Emerging BI applications easily enable data discovery and visualization on any device

If you’ve been happily working in Microsoft SQL and Excel for your business intelligence and reporting solutions, you may not have had much motivation to look at the offerings outside of the Microsoft stack. But if you find that not everyone wants to work in Excel, or that Reporting Services and Power BI (including Power View) disappoints when it comes to rich visualizations or ease of use, then it’s worth looking at some of the great new and revamped offerings from other BI software vendors. While many of us have heard of Tableau, dozens of other platforms are emerging or evolving that offer visualization plus what seemed to me to be the more complete end to end solution offered by Microsoft. These newer platforms enable easy data discovery, data integration and transformations without the need for SQL developers, and self-service dashboard design – all within attractive Web user interfaces.

Gartner’s 2014 BI Magic Quadrant, which was based on surveys completed in 2013, does provide a sense of the scope of offerings and the top contenders. The section at the end of the report, “Interesting Vendors That Did Not Qualify for Inclusion” in the Quadrant is worth reviewing because it identifies some newly-emerging potential stars. Consider SiSense, which promises in-memory technology that can handle Big Data volumes, and DataRPM, which like SiSense offers “no developer” solutions for business users to integrate data, build and share dashboards with excellent performance, drill-down and trigger KPI alerts, push reports to email or view on mobile devices. DataRPM, like many of the newer entrants, also offers natural-language search capability that frees users from the traditional drag and drop interfaces. SiSense and DataRPM’s style of selecting data enables users to type in search terms, as does Microsoft’s Q&A feature in Power BI, to discover information and generate data visualizations. It’s definitely a trend worth watching since it caters to our everyday search habit for easily finding information.

I recently discovered two newer entrants not on Gartner’s list that may be possible contenders in the future: Domo and Looker. I had an opportunity to get a demo of Looker recently, and was impressed with the ease of exploring the data and especially with the drill-down capabilities that are just not possible to do in Excel, whether Power View or traditional pivots. The flexibility of the data model is also impressive, since it doesn’t rely on hard-coded database structures but instead uses a proprietary but easy to learn language for set up by tech savvy business users. While Looker may not be in the Quadrant this year (being so new and with an insufficient customer base at the time of Gartner’s survey), I think it should be on anyone’s radar who wants an easy to use tool for exploring data and ensuring the data model keeps up with rapidly changing business needs.

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