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September 2, 2020

The Unbiased Guide to Choosing the Right BI Tool

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September 2, 2020
Jacob Cohen
Director IT & Operations at HarperDB

Table of Contents

Business Intelligence (BI) is the ultimate end goal of digital transformation. The ability to make better, smarter, more efficient decisions based on data collected across the business is what drives technical investment. This makes choosing the right tool paramount for your organization. As a database instructor and mentor of mine used to say: data is worthless until it becomes information. Information is what happens when you use data to glean insights and conclusions. What better way to do that than with a tool designed for the job? Great news! There are a ton of options out there for you, potentially too many. In this blog, I’ll discuss strategies for selecting the right BI tool as well as some important things to keep in mind throughout the process.

What is a BI tool?

Let’s start by defining what exactly makes up a BI tool. Don’t tell my English teachers, but I’m going to cite Wikipedia. According to them, “Business intelligence software is a type of application software designed to retrieve, analyze, transform and report data for business intelligence. The applications generally read data that has been previously stored…” I think that does a pretty good job of defining the broad terms, but that still leaves us with a wide variety of software choices. Spreadsheets, database management studios, dashboarding tools, data mining software, all fall under this umbrella. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll be operating under the assumption that we are referring to the more colloquial BI tools which focus on providing visualization capabilities to end users of any skill level. Please note that I’m agnostic here and neither I nor HarperDB are promoting certain tools over others. This blog is intended to share my experience and provide general guidelines for making the decision that’s right for you.

Considerations When Choosing the Right BI Tool

There are plenty of minor factors that come into play when choosing the right BI tool, but let’s take a look at some important ones. Here are what I consider to be effective criteria to determine the right BI tool for your organization:

  • Technical Compatibility
    Does the tool connect to the existing datastores in your organization? If the tool can’t connect to your datastores or would require a large data integration project, it’s probably best to move on and find something that works a little closer to out-of-the-box. I’ve worked with quite a few organizations that have legacy data stored in legacy database technologies. Just because the tools are old doesn’t make the data any less valuable and it may be critical for true business intelligence understanding. If this is the case for your organization, you may have to skip some of the more modern, web-based solutions. For example, neither Looker nor Google Data Studio support old school JDBC or ODBC connections, which can be a limiting factor of legacy technology.
  • User Base/Ease of Use
    What tools are your end users already familiar with? Providing them with BI tools that have a similar user experience to tools they already use helps ease the transition to the new tool and drives adoption. If end users are intimidated by the complexity of the new solution they are far less likely to adopt it. For example, if most of the end users are already Excel power users, selecting Microsoft PowerBI is going to have a far greater chance of success because PowerBI is basically Excel for analytics. Another example is if your organization is powered by G Suite, going with Google Data Studio might make the most sense because it fits into the already existing ecosystem.
  • Reporting Capabilities
    Does the tool provide the proper reporting and analytics? At the end of the day, if you need to run specific analytics and produce distinctive charts, you need the right tool that can do it. The big players in the BI tool world most likely have everything you need, but it’s still important to verify ahead of time. I have seen cases where the leading tool is disqualified for not being able to produce a chart that a key stakeholder considered critical.
  • Collaborative Functionality
    Does the tool feature collaborative functionality to build and share charts and dashboards across teams? We should be past the days of accessing an Excel file or, even worse, an Access database file from a shared drive. (Yet I keep seeing them, so don’t feel too bad if you have some left, but please digitally transform already). This means we should be choosing tools that are collaborative at their core. The ability to build a chart with your team, share, and distribute is critical in modern business. Especially now that I haven’t left my house in months.
  • Pricing
    Is the functionality worth the cost? I’m not going to dig too much into this one, it’s pretty obvious. However if Fred, our COO, were writing this blog this section would be the largest one, but that’s his job. That’s the point, the technical team may want the biggest and baddest tool, but if the business stakeholders don’t see the value in it then you’re not getting your fancy tool. Pricing for BI tools is wide ranging, for example, Tableau is over $800 per user per year and Google Data Studio is free. Sure, Tableau has more features, but ask your COO which one they prefer once they hear that tidbit.
  • Optional: Mobile Friendly
    Does the tool offer mobile friendly dashboarding and reporting? Now, I say this is optional because for some organizations this just isn’t a priority or a necessity. Others could find immense value in giving its users a real-time dashboard in the palm of their hands. For example, anyone with physical assets could benefit from having status and management of everything with them at all times instead of relying on a laptop.
  • Ancillary Requirements
    What else do we need? Here’s my catchall. Each organization operates their own way, I’m sure there are things I’ve missed here that are important to you. Maybe you only run Microsoft OS, so the tool needs to be able to run there as well. Perhaps email alerting is a requirement.

There are plenty of criteria and requirements that could sway the decision of a BI tool. Hopefully this blog helps provide some unbiased opinions and thoughts of what to look for when getting started with your BI tool search.

Now for a bit of HarperDB bias. Our database technology was built to be powerful and easy to use for all aspects of data collection and analysis. In fact, HarperDB can easily serve as a data warehouse to coalesce data from disparate datastores, so you only need to hook your BI tool up to a single data source. We offer plenty of drivers, like ODBC and JDBC, out-of-the-box that work natively with client based tools like Tableau and PowerBI. We also have an Excel Add-In that can be used for makeshift BI purposes. In fact, I’ve seen some of our partners build some incredibly powerful tools for users who just want to stay in Excel for everything. However, as a newer database, there are times when we run into BI tools that don’t support HarperDB out of the box. Fortunately, many of these tools allow the community to build their own connectors and integrations. We currently have someone working on a Google Data Studio connector through our bounty program which should be ready to go in the near future. I’m pretty excited for that one! Charting functionality is the next big feature to be released in HarperDB Studio, making it a free and powerful BI tool of its own. Did I convince you to give it a try? Try HarperDB Cloud for free today!

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