The Top 5 Business Intelligence Tools and How to Master them

Ruth Ng

Ruth Ng

9 min read
Business intelligence tools

Companies have more raw data today than ever before. What they don't have is time to consolidate and use it. Business Intelligence (BI) tools can help make sense of the data.

What is a BI Tool?

Business Intelligence (BI) tools are software applications that take unstructured data and prepare them for analysis. The data sources can be documents, videos, images, and books. You can then use BI tools to query the data and prepare reports and visuals. These insights lead to faster and better decisions, remove operational bottlenecks, and identify market trends.

What features should a BI Tool have?

BI Tools are complex and come with tons of features. The most important features are listed below.

  1. Data collection and shaping: The tool can connect to different data sources, and query and ingest data. Many analytical models can be created.
  2. Reporting, Visualization, Storytelling: The tool creates and distributes interactive dashboards, reports and charts. It uses data visualization and narrative techniques to design compelling presentations.
  3. Insights and analytics: It uses ML techniques to find insights and build analytics.
  4. Security and Manageability: The tool stores and processes data securely. It manages information sharing.

The Five Top BI Tools

There are dozens of BI tools available today. Many of them are very good. We have selected the five BI tools that we think are the best among them, using the features listed above for comparison.

MS Power BI

Microsoft Power BI stands out as the unquestioned leader. It has led Gartner's Magic Quadrant rankings for BI tools for the past dozen years.

The Power BI solution consists of three components:

  • Power BI Desktop (a free Windows standalone tool) that can connect to your data sources and generate reports and visuals
  • The cloud-based Power BI Service that allows users to view dashboards and reports using a browser or with mobile apps
  • The Power BI Report Server, an on-premises report server

Power BI comes bundled with Office 365 Enterprise Edition, making it ubiquitous. Its low pricing combined with its extremely rich feature set makes it attractive. It has comprehensive analytics and ML capabilities. Its AI services are powered by Azure.

Users can connect to over a hundred data sources. Depending on the subscription level, users get 100 TB of storage and up to 400 GB sized data models. The UI is intuitive (think a level beyond Excel) so, new users can ramp up quickly. The dashboards are easy to use. The visualizations are rich and compelling.

Microsoft has been adding features at a fast pace, releasing an update every week. So, there is a constant flow of upgrades and innovations. On the flip side, the Power BI desktop is available only on Windows, so Mac and Linux users must use the Power BI Service.

The free version has a limit on the data size it can analyze. You must upgrade to premium, paid versions if you deal in large data sizes. This can be expensive. Beginners can find it difficult to handle large data sets. PowerBI does not provide a data cleansing function. This must be done separately.

Looker (Google)

Google acquired Looker in 2020, immediately integrating it within Google Cloud Platform (GCP). Looker is optimized for many cloud databases. It is web-based, so no desktop app is needed, and users have a seamless experience. Looker sits right on top of your data, so setup is easy, and the workflow is user-friendly.

Looker provides all users access to all underlying data, so users don't operate in silos. The tool has strong sharing capabilities and also provides strong developer support. It offers extensive APIs, SDKs (for Python, R, JavaScript and other languages), and developer tools. So, developers can easily create custom analytics and embed them in workflows and customer-facing applications. The Looker platform is based on the LookML language. Looker uses LookML to build queries. Users don't need to know SQL. However, Looker is still evolving.

It struggles when loading complex dashboards that sit on large data sets. One reason is the lack of OLAP support. Looker has not been adopted widely outside the US and Western Europe. Currently, it does not support AI automation, augmented analytics, and Natural Language enabled experiences.

Qlik Sense

Qlik is a flexible and scalable BI tool that can carry out data analysis and visualization for a wide range of users but is targeted at enterprises. It has a strong product vision for machine learning and AI-driven augmentation. Qlik is built on the Qlik Associative Engine (which has powered Qlik products for ages), and the Qlik Cognitive Engine, which provides the AI heft.

Its in-memory processor makes it fast as it equally provides new insights in real-time as data is added. Qlik runs completely in the cloud, so setup is fast and easy. It runs on all the major cloud solutions, including Azure and AWS. Qlik offers an on-prem option as well. Qlik's AI capabilities enable non-technical users to perform data analysis with ease where ata can be shared between users in real-time. Security is also stringently enforced as the platform provides a guarantee against data breaches.

Although.. Qlik has a few disadvantages. Qlik's pricing is complex. A Qlik Sense license includes analytical and BI capabilities. Add-ons like Qlik Catalog, Insight Advisor Chat, and Qlik NPrinting cost extra. This makes it unattractive to small and medium businesses. Application development on the platform is difficult. Good knowledge of SQL is needed with users iterating a difficult dashboard.

Tableau

Tableau has a slick drag-and-drop interface, which is arguably the best among all BI tools. This makes it extremely easy to use for visualization and interactivity with data. You can build the most sophisticated and well-designed visualizations in seconds, and quickly spot trends. Tableau usage does not require scripting or programming knowledge and it can connect to many data sources. Its iOS and Android apps offer almost as much functionality as the desktop version.

It may be the easiest BI tool to learn and Tableau has a loyal and enthusiastic customer base. It is probably the only BI tool that can be described as enjoyable to use. On the other hand, Tableau has its share of disadvantages. Purists claim that Tableau is more of a visualization tool than an analytics platform.

Automatic refresh of reports is not supported. You must manually generate reports if the underlying data changes. Tableau can get expensive if you want to share reports. You will need Tableau Server, which is very costly, or Tableau Online, which is limited. Tableau's high cost makes it more suitable for large enterprises. Performance is another weakness. It handles large volumes of data with difficulty, though it has improved in recent times.

SQL knowledge is needed to create rich and complex data sets. Much of which can be found on Trailhead.

ThoughtSpot

ThoughtSpot is an innovative, next-gen, search-driven, AI-powered analytics platform.

ThoughtSpot uses search and NLP as the primary means of querying data. Queries can be made either by typing or speech. This makes it easy for non-technical users. AI runs queries that users may not even have thought of. These auto-generated insights are pushed back to the users.

ThoughtSpot can easily support complex queries on big data volumes (billions of rows). Searches are carried out across all connected data sources. It also has a monitoring capability that proactively alerts users when key business metrics change. Where overall, ThoughtSpot is a powerful and dependable BI tool. It is used by organizations across a variety of industries. It is the number one choice of companies looking for advanced search, NLP, and augmented analytics functionality.

On the minus side, ThoughtSpot offers limited customization of data visualization features. This makes it tough to create compelling dashboards. There are not as many training options available as for the other BI tools. Compared to its rivals, ThoughtSpot has a smaller international presence, fewer partner-implemented deployments, and a smaller user community.

ThoughtSpot has no free version. But a free trial is available. It's available in two pricing tiers: Enterprise, and Extended Enterprise.

How to master the tools

If you are new to BI tools but are interested in learning more about them, there are many free and inexpensive options to get trained. The makers of all these tools provide free learning material in the form of video tutorials, blogs, and in some cases, freely downloadable books. YouTube channels operated by these companies feature high-quality training videos.

Popular MOOC platforms, like edX and Coursera, offer both free and paid courses. The training site Udemy hosts several BI courses, many of which students rate highly. Udemy's charges are very reasonable, and there is usually a sale around the corner. If you prefer instructor-led training programs, you have many choices. Bootcamps, both online and in-person, are frequently conducted.

Select the option which works best for you and master the BI tool of your choice in no time.

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