Thursday, 18 November 2010

Project Crescent in Denali: great news for business users, but what about Tableau?

I'm often asked, as I was yesterday by Rob Farley: do you think that Microsoft would consider purchasing Tableau? For those of you who don't know, Tableau is 'rapid-fire' self-service business intelligence, aimed at the business user masses; simple data visualisation, made easy with connections to the Microsoft DataMarket, Teradata, SQL Server, Oracle, Excel and so on. Microsoft are already Tableau users, and cite Tableau as a success story on as an Office Business Application. In turn, Tableau focused on being able to integrate with Office early on in the development stage.

With BI moving into the realms of self-service, Microsoft are releasing new self-service software in the next release of SQL Server, codenamed Denali.  Known as Project Crescent, it is browser-based data visualisation. The keywords with Project Crescent are simplicity and self-reliance for business users; away from IT, connecting to source data via Sharepoint and the BISM, which is a prepared semantic model. Project Crescent supports a variety of data visualisations, in addition to tables and grids.

To be honest, I have wondered that Microsoft might be interested in Tableau, which are currently, at heart, an R&D organisation. However, that was until I watched Amir Netz's video on Project Crescent on YouTube, and read Paul Turley's Blog on moves into data visualisation by Microsoft. I watched this with mixed emotions, as a Tableau fan and a Microsoft fan; put another way, my Everett 'many worlds' were going to collide at some point, and this may well be it.

As someone who's a BI obsessive, I'm delighted that Microsoft are going to please business users with this move. It's smart, since business users tend to be the ones with the budgets and sign-off to purchase software; not the guys who write MDX in the basement. Further, since it is Sharepoint-based, it fits nicely with the roadmap. I'm looking forward to using it, and will gravitate towards using it when I get a hold of it.

As a Tableau fan, however, I'm utterly and completely torn. Some of you may know that I run the UK Tableau User Group along with Andy Cotgreave and Flying Binary, whose enthusiasm and support for Tableau have really helped it to take off in the UK. The main reason I love Tableau is that I get great satisfaction from watching business users get a grasp of their data, and take the pressure of the IT guys; and most of all, it's fun. Now that Project Crescent is the new kid in the data visualisation block, what's the future for Tableau? Here are some key differentiators, from my perspective:
  • Project Crescent is Sharepoint and BISM-based; Tableau can connect to pretty much anything, so if you are not lucky enough to have Sharepoint, then Tableau is for you. 
  • Price - who knows?
  • Best practices in data visualisation. Tableau adheres to a 'knowledge base' of data visualisations to best support the data, in line with the latest science of data visualisation. Excel/SSRS let you present the data how you want. I suspect Project Crescent will give the users what they want; to present the data how they want it, not perhaps how it should be done.
  • Tableau need to connect to the BISM. Fast.

The Tableau 'sell' is also partly community buzz; so that needs to be encouraged and nurtured; their target audience are also the Project Crescent audience, and they have some way of a head start. From my perspective, I've met some great people through Tableau, which makes the 'late nights/early mornings' time spent in taking care of UKTUG worthwhile. 

As for the future? I really do believe that Denali will be a huge success, and I'm behind Project Crescent since it gives business users what they want; to help themselves. In spite of this, in my opinion, the future is still bright for Tableau, who have just released Version 6, which is perhaps eclipsed by the fanfare surrounding Denali, but there was still a huge turnout at the various Tours around Europe. 

From my perspective, I hope to deliver solutions in both technologies when Project Crescent is released, using my Tableau experience to spur forward in Project Crescent, and feedback into the Tableausphere again.  Given the Silverlight development that's gone into Project Crescent, however, I don't think that Microsoft will be forking out for Tableau anytime soon.


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