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The BI Roadmap (Part III): How to choose BI software

EducationSummary: Despite the growing need for analytics, most BI projects still fail. Why? In the first two parts of our BI Roadmap Series, we learned a few reasons why BI projects fail, and a few steps you can take to limit your risk. In this article, you’ll take the next step–exploring the key features and capabilities you need in BI software.

photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay cc
photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay cc

In the first part of our BI roadmap, we started with the important questions. These are questions you must ask before looking for a BI solution. If ignored, your BI project will likely fail.

In the second part of our BI roadmap, we explored a few steps that you can’t ignore. Those who rush through these initial steps place their entire project at risk.

Today, let’s explore the next phase: Choosing BI software. Now, bear in mind that the first two parts are critical. If you ignore the initial questions and steps, even the best BI software won’t save your project.

Assuming you’ve addressed the issues outlined in the first two parts, let’s move into the software. What should you look for? How can you avoid software that either doesn’t fit your needs, or lacks essential features?

Today, we’ll answer those questions. But first, let’s examine two steps you should take to prepare for BI software:

1. Understand your capabilities
Every business is different. Your team and capabilities may vary greatly from similar companies in your industry.

This is where many companies make a mistake. They find the popular BI tool of the day, and assume it’s right for their company. Sure, maybe one BI tool works for the business down the street, but that doesn’t mean it fits your company’s unique strengths and needs.

“Be sure you know what your capabilities are both in terms of staff expertise and infrastructure,” says Douglas Briggs, Director, Business Intelligence at Washington University in St. Louis. “Ultimately your staff will have to live with the technology choices and business process changes that your BI solution entails, so make sure that you build what your staff can sustain and develop into an increasingly effective and mature component of your IT portfolio.”

2. Talk to others
While every business does have different needs, you can still learn from the experiences of others. Other companies have gone through the BI software selection process. Seek out unbiased opinions from them.

What if you don’t have contacts with BI experience? Check out forums, social networks, and LinkedIn Groups. You’ll find a wealth of information from real companies using BI software.

“Most companies (especially those with young or growing BI practices) should seek out their colleagues at other companies and ask about the real truth beyond the vendor hype,” explains Briggs. “Ask for wins they achieved and pain they suffered through. Everyone will have a different set of pros and cons for their particular vendor and package choices. Determine whether they apply to you, and if so, how you can mitigate them or how to approach vendors with your specific concerns in mind.”

While these steps may seem basic, they better prepare your business for a successful BI implementation. Now, let’s move on to the next part: software.

What to look for in the software?

So, what should you look for in BI software? Every BI product will provide some basic features, like simple reports, dashboards, and visualizations. Most will even provide mobile features these days. Besides the standard features, what should you look for in Business Intelligence software? Here are a few questions to ask about any BI software:

1. How does data get into the system?

photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay cc
photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay cc

In most businesses, data comes from multiple systems and applications. How will you consistently collect and transform all of that data into a usable format for the BI software?

Some BI software comes with Extend, Transform, and Load (ETL) tools built in. These ETL tools let you extract data from multiple source systems, transform it into a single format, and load that data into a target database.

Now, this isn’t always a standard feature. Some BI tools offer it as a costly add-on, while others don’t offer the feature–meaning you’ll need to integrate multiple tools.

“The advice I would give to businesses looking for BI software is not to focus solely on the front-end / GUI,” says Adam Bowers, Marketing Communications Manager at Urjanet. “Businesses also need a plan for how they will gather and input data into the BI software. Without good data coming into the system, the tool becomes useless. Businesses should make sure they either have the internal resources to collect and input the data, or can find a good external partner who will automate the data collection and delivery process into their BI software.”

2. How does data get out of the system?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, how can you get raw data out of the system? While the BI software should provide the analytical tools you need, you still need the flexibility to move data into spreadsheets (or other formats) if need be.

“Can the solution export all data for further analysis (using APIs or as .csv files)?” says Heinrich Hartmann, Chief Data Scientist at Circonus. “The UI will never be perfect for every situation. Sometimes you have to dig deeper and then you need the raw data.”

3. Does it allow for self-service BI?

In the past, the IT department controlled reporting and BI capabilities within the organization. These days, that’s changing. We’re seeing the rise of self-service solutions that let end users create their own BI and reporting applications. This is the direction Business Intelligence is heading today, and is an essential aspect of modern BI software.

“The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to consider newer self-service BI solutions from smaller firms,” says Drew Settles, Product Analyst at “The larger, traditional enterprise vendors, while “safe”, are usually far more powerful and expensive tools than are needed by most businesses. With these newer tools, while usually requiring at least *some *input and custom development to integrate into your existing IT infrastructure, once the connectors have been built, individual users can handle their own reporting and analysis, saving considerable time and resources when compared to traditional BI. The democratization of IT is leading to the democratization of BI, and as a result, everyone can make decisions based on data analysis, and create a data-driven company culture.”

4. Is it really “easy to use”?

Ease-of-use is a term that’s lost most of its meaning due to overuse. Most vendors claim “ease-of-use”, but is that really true? No.

Here are a few areas to examine: Does the software require any coding? Does it require that you learn a proprietary language? How quickly can you get up and running? How quickly can you generate BI applications once you’re up and running?

Why is this so important? With the rise of SaaS solutions, end users have options. If the BI software confuses end users, they won’t use it. They’ll revert back to Excel, or any number of readily available SaaS options.

“Consumer applications have reinvented simplicity,” says Edwin Miller, CEO of 9Lenses. “Today’s workers expect the same from their business systems. Lucky for us, software providers have been forced to adjust and have created business applications with the ease-of-use employees expect. When considering business intelligence software simplicity is the key because complex apps simply don’t get used. And your business intelligence system is practically useless if users don’t adopt it.”

5. Does it include Operational Reporting?

Operational reporting is designed to support the detailed day-to-day activities of the organization. Often scheduled to run nightly and delivered via email, operational reports give business leaders the details they need to run the business.

The problem: Not every BI solution offers operational reporting capabilities as an out-of-the-box feature. This forces you to purchase and integrate multiple tools, or purchase additional modules—raising the total cost of ownership of your solution.

“Key areas to focus attention on are “standard” operational reporting and “ad-hoc” reporting,” explains Briggs. “Most users will expect to be able to select fields/data elements they need for a report and click a button that gets the data they need.”

6. Does it include Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) or “slice-and-dice” reporting?

“Users are familiar with Excel pivot tables and will expect to explore data in this format,” explains Briggs. “It’s critical to be able to dive into the data and investigate relationships by navigating its “dimensions”.”

Why is this so important? First, as Briggs mentions above, it delivers data in a familiar format. Pivot tables are widely used. This lets users analyze their data using methods they already understand–a key element in driving BI user adoption.

Second, it simplifies reporting. Rather than creating multiple reports for different views of your data, a pivot table lets users examine nearly any data aspect from a single application.

7. What user/data security features are included?

photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) via photopin cc
photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) via photopin cc

This is where you’ll find disparity between products. A BI software’s security features dictate the level of control you have over data and user access. While some features come standard, you’ll be surprised to see how many lack certain security elements.

For instance, most will give you application-level and multi-tenant security. These features let you control applications and the data displayed within each application on a per-user (or user role) basis.

But, other features like single sign-on, flexible authentication options, user privilege parameters, and user-specific data sources might not exist in every software. Examine the security aspects carefully, and choose which areas are most important to you.

“Don’t overlook security,” says Tyler Wassell, Software Development Manager at mrc. “That’s my advice for businesses looking at BI software. Data and user security features are often overlooked, but I’d argue that they are one of the most important aspects. I’ve seen companies abandon their BI implementations once they realized it lacked a specific security feature.”

8. What is the TCO?

With BI software, the initial purchase price is often deceptively low, while the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) can be surprisingly high.

Look beyond the initial purchase price. What are the costs for implementation, training, and maintenance?

How do they handle license fees? Some charge per seat. Others charge per database license and provide unlimited user seats.

What’s the upgrade policy? Will the software become outdated in a few years? Will you have to purchase the next version when it comes out, or is that part of the maintenance plan? Is the software regularly enhanced, or does it slowly fall out of date?

Also, does the licensing include both external and internal reporting? For instance, what happens if you want to make reports available to your customers via a portal? While these features are included in some packages, others don’t allow this without an additional license or module. Still others will charge you a distribution fee.

As you can see, pricing isn’t usually cut-and-dried. Look beyond any “per-seat” pricing, and into the actual, long-term cost.

9. How portable is the software/applications?

Most analysts and researchers agree on one point: Cloud computing is the future. BI on the cloud promises near 100% uptime and scalability while avoiding the effort/expense of in-house hardware.

Before you purchase BI software, understand two important points:

  • Where can you install the software?
  • Where can you deploy applications?

I know what you’re thinking: “What if we have no plans for the cloud?”

Even if your company has no plans for the cloud, portable software positions you for the future. If your company ever adopts the cloud, your BI applications will not hold you back.


While this list could certainly go on, the points listed above are some of the most important aspects of BI software. What do you think? Would you add anything to the list? If so, please feel free to share in the comments.

3 thoughts on “The BI Roadmap (Part III): How to choose BI software”

  1. Hi Joe, I feel that even the best BI tools are ineffective if they are not utilized to its fullest extent. As rightly pointed out, companies need to understand their capabilities before opting for one. Thanks a lot for posting this informative article.

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