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The Blue Orange Guide to BI Tools is meant to give executives and business leaders a high-level overview of the BI tool landscape and help them start on the (potentially tough) journey of choosing the appropriate one for their needs.
We will compare 11 popular BI options for usability, comprehensiveness, affordability, and overall satisfaction. Hear candid and blunt reviews from CEO Josh Miramant and CTO Colin Van Dyke, on behalf of the Blue Orange team’s personal experience working with each tool. Different projects, clients, and data sources call for different feature options, so we have become well versed in each one’s pros and cons over the years. We based our ordering firstly by trusted industry research like Gartner reports, secondarily on our own additional research, and thirdly on our personal experience.
Our engineers and data scientists use these programs daily to consult with clients on their needs and desires for their custom dashboard creations. As you’ll see here, many of the software solutions still require a level of expertise and training to get to the highest levels of performance. Rather than recruit and train highly specialized temporary staff for a project that can be completed in less than a year, get expert help now.
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Business Intelligence tools are crucial for any organization that wishes to leverage data in order to make more informed business decisions. They allow analysts to turn both internal and external data into valuable insights. Moreover, they are an organization’s common platform for using, discussing, and acting on data.
While many features are common across BI products, choosing the proper one depends on a business’s goals and use case. Some may have a need for advanced reporting and easy drag-and-drop data exploration, while others are looking to empower their data scientists with access to complex models. It all boils down to identifying those needs and the relevant features that address them.
Over the past 13 consecutive years, Gartner has performed an annual objective assessment of business intelligence platforms. The image below summarizes their 2020 results. Various BI solutions on the market are distinguished according to multiple capability areas, ranging from user experience to advanced visualization support and deployment possibilities.
We break down the Gartner ranking and consider the BI solutions (while adding some of our own suggestions) that offer the most support for a full analytics workflow. In this sense, we focus on the following capabilities, which we consider crucial: data source connectivity, support for complex data models and ease of access to advanced analytics.
Microsoft proposes a BI solution that can be deployed either in the cloud (on Azure) or on-premise: Power BI. The tool has gotten positive reviews regarding its “ease of use for complex types of analysis.” It comes with out-of-the-box advanced analytical algorithms that enable powerful features such as Quick Insights. This gives organizations access to real-time dashboards and visualizations of data events and insights available as they happen.
Blue Orange’s Opinion:
“Comparable to Tableau but wins out for me due to the better integration with Azure products. It’s gotten so much better in the last 2-3 years but still carries some legacy bloat. PowerBI has the best Self Service ETL offering of the lot from a technical implementation standpoint. Being the best doesn't mean it’s perfect, it runs into the same problems as the rest of them on more complex data integration jobs. I like the ease of which it can link to Excel, Azure cloud and SQL Server.”
One of the most popular BI tools is Tableau and its powerful suite of products providing Desktop and Server deployments. Without requiring any coding skills, it enables users to easily access, visualize and manipulate large amounts of data. The wide range of visualization options that go beyond the basic plot types makes it particularly suitable for interactive, rich presentations of data insights. While it does ensure a common platform for all workers in an organization to talk about data, it may not be the right tool for advanced data transformations and pipelines.
Blue Orange’s Opinion:
“It’s a clear industry leader. Full-featured and capable, but with a healthy layer of bloat. Similar to PowerBI, it’s offering a lot and that comes with complexity. Their dashboard style customization is poor. They also break their product up into confusing tiers, dragging you into upgrades opaque pricing. One example is the Tableau Server vs using custom data patterns. It can be slow with big data volumes. On the positive side, their dashboards are flexible and intuitive. ”
QlikView is an all-around analytics solution, complete with advanced reporting and visualization tools as well as hands-on data analysis opportunities. It is based on an in-memory data storage engine that can integrate multiple big data sources and can be deployed either in the cloud or on-premise. It offers extensive support for scalability and integration with other Qlik services, which makes it the “analytics solution that evolves with your business.”
Blue Orange’s Opinion:
“This was my favorite tool to work with until I worked with Looker. QlikView is the most intuitive to build dashboards in and loading data is very smooth. I like QlikView but find the rest of the tools clunky and over engineered. As with most of these tools QlikSense leaves lots to be desired on record linkage and aggregation building. I now prefer PowerBI or Tableau, but QlikView is a whole other thing. It can get sluggish with large data sets.”
Sisense introduces itself as the “end-to-end BI solution”. On the back-end side, it enables advanced data cleansing, transformation pipelines, and analytics algorithms to be built on top of various data sources. This brings additional flexibility in the way data is being handled, which goes beyond the simple visualizations (but may also require expert knowledge). On the front-end side, it enables business users to create visualizations and quickly spin up reporting dashboards. The Sisense ecosystem can also be extended with 3rd party tools and integrations, which makes the tool available for a wide range of business use cases.
TIBCO Spotfire® is a data visualization platform that utilizes predictive analytics. In addition to data viz, it includes data-wrangling capabilities, predictive analytics, location analytics, and real-time streaming analytics.
Blue Orange’s Opinion:
“We had a client request Tibco Spotfire for an app which deals with patients' chronic health issues. Our embedded Jasper reports provided insights to care providers. Through that project, I decided that I’ll only use it if I must. I don’t like much about it. It’s capable but opinionated. Their in-memory data processing is much less than necessary. It has clunky APIs and their versioning and documentation is a mess.”
Looker offers a cloud-based BI platform that is most suited for building analytical applications. Native support for cloud analytics databases enables engineers to explore and (re)model data before exposing it to further services and applications. The looker blocks - pre-built (yet customizable) pieces of code - allow a quick start with different analytics tasks. However, the lack of a point-and-click approach to data modeling may limit the adoption of the tool to organizations with an in-house IT department. They were acquired by Google in 2019.
Blue Orange’s Opinion:
“I love the ease of Looker compared to the bloat of a number of other tools. They have great embedding and template configurations. A close leader with Qlikview, it’s very simple for us but can run into performance issues with big data. It’s also less flexible compared to Tableau or Power BI but this can be it’s benefit. It does most things better and the edge cases are harder to customize for. It focuses on the BI UI and not the data provisioning as much as others, for that reason it’s a great tool to layer on top of a data pipeline. This is my favorite tool in most cases. The biggest downside is the price. It’s a premium product and they price it as such.”
Domo is the modern analytics platform that offers rapid deployment of intuitive dashboards and is mostly targeted to non-technical users. It offers the Magic ETL drag-and-drop which is an example of a simple & intuitive, yet powerful data transformation tool. The ease of use has turned Domo into a popular choice for deployment in business lines in isolation from IT. However, since the platform can only be deployed in the cloud, it lacks the offline analysis feature, which may be incompatible with some organizations’ business models.
Google offers a no-charge option for visual analytics: Google Data Studio, suitable for both advanced and basic use cases. It gives users the opportunity to collaborate (similar to Google Docs) while building data-reports and takes away all IT provisioning worries since it all happens on Google’s secure platform. The seamless integration with other Google services like BigQuery ML and BI Engine makes it a viable choice for building end-to-end cloud BI solutions.
Blue Orange’s Opinion:
“Good for rapid prototyping and internal dashboarding. Its best feature is its deep integration with GPC (BigQuery and BI Engine). It’s not really on the same playing field as the others so I’ll leave it brief.”
As one of the top cloud service providers, Amazon also offers cloud-based analytics and a fully managed BI service: Amazon QuickSight. It is possible to seamlessly access data from underlying data lakes (which, in our opinion, are crucial for modern predictive analytics) and to leverage machine learning models provided by SageMaker. The powerful and scalable calculation engine is the foundation stone of a robust BI architecture while the “pay for what you use” pricing model brings organizations important competitive advantages.
Chartio joins the list of lightweight BI tools with a simple mission statement: make data accessible to everyone within an organization. Data access, exploration, transformation, and visualization are all possible via intuitive drag-and-drop interfaces (it even has a visual SQL builder). While some of the functionality may be lacking for power SQL users, the reduced implementation times might be an important advantage for organizations that require agile data insights.
Looking for an open-source BI solution? Metabase is a lightweight yet powerful tool that is optimized for self-hosting (i.e. easy to install, upgrade, and maintain) and thus allows an organization’s analytics workload to live close to its data. With an upcoming cloud version already announced, the deployment options will cover a wider range of business requirements. While no SQL knowledge is required for advanced reporting, some extra tech efforts might be needed for tuning slow data warehouses and optimizing a large number of queries.
Picking the right BI tool for your business doesn’t have to be a daunting task! Get expert help picking the right one for your company with Blue Orange Digital, which has just been listed as one of the top software development companies in New York. At Blue Orange Digital, our mission is to help companies get a grasp of their data and make it do the work for them. We have vast experience setting up data-centric architectures and implementing modern analytics solutions.
You’re not alone. Many companies we speak with are still developing their BI strategies. The good news: you still have great opportunities to build an advantage with your data. The bad news: your staff may not have the skills and capacity to execute a modern data strategy. Contact Blue Orange today to discuss your data opportunities.
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