R for Reflections

(… or R for a quarter, but I’m not sure that my grasp of US English idiom is good enough to tell if that works.)

After posting about charting a route through a rolling biblioscape yesterday, my mind turned to the route I’m treading at work. Is SAS® the high-point? I hope so, but the recent interest in R got me thinking.

R is a closed book to me, I’d never come across it before. Finding a new area of complete ignorance is always exciting. I decided to start investigating.

My first port of call was the R Project site. Here I was able to quickly download and install R on my desktop machine and find good introductory documentation which included a sample session that I could walk through.

I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was: the installation was trivial and the sample code worked easily. I was interested by how terse R syntax seems to be, and how quickly one could create output. And all this with anonymity: no registration, no download fees.

So the question is: is R on the plateau around Mount SAS, or is SAS merely base camp for the ascent of R?

I haven’t a clue yet, but I’ll let you know my thoughts as they occur.

Why the interest in R? It is part idle curiosity, and part a desire to hedge my bets. I wouldn’t have backed Linux against Windows, and yet look at the success it has enjoyed: around 14% of the server market. Having seen this rise from zero to hero, anything is possible. Especially in the current economic climate. If I was starting out, I’d be very tempted to take a punt on R – there appear to be immediate savings in both time and money when compared to a front-loaded license fee model. If students are using it then there is potentially a pool of able users that could be hired economically and who would grow with the software as it continues to mature.

One thing that would give me pause is the cost of ownership. The technical support may not be to the standard offered by SAS, but most of my SAS problems are actually solved by the SAS community on forums and listservs, and this is exactly where open source projects draw their strength from.

The other question, and one I haven’t an answer to, is whether R can help me with the business problems I use SAS to tackle. The worrying thing for SAS*, is that I may be able to answer it quite soon: now that I’ve got R installed on my desktop I can play around with it whilst I’m waiting for remotely submitted jobs to execute on our server. I can do this for free in spare time.

* I’m guessing – I’ve got no connection or insight to SAS other than as a customer/user.

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