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Report's advice, rankings outline data visualization platform market

A new report outlines the characteristics to consider in a data visualization platform, and the questions to ask before investing.

A picture is worth a thousand words is trending within the business intelligence (BI) and analytics community -- especially in conjunction with tools that enable visual representations of large data sets.

In a May video interview, for example, Wayne Eckerson, director of research for TechTarget's Business Applications and Architecture Media Group, said: "Oftentimes the best way to analyze 'big data' is to visualize it, because, as you know, a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words -- or numbers, in this case."

The phrase -- or something close to it -- made several appearances at the eighth annual Text Analytics Summit in Boston. There, presenters described how transforming, say, customer comments into charts and graphs, can help identify patterns -- and how they're hungry for more sophisticated data visualization techniques.

So it seems inevitable the cliché would find its way into Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.'s new report on data visualization vendors. The Forrester Wave: Advanced Data Visualization (ADV) Platforms, Q3 2012, which marks the organization's first analysis of this market, does not disappoint. But the report also outlines how advanced data visualizations are distinct from static ones, describes what these platforms can do, and ranks 14 vendor offerings.

"All [of] our research is driven by clients' interests and inquiries," said Boris Evelson, vice president and principal BI analyst at Forrester and the lead author of the report. "All topics around BI and analytics are hot, so we are just doing our best to address as many as we can."

Data visualizations: Why now?

Advanced data visualizations are not only necessary, but have become a "critical" part of BI and analytics programs because their static counterparts aren't cutting it, according to the report.

"More often than not, traditional reports using tabs, rows and columns do not paint the whole picture or, even worse, lead an analyst to a wrong conclusion," the report said.

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The report didn’t come out and label big data as the culprit; instead it described a data environment that has become too big and moves too fast for traditional visualization techniques. But Evelson noted the relationship between the two is a symbiotic one.

"It's a direct relationship," he said. "The bigger and more complex your data grows, the more ADV you'll need."

Forrester lists six differentiators between advanced data visualizations and their traditional counterparts. These include: automatic updates as the data changes, drill-down capabilities, depiction of multiple dimensions by linking charts and graphs together, automation, personalization of preferences and data access, and actionable alerts.

Eveslon doesn't believe the way businesses have traditionally visualized data will disappear, but, he said, the techniques are limiting and don't reflect the data environment most of his clients are facing.

"You can do advanced analytics in BI and you can analyze simple data sets in ADV," Evelson said. "The real difference [between the two] is the size of the data set you are analyzing and the complexity."

That being said, as the demand for advanced data visualizations increase, so do the number of products claiming to solve the problem. (Mega-vendors, for example, are now highlighting their data visualization tools as a selling point and continue to build out their offerings.)

"Navigating the ADV landscape requires evaluating significantly more features than the six key ADV capabilities," the report states.

A good chunk of Forrester's wave report is devoted to guiding businesses through a vendor evaluation process. Evelson and his team divided their recommendations into two sections: First, the report lists technical and functional capabilities provided by advanced data visualization tools. They suggest businesses use the list to determine their requirements around categories, such as data latency, geospatial representations and graph types.

Second, businesses will need to consider how their current architecture and the new platform fit together before making an investment. Here, Evelson and his team provide businesses with a list of questions to consider, such as whether the advanced data visualization platform supports write-back functionality, and how the in-memory data model is managed.

Who is leading the pack?

To rank the vendors, Evelson and his team interviewed between four and 32 vendor customers as well as the 15 vendors themselves. They evaluated product offerings against 29 criteria in the areas of current offering, including types of visualizations, storyboarding and semantic layer; strategy, including pricing and licensing; and market presence, including financials.

Not surprisingly, Tableau Software, a vendor based out of Seattle, Wash., led the vendor rankings. Forrester described Tableau as "the vanguard of advanced data visualization for years," but it isn't the only analyst organization to give the vendor such glowing remarks. Gartner, for example, listed Tableau as a "challenger" in its most recent Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms, but also labeled it the "sweetheart" of the report.

Tableau was joined in the leaders circle by mega-vendors IBM, SAP and Oracle, as well as Information Builders, SAS Institute Inc. and Tibco Spotfire.

QlikTech, which tends to be lumped together with Tableau and Tibco, was also included in the report, but as a strong performer rather than a leader. Forrester described QlikTech's QlikView as a data visualization technology their clients tend to consider and labels the vendor as "a pervasive and omnipresent ADV platform of choice."

QlikTech was joined by Microsoft, MicroStrategy and Actuate, as well as SpagoBI and Panorama Software.

Finally, open source vendors Jaspersoft and Pentaho, were also included in the report as contenders.

The report recommended both contenders if businesses are looking for a cheaper alternative, albeit with less functionality.

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