How to Do B.I. on the Cheap

YellowFin is just one of many inexpensive commercial B.I. tools.

B.I. doesn’t have to be expensive (as SlashBI suggested in May). There are plenty of commercial B.I. tools that don’t cost five figures, and some that are even available for free or at minimal cost.

Several factors are making B.I. tools popular. One is that the iPad is evolving into a go-to B.I. executive dashboard. Another is that B.I. has spread beyond the providence of a few skilled analysts, to become part of an increasing number of workers’ job descriptions. The cloud hosts numerous B.I. service offerings, which encourages more queries.

Finally, the tired old spreadsheet is, well, tired—and users are increasingly happy to abandon it for something better suited toward business-trend analysis. A recent Aberdeen study found that half of surveyed IT managers needed better tools to make sense of data.

There are several reasons to use commercial B.I. tools in particular, despite the proliferation of open-source options. Maybe you want to eventually use a more expensive B.I. product, from a big league vendor, and want a taste of what’s in store for you. Or maybe your users dislike the idea of managing an open-source project. Or maybe commercial tools cooperate well with your existing data. Let’s take a closer look at what’s available.

Microsoft

First are some free tools from Microsoft (which they call “labs,” meaning that they might have more bugs than usual). These tools connect various Microsoft pieces of software together for deeper data analysis.

For example, PowerPivot is an Excel add-on that can import and analyze data from Access and other data sources. Microsoft claims you can use it to import and quickly process thousands of rows of data.

The company also offers extensions to SQL Server 2012, known as Reporting Services, which provide ad hoc data visualization; online demos will reveal how these tools work and whether they fit your needs. While no programming is needed, you should know your way around the various Microsoft services such as SQL Server, Silverlight and SharePoint.

Tibco, MicroStrategy, QlikTech, Tableau

Four companies usually associated with more expensive B.I. software are Tibco, MicroStrategy, QlikTech and Tableau. They all have free lower-end offerings, two of which are SaaS-based.

First is Silver Spotfire from Tibco. This tool allows the creation of cloud-based interactive dashboards where you can take your Excel data and manipulate it. The personal version is free and limited to 10,000 rows with ten concurrent viewers. If you want something more powerful, or a version that can use private data, the company has subscriptions starting at $99 per year. More expensive versions can access other databases or manipulate multiple datasets.

Silver Spotfire is the hosted version of Spotfire, and there are copious online demos and templates available from Tibco to show you what is possible. There’s also an iPad version.

Like Silver Spotfire, Tableau Public can perform data visualizations from Excel data (there are extensive galleries showing you what you can do with the tool). It can connect to Microsoft Access, and is limited to 100,000 rows.

One caveat for anyone considering Silver Spotfire and Tableau Public: once you create a particular visualization, anyone with a Web browser can view it. If you want something for private analysis, Tableau comes in a variety of paid desktop versions starting at $1000.

The next two downloadable tools are intros to expensive BI offerings. One is QlikTech’s QlikView Business Discovery Platform, with a Personal Edition that’s free to download (registration required). It is a fully functional version of software that costs $1350 per user with an $8,400 server license.

The other is MicroStrategy’s free Reporting Suite, which bundles in a bunch of pieces of its paid B.I. tools along with 60 days of free email support. If you are looking into getting involved with this line of products, this is certainly the way to go.

Smaller Vendors

Tools from smaller software vendors are worth a closer look, as well. Many of these are geared toward particular mobile devices, or take your existing spreadsheet data and visualize it in interesting ways.

Roambi offers two tools, Analytics and Flow. It also has a free Analytics Lite account for individuals; this takes Excel data into its cloud and sends it to any iPhone or iPad. It has paid accounts that can import data from Google docs and Salesforce. The Flow tool is more of an information-publishing solution that turns data into an interactive magazine viewable on an iOS device (it requires the paid Analytics tool).

Webalo is very much a data access tool, and comes with support for the top four mobile device platforms: iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. Using a simple set of Web screens in the Agenda interface, you can set up easy access to your corporate databases with a customized mobile app (no programming required to actually build the app). You can choose to use a hosted solution or have the Webalo services running on a virtual appliance inside your firewall. Prices start at $100 per user per year for the hosted solution.

Finally, YellowFin is an Australia-based B.I. service. The Web-based dashboard is quite flexible, and you can try it out for free on their site; there are iOS and Android mobile apps, too. Pricing starts at $600 per user per year.

As you can see, there are lots of inexpensive B.I. solutions that can bridge the gap between ad hoc spreadsheet models and more expensive solutions.

Image: YellowFin

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