Vendor Lowdown: Tableau Business Intelligence Software

Tableau is a business intelligence (BI) and analytics tool with heavy emphasis on data discovery and self-service. Tableau’s corporate slogan, “Answer questions as fast as you can think them,” highlights the company’s insistence on providing users with a quick way to solve problems.

To do this, users analyze their data via interactive visual dashboards—which allow them to uncover patterns and deliver new insights.

This marks a big change from the old days of IT-centric BI, when business users were required to submit reporting requests to their IT departments. A long, slow, highly technical process would then follow; the resulting reports were static, and often out of date by the time management received them.

With Tableau software and similar tools, business users are now able to conduct their own analyses and get the insights they need autonomously.

This new approach has revolutionized the BI market, and Tableau is at the forefront of that revolution. In fact, in the most recent Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics tools, Tableau placed highest in the leaders’ quadrant. This recognition makes Tableau the competitor to beat for the traditional BI giants.

Here, we take an-depth look at Tableau business intelligence software, giving you the lowdown on the product portfolio and what it does. 

What Is Tableau?

Visit the Tableau site, and the drop-down menu will quickly reveal that there are several products available—seven different versions, in fact. Although this might seem confusing at first, it is relatively simple to break them down.

Tableau has two lines of products: one for companies and organizations, and another for consumers (which is free). However, when Tableau speaks about “company” and “organization,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that firms have to invest in a huge deployment. In fact, it’s possible to pay for a single license for one user.

Tableau drag and drop analytics

Drag-and-drop analytics in Tableau 9.0 (Source: Tableau)

Tableau Products for Companies/Organizations:

    • Tableau Desktop: Downloadable software that enables users to quickly start exploring and understanding their data through interactive visualizations and dashboards. Tableau Desktop exists in two versions: a lower-priced “personal” version, and a “professional” version that is more expensive, but connects to a wider range of data sources.
    • Tableau Reader: A companion product to Tableau Desktop, this allows users to share the interactive visualizations they create via email, without having to pay for another desktop license. Works with both the personal and professional editions.
    • Tableau Server: Allows users to share and interact with visualizations and dashboards across their organization. For users of the heavier-duty Tableau Desktop professional version only.
    • Tableau Online: A Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) version of Tableau Server, which allows for sharing but is hosted in the cloud—and thus requires no server maintenance on the part of the user. Is only compatible with Tableau Desktop.
    • Tableau Mobile: Companion products to Tableau Server and Tableau Online for mobile devices. This is currently available for iPad (an iPhone version is pending).

Tableau Products for Consumers/Individuals:

    • Tableau Public: An online, public version of Tableau. Users can create and publish visualizations to the online platform, then embed them on their own website, blog etc. This is free, but user creations are shared with the community—i.e., anybody can find your visualization.
    • Vizable: A stand-alone, free app for iPad users released in October 2015 that turns data into interactive graphs.

Tableau smart mapping function

Smart mapping function in Tableau 9.0 (Source: Tableau)

Most Businesses Start With Tableau Desktop

Although the free tools may be good for home users and amateurs, they are not especially intended for business users. In particular, the very shareability of Tableau Public makes it less than ideal for users with confidentiality in mind.

When it comes to businesses, “everyone starts with Tableau Desktop,” says Paul Turner, principal of technology consulting firm SkyView Consulting.

Why Tableau Desktop? Turner, who is both a user of Tableau and an analytics professional with 20 years of experience, says it’s simple: Users can get started quickly and perform a wide range of tasks.

“If you want to analyze data that you have in a spreadsheet or in a data warehouse, then you download Tableau Desktop and point it at the data, and can slice and dice the data [and] identify trends, exceptions [and] correlations,” he says.

Indeed, Tableau is known for its strategy of “land and expand”—once a few users start deploying the tool in an organization, its popularity causes it to spread across departments.

Capabilities of Tableau Desktop

Visual analytics Filters and analyzes data; allows the user to uncover trends across different categories and to place data on an interactive map.
Statistical tools Allow users to perform new calculations based on existing data. Includes drag-and-drop functionality, statistical summaries, regressions, trend analyses, correlations etc.
Metadata management Data about data: This tool helps users manage, organize, combine, filter and create subsets of data.
Mapping Data can be placed on interactive maps that incorporate global map information.
Data engine Enables the user to quickly extract and analyze data; even very large data sets can be analyzed on a laptop or mobile device.
Best practice Automated guidance on the best options for representing data, selecting color, design choices, chart types, etc.

Of course, creators of visualizations often need to share their work with colleagues. Tableau Reader, mentioned above, is good for less collaborative sharing. But larger organizations will want to look at Tableau Server or Tableau Cloud, which are designed for collaboration and sharing across users in a large organization.

Key tools and characteristics of Tableau Server include:

    • Flexibility: Tableau Server can use live, direct data connections (best for fast databases and users in need of instant data). It can also extract and refresh data in-memory (more suited to slow databases and offline work).
    • Updates and alerts: Data refreshment can be scheduled; alerts can be set up for when data connections fail. Users can also set up automated data subscriptions.
    • Security: Permissions can be set to control access to projects and dashboards, while filtering and data-connection permissions protect data security.


Tableau smart mapping function

Tableau Server interface (Source: Tableau)

Strengths: What Users Think

So what is it users like so much about Tableau? Turner stresses its ease of use.

Tableau is “incredibly easy to use if your data is ready for analysis,” he says. “You’ll see the dimensions (like products and geographies) and metrics like sales or revenue for analysis, be able to select them, pivot and filter them—and Tableau does a great job of providing the right visualization based on what you are looking at.”

In addition, says Turner, many users analyze and explore spreadsheet data through Tableau. The software is also very strong on geospatial analysis.

Jennifer Shin, founder of data science and analytics firm 8 Path, also highlights Tableau’s ease of use—in particular the “user-friendly design,” which makes the platform simple to learn. Shin also notes that Tableau can be scaled to fit the needs of an organization. What’s more, prospective buyers can try Tableau Public before committing to purchasing a license.

She also points out an advantage for certain sectors: While Tableau may not be “the most cost-effective option for small businesses, startups or individuals interested in creating data visualizations,” students and instructors from accredited institutions can get a Tableau Desktop license for free.

Tableau smart mapping function

Level of detail expressions and analytics pane (Source: Tableau)

Potential Limitations: What Users Think

Tableau is a powerful tool, but it is also a complex one.

Given this, says Turner, data strategy “is incredibly important”—especially when it comes to multi-user deployments. Indeed, he emphasizes, “if you don’t have the data somewhat clean and ready to analyze, then you’re not ready for Tableau.”

This is because Tableau is focused on data visualization and discovery, not data preparation, Turner adds.

He recommends a tool such as Paxata to help with data prep, though “you may have to partner with your IT department to get the data out of your accounting system, or other systems you want to analyze.

“If you’re thinking of rolling out Tableau to a lot of users, then you should definitely have a strong data strategy in place—data warehouse, data mart etc.—so that your IT department doesn’t get overwhelmed with ad hoc requests for data, and [so] everyone is making decisions from the same data,” Turner says.

Shin agrees that data strategy is crucial.

“Depending on your data needs, a separate database or ETL (extract, transform and load) tool may be necessary, and computations for advanced analytics will need to be done prior to importing the results into Tableau for visualization,” she adds.

“Reporting capabilities can also fall short for users creating traditional, printable reports—but Tableau offers the ability to create interactive visualizations that can be beneficial for data-driven organizations.”

Finally, says Shin, “like [with] most enterprise platforms, the user is going to be limited to the functionalities provided by Tableau, and visualizations cannot be modified directly using code.”

What Next?

Finding a trusted resource can help. At Software Advice, our team of Advisors know BI—and they have helped more than 1,000 buyers find the software that is a fit for their business.

Meanwhile, our site hosts reviews and opinions from real users who have experience working with Tableau.

  • Learn more about Tableau and how users feel about it.
  • Read user reviews of other BI tools, and discover what your peers think of competing platforms.


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