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BI Platforms Vie for Agile Bragging Rights

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: which is the most agile BI platform of all?

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: which is the most agile business intelligence (BI) platform of all?

According to Forrester Research's recent Wave report, no single BI platform is the most agile of them all. Instead, Forrester Wave: Agile Business Intelligence Platforms, Q3 2015 finds that nearly half a dozen BI platforms -- including established offerings from giants Microsoft Corp., MicroStrategy Corp., SAP AG, and SAS Institute Inc. -- are the agilest of the agile.

They're joined by GoodData Inc., Qlik Inc., and TIBCO Spotfire, all of which cracked Forrester's "Leaders" sphere. Forrester puts BI offerings from Oracle Corp. and Tableau Software Inc. right beside the break between its "Leaders" and "Strong Performers" sections.

Most Tableau users, and most of the 8,000 to 10,000 people who attended the recent Tableau Customer Conference (TCC) in Las Vegas, would probably defend Tableau as one of the most agile BI or analytics offerings on the market. Forrester's take on agile BI dinged Tableau for what it took to be a less-compelling strategy than competitors Qlik, Microsoft, SAP, and SAS. Forrester analyst Boris Evelson, principal author of the report, lauded Tableau for its visual design know-how.

"Rather than struggling with custom coding and designing an effective visualization, users and developers can rely on Tableau to have already incorporated all of the best practices into the platform," writes Evelson, who notes that "Forrester clients often choose Tableau because they perceive the vendor as a thought and market leader in self-service agile data visualization."

As Tableau has taken on -- and been taken up by -- the enterprise, Forrester says, it must do more to address some of the data management issues to which it traditionally gave short shrift, such as metadata management and governance. (Evelson and Forrester acknowledge that Tableau, along with Birst Inc., did not fully participate in its Wave methodology.)

"Forrester clients often express concern that Tableau and other BI vendors with roots based on desktop architecture are more challenging to manage across a large enterprise deployment than BI platforms with enterprise roots, semantic data layers, and ROLAP architecture," Evelson writes. "Forrester recommends that clients using Tableau Software develop compensating processes and controls -- in the data integration and data management layers -- to ensure reusability and uniform usage of enterprise data assets."

Microsoft's Power BI took top honors from Forrester as the most agile overall BI tool. Overall, it scored about as high on the "Agility" axis as did Tableau, but PowerBI fared much better on Forrester's "Strategy" axis.

"Microsoft has dominated and will continue to dominate the [BI] market with Excel, the de facto and most commonly used BI platform around the globe. Indeed, with every new release of its BI platform, Microsoft makes it more difficult for large enterprises that have already deployed Microsoft Office, Office365, SharePoint, and SQL Server not to consider Power BI as its enterprise BI platform," Evelson writes. What's not to like, he asks: "Familiar Excel UI, agile in-memory PowerPivot architecture, hybrid [on-premises and cloud-based] deployment [options] ... completeness of BI functionality ... and low acquisition cost differentiate Power BI."

Another vendor that Forrester accorded high marks for both agility and strategy was SAP. SAP trailed Microsoft, Tableau, Qlik, and Oracle on the "Agility" axis, but outpaced all competitors on the "Strategy" axis. "Under the covers, SAP Lumira data architecture is based on an index. Such architecture gives Lumira users extra flexibility to slice and dice the data with few of the limitations that are usually imposed by relational or multidimensional data models," Evelson explains.

"In addition to providing a highly flexible UI, Lumira was one of the pioneers of data preparation functionality built right into the tool, reducing dependency on third-party data integration platforms."

Lumira is held back by some of the same issues (lagging integration between and among products, heavy usage in SAP shops, unknown penetration in non-SAP environments) that constrain SAP's BI stack: "Forrester is not aware of a critical mass of Lumira deployments in non-SAP-centric organizations ... and ... cannot confirm the level of SAP customer support in such deployments."

Qlik scored very well on Forrester's agility axis, too, trailing only Microsoft and Tableau.

"Data visualization is ... no panacea. Most data visualization tools rely on underlying relational or multidimensional data models, limiting them to answering questions [that are] pre-built into the data models," writes Evelson, who cites Qlik Sense's "associative" data architecture.

"Business users can explore these relationships and uncover previously unknown information just by typing in a few characters, words, or sentences," he continues, noting that Qlik's in-memory architecture -- Qlik was in-memory before being in-memory was sexy -- is still a differentiator.

"Qlik has recently closed some of the gaps in its BI portfolio with the Qlik Sense cloud-based platform," Evelson notes. On the other hand, Qlik, which hails from the same workgroup BI background as Tableau, is subject to most of the same criticisms, he points out. Not surprisingly, Forrester and Evelson make the exact same recommendations to clients who deploy Qlik Sense or Tableau: viz., embed processes and controls -- to promote consistency and reusability -- in the context of data integration and data management layers to supplement their usage.

Other vendors scoring well were GoodData, MicroStrategy, Oracle, SAS, and TIBCO.

GoodData received high marks for its cloud BI platform-as-a-service, while MicroStrategy was lauded for the tight integration of its agile BI offering. "All of the components are organically integrated, can share content, and use the same UI," Evelson writes. "This ... integration allows business users to build applications in MicroStrategy Desktop or Cloud, which ... [IT professionals] can then migrate to the enterprise server platform for application sharing, scalability, and control."

SAS is distinguished by virtue of its predictive analytic and statistical expertise, as well as by the strength of its agile BI offering, Visual Analytics, which is also available as a cloud offering. TIBCO Spotfire is distinguished by the strength of its data visualization capabilities, which are still best of breed.

Finally, Forrester flagged Oracle's BI Cloud Services (OBICS) as "the new 800-pound gorilla" in the agile BI stakes. "There was only one gap in [Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition] -- few [a]gile BI capabilities," he says.

"In 2015, Oracle closed the gap and hit the ground running with ... OBICS[; that] will appeal to buyers who are looking for a single agile and integrated enterprise end-to-end BI platform that [resides] in the cloud."

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