Top BI tools
Data may well be an organisation’s most valuable asset, but its value is rarely maximised if it’s not first analysed. The quantity, scope, and variety of data available to organisations today – and the rate at which it’s generated and collected – makes doing this by hand ineffective. In almost any instance, therefore, Business Intelligence (BI) tools are the only practical route to turning data into insight on which timely and effective decisions can be based.
As Microsoft explains, “Business intelligence (BI) tools are types of application software that collect and process large amounts of unstructured data from internal and external systems, including books, journals, documents, health records, images, files, emails, videos and other business sources.
While not as flexible as business analytics tools, BI tools provide a way of amassing data to find information primarily through queries. These tools also help prepare data for analysis so that you can create reports, dashboards and data visualisations.”
Microsoft’s own Power BI is one of the leading options, but it’s far from the only one. At Merit, we use a wide variety of tried and tested BI tools to deliver our data projects and here are some of the best.
Microsoft Power BI
Power BI is one of the best-known business intelligence tools on the market and, for organisations in which the spreadsheet is king, its ability to integrate with Excel is a boon. As its name would suggest, it’s a constituent of Microsoft’s wider Power Platform, first rolled out in 2018, which allows business managers to use low-code and no-code programming to derive insights from both structured and unstructured data.
Its strength is in building dashboards that surface data in a visual manner, allowing for more effective comparisons and simplifying the task of spotting variance and change. The data itself can be local or cloud-hosted, with connectors for Salesforce, Azure SQL DB and SharePoint, among others. The core Power BI Desktop app retrieves data from one or more data source, allowing business decision makers to self-serve using tools that Microsoft claims will be “familiar to millions of Excel users”.
Power BI is very actively developed, with new tools, add-ons and connectors announced every few days. In February alone, the platform gained new mobile formatting options, connectors for Amazon and Azure services, and a new look for the Power BI Windows app.
Key announcements in 2021 included the introduction of Sparklines, which should be familiar to Excel users, and a Power BI App for Microsoft Teams, which lets users explore their Power BI data while collaborating with remote colleagues.
Google Data Studio
Google Data Studio is part of the company’s larger Google Marketing Platform. Introduced in 2015, it’s a free tool that “turns your data into informative, easy to read, easy to share, and fully customisable dashboards and reports”.
It does this with the help of a drag and drop editor for building interactive reports using a variety of elements, including maps, charts, graphs, and paginated tables. The data underpinning the report can be drawn from Google’s own products, including Google Ads and Google Analytics, components of Google Workspace like Sheets, social media, and MySQL, PostgreSQL and BigQuery databases. Each report can use multiple data sources simultaneously.
Data within the reports remain active, allowing creators – or anyone with whom they’ve been shared – to drill down on specific elements by including or excluding data points, and re-ordering.
Google releases updates several times a month. In 2021, these included the ability to analyse a range of new data points generated by Google Ads, connectors for Amazon Redshift, the ability to embed Google Maps using an API key, and the option to visualise data from MySQL 8.
Being able to draw on data stored in or generated by so many other Google products is clearly appealing for any organisation that has built a cloud operation around Google Workspace – and particularly for those that make regular use of Google’s various advertising tools in their ongoing promotion.
Tableau is a multi-product platform comprising elements to clean and prepare data, analyse and organise it in interactive dashboards, and manage its hosting and access. Although the human interface is largely drag-and-drop, it’s underpinned by a proprietary language that converts those actions into background database queries. Tableau claims that its technology reduces the time involved in delivering insights from data using Hyper, which manages data in memory, rather than on disk.
“Hyper optimises and compiles queries into custom machine code to make better use of the underlying hardware,” the company explains. “When Hyper receives a query, it creates a tree, logically optimises the tree, and then uses it as a blueprint to create a unique program, which is then executed. The result is better utilisation of modern hardware for faster query execution.”
Depending on the use case and what happens to the output once it’s delivered, this reduced query response time could make a difference between first and second place when competing directly with close rivals.
In 2021, Tableau introduced Tableau Server in a Container using Docker and Kubernetes, and will be following up this year with dynamic scaling in a container, so that organisations can respond quickly to changing workloads.
Where Microsoft Power BI now integrates with Teams, Tableau is focused on Slack, which is perhaps not surprising as both are owned by Salesforce. Tableau for Slack, announced in autumn 2021, lets users set data-driven alerts, which work a little like live background reports that pop up in a team Slack channel to announce when certain conditions are met, allowing managers to take immediate advantage of the insight.
New BI tools are appearing every year, many of which are tailored to specific end use cases.
Datapine aims to democratise data, making it available throughout the organisation, in every department, including not only sales and finance, but internally, for HR management, and procurement. Zoho Analytics, which has recently received its fifth full-point release, is fully featured, starting with data cleansing, and incorporating AI and machine learning to deliver insights with, the company claims, ‘zero interactions’.
BI tools aren’t always used stand-alone either, “IBM Cognos Analytics has a plethora of modules for data exploration right from content to workspaces,” says Mohamed Aslam, Senior Client Delivery Manager at Merit. Looker, from Google, can integrate with existing BI platforms to help teams as they collaboratively build dashboards that they can share or deliver via Slack or Google Sheets.
Adopting a BI tool must be done with care. Not all are greatly expensive in pure financial terms (and organisations can get started with Google Data Studio for free). However, a BI platform, once adopted, will become a central component in any organisation’s decision-making process. As such, making the right choice at the outset, with a view to using it over several years, is paramount.
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