Tuesday, 20 January 2009

SAS in trouble?

I'm going to stick my neck out here about the piece of software that drives a lot of marketing analysts' work.

SAS is the industry standard software for analysing big databases and, in all honesty, it should be much better.

The fundamental structure for SAS was put together in 1966 - 1968, with SAS Institute being incorporated in 1976 and the problem today is that it feels like a piece of software that has been built up over time. It also feels like the core of SAS was never designed with all it does today in mind, so new features have been bolted onto older features as the need for them arose.

It's horrible to code for SAS. There's no inline error checking, no auto suggest and the way that SAS Macros work is counterintuitive if you've got any other programming experience. To cap it all off, features added at different times over the life of SAS have subtly different programming syntaxes, so you have to learn individually how every procedure works - it's not enough to learn the basic structure of the language.

Apart from being the industry standard, I say SAS should be much better because it costs £4,300 per seat, per year (ignoring multiple licence discounts.) That's a hell of a lot of money for a piece of analytical software - almost the same as ten copies of Office 2007 Professional. And once you buy Office, you own it for life.

SAS could shortly be in a lot of trouble. Data analysis is a perfect market for Open Source software, because so many people will have a genuine interest in creating it. There's a large pool of analysts and programmers (including a lot of academic researchers) who will be happy to add the features that they need and then make them generally available to everyone else.

R is an odd name for a piece of software that, over the last 6 months, has been mentioned to me by analysts and by clients as a potential SAS replacement. Download it. It's free and it's very, very good.

It won't replace SAS for everybody yet. Banks for example, have loads of legacy built up in SAS and need the backup and support of a multinational software company. For many others though, R is being looked at as a genuine SAS replacement.

This NY Times article is a really good read and has an interesting quote from SAS, regarding R.

“I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want free, readily available code," said Anne H. Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS. She adds, “We have customers who build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I get on a jet.”

The thing is, most data analysts don't build jets. They do day-to-day tasks like financial reporting and creating customer segmentations.
When Google and Pfizer publicly admit to using R, I think it's time for SAS to worry. R has also gained a strong hold among academic researchers, which means the next generation of graduates joining the industry will know how to use it rather than (or as well as) SAS.

If SAS doesn't get its act together and produce some software that is £4,300 better than R, they're going to lose a lot of customers. And you know what? Most of those customers won't be sorry to see it go.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Could not agree more. One additional trend that I think might help this is that students are now being taught R in universities, which, over time will grow into a trained user base allowing a smooth transition from SAS to R.