Microsoft Power BI is rapidly becoming the signature data visualisation platform in an age of democratised business analytics. This trophy has been held very firmly by Tableau for several years, and Tableau came to market claiming that ease of use was its primary differentiator. In reality there are now several data visualisation platforms that can claim similar ease of use, and so the differentiator is becoming diluted. Until recently Power BI was a set of Excel add-ons and a cloud service for sharing reports, data sets, dashboards and charts – and it was not particularly user friendly really. This all changed early 2015 when Microsoft announced what are now called Power BI Desktop and the cloud Power BI service. Power BI Desktop is a data visualisation platform evolving at a frightening rate, and providing pretty much all the functionality of the Excel add-ons in a user friendly drag-and-drop, visual environment. It has also embraced the Q&A natural language interface, and even the Cortana speech capability. So the ease-of-use title is slipping away from Tableau, and the firm will have to seek higher ground, possibly with more advanced forms of analytics.
Microsoft Power BI
Power BI is the tip of a very large Microsoft business analytics iceberg. It includes the Azure machine learning platform, SQL Server Analysis Services, real time data streaming, and several Azure database offerings. Microsoft also acquired Revolution Analytics, an enterprise environment for open source R analytics. Tableau cannot compete with this, and would be foolish to try and do so. However Tableau is effectively a self-contained data visualisation platform with good scalability and sophisticated visuals. While Power BI can be used as a self-contained environment, it does imply to some extent use of a broader Microsoft architecture.
If data visualisation is the alpha and omega of your business’s analytical activity then Tableau is a good option. However, if a broader analytic landscape is being viewed (reporting, predictive modelling, optimisation etc.), then Power BI and accompanying Microsoft products will be much more suitable. And it should be obvious that Microsoft products will cost less in many cases, and provide pretty much the benchmark for ease-of-use.
Until recently Power BI was essentially a set of add-ons for Excel with cloud sharing. Power Pivot supports the creation and manipulation of pivot tables, Power View allows users to explore and visualise data, Power Query is a data manipulation tool for joining and preparing data for analysis. Excel aficionados love the power and flexibility of these tools, but they do present a barrier for those without Excel skills. And so early this year Microsoft introduced a desktop data visualisation tool initially called Power BI Designer, later to be renamed Power BI Desktop. In addition to this they also released the cloud based Power BI Preview, a platform to share dashboards and charts.This is now called the Power BI service. All the functionality of Power Pivot, Power View, and Power Query are embedded into Power BI Desktop, and Microsoft has stated that it is this that will see most development above the Excel add-ons. The user interface incorporates Q&A, the natural language query facility, and Cortana, the speech interface, has also been incorporated. Power BI comes as part of Office 365 Enterprise, and it should be remembered that Microsoft products represent the most widely used BI platform on the planet.
Of course full utilisation of Power BI implies some level of buy-in to Microsoft’s wider analytics technologies. A connector exists for SQL Server Analysis Services, and various Azure data sources are also well supported. Real-time dashboards can be created using Azure Stream Analytics, and in a business setting, sharing can be controlled using Office 365 groups. Having said this, the Microsoft Power BI Personal Gateway acts as a bridge to many on-site data sources outside the Microsoft ecosystem.
That Microsoft is serious about business analytics is well demonstrated by its recent acquisition of Revolution Analytics, an enterprise platform for R, the open source statistics and analytics language. It also acquired Datazen, the mobile BI platform, which has been reincarnated as a set of native Power BI apps for all mobile devices. And then earlier this year it introduced Azure Machine Learning – a platform for the development and deployment of predictive analytics.
Microsoft, along with Amazon (who recently introduced its own cloud based business analytics platform) are set to commoditise business intelligence, and the word commoditise should not be read as lowest common factor. Microsoft Power BI is starting to challenge many premium BI and data visualisation platforms, and will ultimately eclipse many of them. It’s a hard world.
Without doubt Tableau Software set the pace for easy-to-use data visualisation 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 organisation 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.