MicroStrategy vs Tableau

**DISCLAIMER**

This post was written in May 2014, and so as it should be obvious, some parts of it are outdated.  I actually don’t use MicroStrategy or Tableau any more on a daily basis, so I’m not going to be able to update it.  I’m somewhat aware of both companies making some recent improvements that have addressed some of the weaknesses I talk about, but since I don’t have full context / details, I’ll leave it up to you to determine if they’re still relevant.

 

By popular demand, here are my thoughts on comparing the current state of MicroStrategy and Tableau, two of the leaders in the BI market space today.  What follows are purely my own opinions from my experiences.  This isn’t scientific, it’s my opinion.  I invite you to share your own opinions and experiences in the comments.

My Experience

I’ve used MicroStrategy for 9 years, covering every possible crevice of the software and every possible role at organizations of every size.  I’ve been to 7 annual conferences, presenting at 4 of them.

I’ve used Tableau for 2 years, using Desktop as a developer and Server as a consumer, but not an administrator and only at 1 large company.  I’ve been to 2 annual conferences, and I’ll be presenting for the first time and attending my 3rd conference this fall.

 

MicroStrategy’s Strengths

MicroStrategy has a 14 year head start as a company over Tableau, and as such has a much larger scope in the solutions they provide. They’re historically Enterprise focused with a shift towards the Desktop Analyst in the last few years.

  • Schema & SQL Engine – This is MicroStrategy’s bread and butter in my opinion.  You provide a relational snowflake data model and it will glide right over it, giving you an easy drag and drop semantic layer to build your reports.  Enterprises love it because this is the start of Self Service, where business users don’t need to know complex definitions or code but can craft reports and drill freely.  IT loves it because they can ensure that logic stays in sharable objects and can be easily maintained.
  • Scalability – MicroStrategy has great SQL optimization for a very wide array of platforms which pushes the demand to the database.  In terms of scaling, it’s really more about database pressure than MicroStrategy pressure.  Intelligent Cubes are an option to cache very large amounts of data in your server’s memory if you do want to share the burden.  My general experience has been that these work fantastically well up to about 2gb, pretty good up to about 15gb, and try your luck after that.  (Of course, I’m of the opinion that at those levels you really should be evaluating your database technology, but that debate is for another day.)
  • Administration – Security, tools, statistics and object management enable administrators to keep everything in order.  While these tools leave a lot to be desired from a convenience and polish perspective, they’re perfectly functional and do pretty much everything you need.
  • SDK / Hackability – This one is borderline for me, but the fact is that while you really can customize anything on the web, the documentation and samples make it pretty much impossible.  That said, I have found what I call MicroStrategy’s “jailbreak” by injecting jQuery into dashboards which let you do some pretty cool things on the fly.  Even though they didn’t intend it, it’s still nice that the platform is flexible enough to hack on.
  • Mobile – I’m not a fan of Mobile BI.  I think the target use case is very niche and it’s just a fancy demo that doesn’t have longevity.  Jaded or not though, there’s no doubt that MicroStrategy has the premiere Mobile BI platform in the market.  I’ve seen some really amazing apps built on it, and without writing a single line of code.  If Mobile BI is your thing, it’s pretty hard not to love it.
  • Emails – If your users love formatted emailed reports, MicroStrategy has a great ability to send out what you see on the web in HTML or PDF form.  They’re still in a weird place after trying to deprecate Narrowcast for 5 years now and still not matching all of its features. (Narrowcast being a more fully featured external email bursting application that was “deprecated” in favor of Distribution Services which is native but lacking most of the flexibility).

MicroStrategy’s Weaknesses

  • Development Environment –  Developing on MicroStrategy has become very painful.  Development can be done in either a Desktop application that is a blast back to 1998 or a Web application that doesn’t have parity with Desktop and worse: many options that do exist in both are in different places with different styled UIs.  The Desktop application is still where you need to do your work but it’s so miserable to develop in that it irritates me to the point I don’t want to open it again.
  • Development Speed – Despite the Schema & SQL Engine being its biggest strength, it’s also its biggest crutch.  As powerful as this concept was, it’s just not where tech and analytics has gone.  It’s a solution for an old age when the user community wasn’t technical, when analysts were better at math than software, and a priesthood had to anoint data in order for normal people to use it.  The most powerful features in MicroStrategy are built on this concept and require a tremendous amount of up front development and design before you can even see the first number.  Businesses move at a faster speed these days, and with consumer technology putting instant access to all of humanity’s knowledge in each of our pockets, we just don’t have the patience anymore.  Visual Insights is MicroStrategy’s solution, but it feels like it’s tacked on and doesn’t have enough of the features you’d need to use it for any real work.
  • Visualizations – The graphics you get out of the box in a MicroStrategy report are unusable, and formatting them to be presentable takes longer than building the schema.  Graphs in the web are actually images returned from the server with image maps overlaid.  This makes tooltips frustratingly useless since you often get a 1 pixel hit box, and the images don’t resize if you’re on a large monitor or small laptop.  There was a short detour into Flash widgets at one point in their history, but these only work in some modes, and with few fancier HTML widgets randomly thrown this all creates a muddled visualization experience.  Since the primary role of a BI tool is to visualize the data, you may think it’s strange that this would be weakness.  I believe the reason is that MicroStrategy was magical at delivering “an answer” in a time when that was not a trivial thing to do.  Now, delivering the answer isn’t enough .. it has to be in a consumable, explorable format that tells a story and guides to results.  A sheet of numbers is never going to do that.
  • Community – With no offense intended to anyone reading this, the MicroStrategy community is non-existent.  There are a few blogs out there with a couple of ideas (not counting mine, which is the best ;), but none that seem to last more than a couple of months.  There are a few people on the forums that diligently help out, but I haven’t posted to it in over 2 years and I’m still the #4 all time contributor.  No one gives back and MicroStrategy doesn’t do anything to encourage a community or support those who do.

 

Tableau’s Strengths

Tableau started out as a tool for data analysts and has slowly moved into the Enterprise space.

  • Development Speed – Speed kills.  Throw any data at Tableau, in nearly any format, and it can slice it up in a visual manner almost immediately.  If you have decently formatted data, you go from raw to dashboard in minutes.  Even complex tasks are simplified and great visualization practices are baked right in so the default view is pleasing, functional and interactive without having to touch a single formatting control.
  • Development Environment – Developing in Tableau is delightful.  So much care and precision is put into every pixel and interaction of the application, you’d think Apple designed it.  I often joke that the confidence curve for someone learning Tableau starts out (on a scale of 1-10) at a 7, dips to a 4 the more they use it, and then ends at 8.  The reason is because the things you most likely want to do are literally a click away and intuitively where you’d expect, so newbies feel empowered and infinite.  Of course, once you need to do something that’s not a 1-click action, things get complicated and you crash down to reality as you see your limitations (more on that in the weakness section).
  • Visualization – The default visuals you get are pretty much perfect out of the box.  You can of course tweak most of the settings that you want, but it’s just details at that point.  If you never format anything, your dashboards will look great, and with a few basic options in intuitive places, you’ll have rich interactivity like click-to-filter, formatted and responsive tooltips, and responsive web layouts.  Tableau put a ton of research into their tool, and nothing is left to chance.  Even the color palettes are very carefully chosen based on tons of scientific research into the human eye and brain.  (Those are stories for someone else to tell since I’ll mangle them, but that part of their history is really cool).
  • Community – This part is incredible and nearly impossible to describe, but I’ll give it a shot.  I already mentioned the care and level of detail they put into their product, which is the first evidence of their commitment, but they really instill passion in the community.  They have an incredibly active forum, there are thousands of blogs (while my MicroStrategy readers may think I’m special, there are probably 50+ high end blogs in the Tableau community .. that may even be a conservative count).  There are user community meetups in almost every city, people buy and wear t-shirts with Tableau’s logos on it, and the best part of all of this is that Tableau fully embraces it.  They hold community events, they let customers vote on what features they want and they build the top ones, and they honor the top community contributors with insider access and direct feedback lines to name a few things.  Going to a Tableau conference is the best experience you can have if you’re at all interested in data, because the conference is not about Tableau .. it’s about data.  They’re a company that is passionate about data, so they built some tools to help unlock it’s value.  Half of the conference isn’t even about the tools, but the theory of visualization, statistics, and how it interacts with the human element.  The parts that are aren’t really about the product, but how to use them for specific purposes.

Tableau’s Weaknesses

  • Performance – Since Tableau’s roots are for the desktop analyst, they’re very immature at an Enterprise level.  There are very large issues involved with even modest amounts of data by today’s standards.  To get technical for a minute, a dashboard contains multiple components (filters, graphs, tables), and each one executes its query serially.  That means that if there are 4 components that take 2 seconds to load each, the dashboard will take at least 8 seconds.  Worse, while you’re invited so effortlessly to use analytic functions on the fly, they absolutely bury any measure of scalability.  Whereas MicroStrategy isn’t even stretching its legs with a few gigs of in memory data, Tableau starts to fall on its face.
    (Edit: As expected, I got the most feedback on this point.  I think I should restate it a little, but I’ll leave the original post intact.  I think Tableau’s scale problem is not actually Extracts or data volume, but Table Calculation performance.  Those shortcuts which the UI encourages you to use through it’s 1-click nature perform very poorly whether you’re on an Extract or querying live.  In some low sample, highly subjective tests, we’ve found that a 2m row dataset with lots of table calcs can perform way worse than a 100m row dataset with no table calcs.  I think this is why some people have the experience of Tableau not handling anything above an Excel spreadsheet and others saying it scales just fine.  I don’t know enough about Tableau under the hood to say this is definitely the reason, but just remember that data comes in all shapes and sizes.  Rule of thumb, I don’t think anyone is arguing that Performance is generally a weakness for Tableau, especially when compared to MicroStrategy).
  • Complexity – The reason your confidence curve will dip is because as easy as the easy stuff is, the hard stuff is practically impossible.  You’re teased with the promise that it’s just a few clicks away if you could only find the right combination of options, but you’ll eventually start to see the rails you’ve been riding on all this time.  There are some clever hacks and workarounds that the community will come up with, but in the same way that MicroStrategy painfully makes you format visualizations, Tableau painfully makes you figure out how to do intuitive calculations.
  • SQL – Tableau has some very basic support for database joins and in-memory joins, but you practically need to give it your dataset pre-structured for consumption.  What’s shocking to me is that while this isn’t a requirement in MicroStrategy, universally MicroStrategy developers are far better at SQL than Tableau developers (and I have a very large sample set of interviewees).  I personally don’t see how you can use Tableau without a master’s degree in SQL, but most people seem to manage.  It does destroy the principle of “one version of the truth” since nothing is really centralized (you can share data sources, but I haven’t found that very practical).
  • Object Management – Tableau doesn’t have objects in the way MicroStrategy does and doesn’t really have a concept of Dev and Production.  You can download reports and dashboards yourself as files and back them up in a system, but that’s external to Tableau.  There’s no versioning and pushing to production is all or nothing.  Dev is practically your local desktop, so test well and make backups!
  • SDK / Hackability – The Web SDK is pretty bad and effectively useless.  Aside from the strange requirement of needing to wrap your visualization in an html file (which means you can’t host it on your Tableau server with everything else), there just aren’t enough hooks exposed to do anything useful and the ones that are are slow and bulky.  It’s also not hackable at run time because all of the dashboard components are rendered on canvas or as images (even text!) so there’s nothing you can really touch and manipulate.  That said, we have discovered the equivalent of Tableau’s “jailbreak” which promises to usher in a new generation of never before seen hacks (teaser!)

 

And the Winner is …

I feel that right now, MicroStrategy and Tableau have near perfect synergy in an environment.  They started out at opposite ends of the spectrum and have been moving towards each other with each release.  Right now, their strengths and weaknesses align almost perfectly like a puzzle piece, so you just need to evaluate what is important to you and which tool aligns better.  If you can afford both, then you’ve got the best of both worlds .. maybe.  It’s hard enough to hire in this space, and practically impossible to find someone who is good at both.  I’ve found it’s easier to hire a skilled MicroStrategy person and teach them Tableau than vice versa, but only because the learning curve for MicroStrategy is so steep and Tableau is so flat (at least at first!).

All of that said, my observation over the 2 years that I’ve used both is that Tableau is fixing their issues faster than MicroStrategy is fixing theirs.  Visual Insights doesn’t excite me and it’s just the latest fragment in MicroStrategy’s once tightly unified platform.  Tableau on the other hand improves greatly with each release.  (For example, my biggest initial blocker was that they couldn’t do pixel perfect (free floating) dashboards, which they released in their last major version about a year ago).  Performance does get better each release, and the two deadly features they need to fix seem very solvable (as opposed to a philosophy change that MicroStrategy needs to undergo).

So where am I?  This may shock you, but I haven’t built anything in MicroStrategy in over a year. (So if I made any dated claims in the MicroStrategy section, please correct me in the comments, though I doubt anything has changed).  The transition began when I was using both tools for various projects and I’d have to apologize for MicroStrategy while Tableau was making me look good.  I began building in Tableau first until I was forced into MicroStrategy and as new versions came out and my skill improved, those reasons eventually all went away.  Despite the list of strengths I listed for MicroStrategy, I don’t really align with them anymore.  Development Speed, Interactivity and Performance are my most important things (Tableau blows MicroStrategy out of the water in those first two), and I feel more fulfilled spending my time coming up with Performance solutions than formatting in annoying menus.

Overall, pick the tool you’re comfortable with.  There are a lot of tools out there for different purposes, different teams and different goals.  I hope this article will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of at least these two so you can see which features are more important to you.

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