Summary: Business Intelligence solutions have grown rapidly over the last few years. The modern business now has more BI tools than ever to choose from. How can you select the right BI tool? What elements should they look for? In this article, we explore a few not-so-obvious areas you can’t ignore when choosing a BI solution.
Business Intelligence (BI) is growing by leaps and bounds. According to Gartner, the BI and analytics market will reach $16.9 billion this year, a 5.2% increase over last year. This growth is further evidenced in the annual “Top CIO priorities” lists, in which BI/analytics has taken the top spot a few years running.
Driven by this increased demand for BI, new tools are cropping up left and right. If you’re in the market for a BI solution, you’ll easily find hundreds (if not thousands) of options to choose from.
The big question: How do you know which option to choose? Are you going to compare every available option? Probably not.
So, where do you start? How do you separate the good from the bad? After all, most BI tools offer similar features. They will all create reports and dashboards. They will all let you analyze your data.
However, if you look a little deeper, you’ll find some key differences. These are areas that might not seem obvious at first glance, but can make or break a BI project. Today, let’s explore a few not-so-obvious areas you should look for in any BI solution.
1. Scalability costs
This is an area that’s commonly overlooked. Organizations commonly license a BI solution based on their current needs, but don’t plan for growth.
The problem is, many solutions become prohibitively expensive as your needs change. I’ve seen businesses get hit with rising user fees, distribution fees, run-time fees, and more. They licensed a tool at a low initial cost…and it ballooned out of control as they grew. Now, they’ve invested time and money into a solution they can no longer afford.
My advice: Plan for growth from the start. Now, I’m not saying you should purchase more licenses than you need. But, you must understand how the fees will change if you add more users or decide to distribute your BI applications in the future. You’d be surprised at the convoluted licensing structures that some BI vendors use.
“Different BI tools are suited to different purposes,” explains Dirk Garner, Principal Consultant with Garner Consulting. “Some are best to serve individual users while others can serve the enterprise. Whichever tool you are looking for, you should determine if it will scale as your usage grows and your company strategy evolves. You may not see an immediate need for this, but once you begin using your new BI tool and experience success, others will surely want to get involved. Because of these factors you should consider how the upgrade cost structure works. Are the costs progressive based on usage, users, or seats? Will you be able to secure funding on an ongoing basis? Is there tiered licensing available?”
2. Self-service capabilities
The term, “Self-service BI” has grown in popularity over the last few years. With the growth of data, businesses are adopting self-service tools that let end users analyze data on their own.
But, there’s a problem: Not every “self-service” tool is truly self-service. Some require light coding, while others require technical skills.
Before you adopt any “self-service” solution, walk through the build process interface in detail. As explained below, a true self-service tool won’t require coding or extensive technical knowledge on the user’s end.
“A true self-service BI tools is not just about fancy dashboards that appear easy to use but have to be built by technical professionals first,” says Ben Tai, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of DrivenBI. “It should require no programming or professional technical skill, no data warehouse or data modeling even when it comes building multi-dimensional analysis. And these business professional-friendly factors should stay true throughout the entire BI lifecycle, from preparing data, building analysis, and generating reports, to sharing results, taking actions, and collaborating with colleagues.”
One of the most important aspects of BI software is also one that you can’t see: The architecture. Some vendors build their software on proprietary architecture. Others build it on open architecture and frameworks.
What’s the difference? While we cover a few advantages of good architecture in this article, let’s focus on one key benefit of a well-architected solution: Integration.
Chances are, you will need to integrate your BI software with other software or systems within your company. The architecture could be the difference between a simple or difficult (if not impossible) integration. I’ve seen businesses struggle for over a year trying to integrate a BI tool, before finally ditching it altogether. Understand how easily you can integrate a solution with your existing systems before you buy.
“How well does the tool integrate with others?,” asks Charlie Leeds, Product Manager at Powerlinx. “The point of having a BI tool is to be able to find actionable insights and put them into action. Good BI tools then should either seamlessly integrate into one another, or at least complement each other.”
4. Customization options
Is your business unique? Or, are there hundreds of businesses that do exactly what you do? I’ll bet that most business leaders would choose the first option.
If that’s the case, why do so many businesses opt for one-size-fits-all BI solutions? If your business is unique, don’t you want a BI tool that works the way your business works?
“Reports and analytics are only as good as the data and business rules engines that crunch the data,” says Robert W. Wells, CEO of Allocable. “Be sure to select a BI solution that fits your unique business or industry. There are far too many “one-size-fits-all” BI tools out there.”
It’s a great point, and I’d like to take it one step further. Make sure you understand how customizable the solution is before you license it. Here are a few questions to ask the vendor:
- How easily can you customize the output?
- Does it let you create custom business rules?
- Does it allow for white-labeling?
Now, I realize that these questions won’t apply to every situation. That being said, the answers go a long way towards telling you how easily you can adapt the tool to your business.
5. Security controls
“Will multiple users/roles be using the BI tool?”, asks Wells. “If so, look for a BI that has pre-built roles with dashboards and features that reflect each users job duties or reports and features that fit your organization or industry.”
He makes a great point. Chances are, you’ll have many users across multiple departments using a BI tool. Before you purchase any BI solution, take a look at the security controls. At the very least, you need security controls on three levels:
- Application level: Not every BI application you create should be seen by every employee. You should be able to control user access on an application level.
- Row level: Some BI applications should be accessed by multiple people, but display only data relevant to their job. For instance, a salesperson should only be able to see their numbers on a sales report. This is known as row-level (or multi-tenant) security.
- User level: Finally, you should be able to personalize features and security to individual users or user roles. For instance, a C-level executive might see more options on their BI applications than a typical user.
Of course, any good BI solution will include a variety of additional security options. But, these three are essential to most BI implementations.
6. Available data sources
We’re in the middle of a data explosion. We have data from more sources than ever, and it’s only growing.
With that mind, choose a BI solution wisely. Some BI platforms will only support a limited number of databases or data formats. Even if it supports your current database, what happens if you want to add a new database in the future?
“It is rare to find a BI tool that performs equally well with multiple data types such as relational databases, column stores, graph databases, unstructured data, or text files, so it is imperative to evaluate a BI tool’s ability to connect and query data from each data source you might access if you purchase the tool,” says Garner. “This evaluation can be as simple as downloading and testing a demo product or a more involved process such as working through a proof of concept.”
These are just a few important things to look for in a good BI solution, but the list could certainly be longer. Would you add anything to this list? If you would like to add anything to this list, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to share in the comments.