user feedback. She offered a long-term commitment - "we want to add more dashboard capability to our products" - but didn't provide a timeframe. She also offered use of sample dashboard downloads as an interim solution. These would "show how to use SAS/GRAPH software to create graphic indicators and how to assemble those indicators into dashboards that are customized for the user's needs."

I'll credit the company's openness and desire to help even if they inadvertently reinforce the usability complaints. Witness one dashboard code sample SAS posted on the Web that includes comments such as:

"The bar chart [sorts] automatically, but the data is also manually sorted to get the order to merge with the sparkline data to achieve the same order. If you don't do this carefully, you can get sparklines lining up with the wrong bars... " and "Because this sample uses the GREPLAY procedure [which manages catalogs of graphics objects] to place the indicator in the dashboard, typical reporting procedures like PRINT or TABLATE cannot be used because they produce text output. This sample uses the Annotate facility in SAS/GRAPH software to create a graphical slide with the table text in the desired positions. Using this approach, the spacing of the table items must be adjusted manually. If you change the number of items in the table, you must change the offsets or increments for the annotated positions of the text)."

I read the posted code and I understand SAS/Graph. I see here a solution that not only reinforces perceptions of a problem but also suggests that the company is unwilling or unable to bring timely resources to bear to adequately fill a gaping hole in their BI product line. I hope that SAS progress improving other BI features and usability issues is less glacial in pace.

Technorati ProfileI agree with Gartner's assessment that "SAS offers the most comprehensive BI platform in the industry" with unmatched advanced analytics. My experience with the company's products over the years has rewarded my confidence. Yet Gartner also reports that SAS BI software is perceived as lacking usability. I agree with that assessment, too, and I've welcomed SAS efforts to counter it.

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