SAS Visual Analytics is a taste of where business intelligence, and more broadly, business analytics is heading. It embraces the self-service capabilities that we have all come to expect, but extends this well beyond simple charts and dashboards. Advanced analytics are built-in with the ability to execute ‘what-if’ scenarios, analyse text for sentiment, create forecasts with automatic confidence intervals, and perform predictive analytics if needed. And somewhat unusually for SAS the pricing is reasonable too – five users can be supported for around $8000, although this is clearly aimed at the SMB market.
The ‘legacy’ Enterprise BI offering from SAS is its long established, traditional BI platform, and requires considerable skill to use. This is not the case with SAS Visual Analytics, and users will find a guided, informative, mostly drag and drop interface, capable of creating complex visualisations and performing demanding analysis. Business users will feel at home, and as skills and expectations rise, so SAS Visual Analytics will be able to accommodate.
The ‘rub’ in all of this is that large organisations with sophisticated needs will be lured into adopting other components in the SAS portfolio of products – and by-the-way, what a portfolio – SAS does everything analytics. However, back to the main point, and users might find it just too easy to bring in other SAS products, which in the main are not as easy to use as SAS Visual Analytics, and come with price tags that can make the eyes water. The inability to buy a perpetual license, and very high annual fees are a common cause of complaint in the SAS user community. In fact, if we allow ourselves a certain amount of cynicism, the excellent SAS Visual Analytics could be seen as the lure to bring customers into this somewhat less price competitive product set.
SAS Visual Analytics will be compared with products such as Tableau, but in reality there is no competition. Tableau serves up what has now become a standard menu of charts and dashboards, but does little else (although it has recently adopted support for R). SAS Visual Analytics however is more of a competitor for TIBCO Spotfire, which offers similar advanced capabilities, but does so using a performant implementation of open source R instead of a bespoke language (the language of SAS) – although Spotfire does also support SAS scripts..
Even so, there are many large businesses that simply want a one-stop-shop, and high license fees may be nothing more than loose change in their eyes. For these businesses SAS will take them wherever they want to go, and SAS Visual Analytics is without doubt a leading edge platform for self-service business intelligence and advanced analytics.
The SAS Visual Analytics platform provides a single interface for most forms of analysis – reporting, dashboards, advanced analytics. It supports a seamless flow from data exploration through to dashboard creation and predictive model building. Guided analysis means users are presented with options and descriptions of what those options mean, and the visual environment is largely driven by menus and drag-and-drop actions. Auto charting means users are presented with the best chart options for the data being processed, and users can either select one of these or do their own thing. All the usual functionality associated with a platform of this nature is available – grouping, filtering, drill down, and so on. A ‘what does it mean’ dialogue is also available to explain relationships between variables.
The set of visualisations is particularly rich and includes network charts, decision trees and Sankey diagrams (absent in most other platforms). Advanced analytics extends to the creation of predictive models, forecasting (where the best forecasting algorithm is automatically selected), text analytics (for sentiment analysis and document categorisation), goal seeking and scenario analysis. SAS Visual Statistics can be used to go even further with analytical methods and provides a very sophisticated platform for data mining and statistical analysis.
Mobile devices are supported through native apps, and strong integration with Microsoft Office means reports and charts can be viewed and processed in Excel ad PowerPoint. This also extends to using Outlook and SharePoint for collaboration.
In common with nearly all contemporary BI platforms, SAS Visual Analytics employs an in-memory columnar database for fast analysis. This is called the LASR Analytic Server. Almost every conceivable data source is supported by SAS Visual Analytics, including big data sources, social data and web based data feeds. Text data is particularly well supported, allowing sentiment and other forms of analysis. Fast, parallel data loading is provided for many relational and Hadoop data sources.
The SAS Visual Analytics administration facility includes out-of-the-box audit and usage reports, and administrators can access the monitoring and management tools as needed. User authentication and information authorisation is persisted across the SAS Visual Analytics platform to support data governance and IT policy implementation. A fuller data management capability can be got through additional SAS products, and other tools are available to execute the full data preparation task.
SAS Visual Analytics is challenged by only a few competitors. TIBCO Spotfire and Microstrategy certainly challenge, but Tableau does not. IBM has been slow to offer a competing product for self-service analytics, and SAP Lumira addresses only a subset of the capability offered by SAS. However it will only be a matter of time before platforms such as Sisense, Birst and Yellowfin move further into the advanced analytics domain through support for open source languages such as R and WEKA.