SAS Visual Analytics versus Tableau Summary
SAS Visual Analytics is part of a very broad and very deep analytics portfolio offered by SAS. It stands apart from virtually all other BI platforms due to the guided, assisted user experience and because of the scope of the analytical methods it supports – all from a single user interface. Tableau on the other hand addresses a very well defined function – the creation of charts and dashboards within a self-contained environment. Many business users will find adequate capability within Tableau, but it does present barriers if users want to go further with advanced analytics (text analytics, what if analysis, predictive analytics etc.). SAS Visual Analytics on the other hand supports many forms of analysis, but expansion of capability may mean deploying more SAS technology – and it is expensive to say the least. Tableau provides a self contained environment with no extras needed. So it boils down to need. Tableau presents a hard stop when users want to go further with advanced analytics, and SAS Visual Analytics is the thin (and very attractive) end of a very fat wedge.
SAS Visual Analytics
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.
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Without doubt Tableau Software set the pace for easy-to-use data visualization and exploration software. In practical terms this means business users can get to their data, typically without assistance from IT, and create graphs, charts and dashboards in a way that is most meaningful to them. Authoring takes place on Tableau Desktop which, as a stand-alone environment, can perform its own analysis, either against the Tableau in-memory database, or against external data sources – databases, cloud data sources, spreadsheets and so on. In a group or enterprise setting Tableau Server acts as a central facility for data access, delivering visualisations, enforcing security and managing user access. Tableau Server distributes visualisations through the web browser to almost any device that supports a web browser – desktops and mobile devices.
The architecture of Tableau Server is scalable, and is well demonstrated by the Tableau Public free service where millions of visualisations (albeit simple ones) are served up every day. It does support some level of extensibility, particularly the coding of bespoke applications that are not natively supported, but users have to resort to XML code to achieve this.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Tableau is its integration with the analytic language R. It is such a stark contrast – the easy to use Tableau product set, and the not so easy to use R programming language. Even so it does give advanced users, and programmers the ability to add other forms of analysis into the Tableau environment, and particularly statistical analysis and predictive analytics. This contrasts with some of the competition (Spotfire particularly) who, in addition to an easy to use visualisation capability also offer easy to use statistics and predictive analytics tools.
I set out by saying that Tableau set the pace, but in reality it is now at least equalled by several other products. Qlik Sense and Spotfire have both been reengineered for an easy to use experience, and there are cloud based products such as Sisense and GoodData. And of course we should not forget Microsoft’s latest foray into the world of data visualisation and exploration with Power BI Designer. It’s immature, but it will be disruptive.
Tableau is not an enterprise business intelligence solution, and the fact that several other suppliers use it as a data visualisation front end betrays its real use. It is a powerful augmentation of a broader business intelligence solution.
As an organization Tableau is very much in tune with business user sentiment. Their marketing and sales activities are sometimes seen as a bit aggressive, but the rapid growth of Tableau demonstrates its effectiveness. They have taken business intelligence to the masses, and in the process have almost turned business intelligence into a consumer product, with associated marketing style and branding. There are dangers associated with this, but Tableau is addressing the frustrations of business users, who simply want to see their data in a meaningful format.
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