Best Practice and Creative Data Visualization by Jen Underwood for Atlanta BI

It looks like Atlanta BI Group will have a record attendance tonight with 74 people registered! Jen Underwood will present Best Practice and Creative Data Visualization.

This fun, informative, and inspirational session covers both best practices and creative options for data visualization. We will showcase data visualization techniques in Excel, Power View, Reporting Services, Visio, and a variety of other Open Source projects and Third-Party data visualization offerings. The possibilities are endless with the right mix of tools, tips, and tricks.

Windows Azure Infrastructure Services

Microsoft announced today the availability of Windows Azure Infrastructure Services which is a collective name for running Virtual Machines and Virtual Networks in the cloud. Scott Guthrie’s blog on this subject is very informative. Pricing get slashed too to be competitive with Amazon. What’s interesting is that these cloud VMs can be configured as an extension to your existing network. In the BI world, this would allow us to source data from existing on-premises data sources albeit probably over a much slower connection, such as to host your ETL, data mart and SSAS in the cloud or just the analytical layer. Speaking of connection speeds, the Azure bandwidth is actually good (5-15 GB/s) although it’s likely that is likely you’ll hit a bottleneck with your ISP on your way to and back from the cloud.

And, speaking of BI, check the SQL Server Business Intelligence in Windows Azure Virtual Machines document if you’re interested in cloud BI deployments. Notice that there are VM templates that install SSRS (native mode), SSAS (Multidimensional), as well as SharePoint 2013 but you can install manually the other components as well if you need to, such as Tabular. Microsoft recommends Extra Large VM size for BI deployments although its memory capacity (14 GB) might be on the lower end especially for Tabular.

About Tableau 8

Jen Underwood highly recommended I attend the Tableau 8 tour on Tuesday to witness firsthand its new features. Naturally, I couldn’t resist of comparing everything I saw with Microsoft BI. I took some time after the pretention to take 8.0 for a spin and reconfirm my understanding. Here are the top five things I liked about Tableau.

  1. Simplicity – A few months ago, I blogged about my top 5 Microsoft BI wish list. My number 1 wish was a continued focus on integration and simplification. Tableau 8.0 nailed it down as far as simplicity, at least on the visualization side of things. One desktop tool and its server-based counterpart. A tool whose sole purpose is BI. Not something that was bolted on another tool as a BI add-on. No layers to integrate with and configure on the server side, and error logs to sieve through.
  2. Visualization – Visualizations are yet simple and powerful. The presenter was quick to point out the areas where the tool excels in comparison with Power View. Tree maps and bubble maps were all over the place, as well as the ability to customize them, e.g. change the color of a pie slice. I liked the ability to dynamically group items (similar to custom MDX sets in Excel). For example, the presenter lassoed a bunch of cities in North America and created a North America dynamic group that was subsequently used to analyze sales. Another interesting in-the-box feature is ability to forecast data. In the Microsoft world, this would require some flavor of data mining (not a native feature in both Excel and Power View).
  3. Mobility – This is one area where Tableau has at least a year lead over Microsoft BI (see my number 2 wish item in the above blog). Once the dashboard is published to the server, it can be viewed and edited on mobile devices (iPad was demonstrated). By contrast, due to its Silverlight nature, Power View is currently supported only in Internet Explorer. However, as we’ve heard at conferences, Microsoft is hard at work to change this.
  4. JavaScript API – Developers creating web applications can integrate and embed interactive Tableau content into their applications via the new JavaScript API.
  5. Data reach – Apparently, Tableau customers are asking for specialized connectors to cloud data and emerging data sources. Version 8.0 introduces connectors for, Google Analytics, Hadoop, SAP Hana, etc.

Being a self-service BI tool, in my opinion the backend is where Tableau trails behind Microsoft BI, including:

  1. No continuum for self-service to organizational BI – While you can publish a workbook to the server, you can’t upgrade the workbook to an organizational BI model. Nor can you connect to a published workbook as a data source, e.g. by using Excel as a front end.
  2. In-memory engine – Based on my experiments, xVelocity (the in-memory engine of PowerPivot and Tabular) excels the Tableau in-memory technology both in compression and speed.
  3. Programming – Tableau supports custom calculations but the potential is not even close to what you can do with DAX. For example, I couldn’t find a way to use many-to-many relationship (not natively supported in Power Pivot but can be handled with DAX formulas).
  4. Scalability – I haven’t tested the server edition yet but I would expect Analysis Services to scale much better than Tableau due to the desktop origin of the latter.
  5. Security – Tableau supports action-level security, e.g. allowing the user to edit workbooks, and basic user filters that allow user access to specific members, such as Bob can see only USA. There is no dynamic data security.
  6. Usability – Besides the presentation layer where Tableau excels, I’ve noticed areas that would be surprisingly difficult for a self-service BI tool. For example, there isn’t option to visualize tables and relationships in a diagram view. For some obscure reason (I guess so it knows what to aggregate and not), Tableau insists on separating entities as dimensions and measures. Tableau stores data and connection definition as external files, and maintains connections per entity. For example, I couldn’t find a way to import more tables using the same connection definition.

In summary, choosing between Tableau and PowerPivot for self-service BI would require careful examination of requirements and comparing pros and cons of the two. On the corporate BI side of things, you should definitely consider Tableau as a front end to Analysis Services if you need an alternative to Microsoft Excel and/or Power View.