Qlik Sense: Extensible BI and data visualisation

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A leader in BI and analytics, Qlik Sense and its associative data engine is an accessible application that works well, but may not quite meet the needs of more demanding customers.

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PROS
Free desktop version
Fully-featured browser interface
Fast in-memory associative data engine
Extensible via add-ons

    CONS
    Lack of wizards to suggest suitable visualisations
    Limited in terms of traditional reporting and collaboration
    Limited data preparation tools

      Price
      Qlik Sense Desktop for Windows is a free download. Licence tokens for Qlik Enterprise cost $1,500 each and can be allocated to named users or shared across multiple time-limited sessions


      Rated by Gartner as one of the leaders in Business Intelligence and Analytics, Qlik has long been a thorn in the side of Tableau and others in this highly competitive market. With its modern interface, Qlik Sense scores well in terms of ease of use, although it isn't without issues in this department. It can be used with a variety of data sources and extended by way of add-ons that go a long way towards addressing any shortcomings. Qlik Sense also stands out from the competition courtesy of its associative data indexing engine (QIX).

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      qlik-sense-main.jpg
      Qlik Sense
      Image: Alan Stevens/Tech Pro Research

      A minor complicating factor is that Qlik Sense isn't the only BI application marketed by Qlik. An earlier offering, QlikView, is still available and was recently updated to use the same associative engine and modern APIs as Qlik Sense. QlikView, however, is aimed more at the centralised BI market (where IT and data professionals build applications for less skilled users), whereas Qlik Sense is designed to appeal to a broader audience of data specialists and generalist users alike. As such, Qlik Sense is very much the lead product as far as new customers are concerned, and is therefore the subject of this review.

      Multiple editions

      For our evaluation we downloaded Qlik Sense 2.2, which is available in a number of formats, the first of which, Qlik Sense Desktop, is a fully featured yet free-to-download Windows application capable of working with a variety of data sources without having to add anything to the package. Next comes Qlik Sense Enterprise, which runs on Windows servers employing the same QIX engine and interface as the Desktop edition -- albeit served up via a browser. The Enterprise edition also sports additional sharing, collaboration and governance features with a separate console for centralised management.

      qlik-sense-desktop-gui.jpg
      Qlik Sense Desktop features an appealing modern interface.
      Image: Alan Stevens/Tech Pro Research

      Lastly there's a hosted version, Qlik Sense Cloud, which also delivers an almost identical interface to the Desktop product via a browser. Data connectivity is somewhat limited with this implementation (data sources have to be uploaded to the cloud), but it's very usable with a free Basic edition available for up to five users and a more scalable Plus edition with more storage space available on subscription at $20/month per user.

      qlik-sense-cloud-interface.jpg
      Qlik Sense Cloud looks and feels just like the desktop app.
      Image: Alan Stevens/Tech Pro Research

      Native apps for mobile users are not available for Qlik Sense. Instead the interface has been written using HTML5, enabling it to be rendered on any compatible smartphone or tablet. It also allows these devices to be used not just to view, but also to build analyses and visualisations -- although the format is restrictive on smaller displays and doesn't allow device-specific capabilities to be leveraged.

      Getting started

      First port of call when you start the program is the Qlik Sense Desktop hub, which holds and organises Qlik Sense projects, which are referred to as 'apps. These comprise one or more analysis/visualisation 'sheets' plus bookmarks (sheets with custom selections and filters applied) and stories, which are used to give annotated presentations based on Qlik Sense visualisations.

      qlik-sense-app.jpg
      From the Qlik Sense Desktop Hub you can create, organise and manage visualisation projects, or 'apps'.
      Image: Alan Stevens/Tech Pro Research
      qlik-sense-stories.jpg
      Stories can be used are used to present data analyses with the option of drilling down to the live visualisation.
      Image: Alan Stevens/Tech Pro Research

      When a new Qlik Sense app is created you're prompted to select the data to be used, with a choice between local spreadsheet files, ODBC and OLE DB databases and web files. Additional sources can be handled by optional connector packages -- a connector for Salesforce.com has recently been added, and others are available through the Qlik Market along with other extensions and applications for use with Qlik Sense.

      Customers can also link to the Qlik DataMarket to connect to public and commercial data sources (free and paid for) -- including currency exchange rates, for example -- to further help with their analyses.

      qlik-sense-add-data.jpg
      Qlik DataMarket provides access to useful public and proprietary data.
      Image: Alan Stevens/Tech Pro Research

      Qlik is very quick: by default any data selected is loaded into memory, with the option of in-database working for larger datasets. Multiple sources can be connected to each app with the associative QIX engine automatically searching out any associations (effectively matching fields) between data sources and tables within those sources, rather than this having to be done manually. Qlik Sense can also display the associations found using a graphical data modelling tool.

      qlik-sense-data-modeller.jpg
      Qlik Sense will find associations in data and tables and show them in the Data model viewer.
      Image: Alan Stevens/Tech Pro Research

      Automatic date handling and other simple data preparation tools are also provided, but we didn't find these as easy to apply or as extensive as on some competing products.

      Mostly usable

      Building visualisations in Qlik Sense is pretty straightforward, thanks to a clean and appealing interface that proves very responsive and reasonably easy to use. We say 'reasonably easy' because while consumers of ready-made visualisations will have few issues, when it comes to creating Qlik Sense apps from scratch it's not quite as slick.

      To start with, the Qlik interface doesn't always follow accepted conventions. Putting undo, redo and delete buttons at the bottom of an edit window, for example, is fine once you've found them, but most applications have them at the top and it took us a while to work out where they were. We also had issues getting to grips with applying the various analytic functions. A good understanding of what they do is required here, along with the notation used (much as with Excel, for example), and although some functions can be selected and applied from a list, we found the process labour intensive and far from intuitive.

      Similarly, you don't get anything like the Tableau Show Me or Spotfire Recommendations tools to suggest suitable visualisations based on the data being analysed. There are plenty of options to choose from, including all the expected bar, line, pie and tree charts, and Qlik does take care of basics like suitable colours and fonts. However, a wizard to suggest what type of visualisations work best for the data being analysed is a boon for non-specialist users, and Qlik would do well to provide this functionality in its product.

      qlik-sense-create-new-sheet.jpg
      There are lots of visualisation tools, but deciding which ones to use is down to you.
      Image: Alan Stevens/Tech Pro Research

      On the plus side, Qlik is as good as rival Tableau in the wealth of training materials and other resources it provides to go with its products, including a very active and well supported Qlik Community forum.

      Conclusion

      With some 36,000 customers worldwide, Qlik is clearly doing something right and there's a lot to like about Qlik Sense and its associative data engine. Clever party tricks like the immediate application of data filters to all visualisations in an app, for example (although whether you would always want this to happen is a moot point). Or colour coding to show whether or not values are associated with a chosen dataset, and the ability to quickly flip a visualisation between filter selections and those values not included.

      Like all BI and visualisation tools, however, Qlik Sense takes some time to get to grips with -- especially for non-specialist users, many of whom will only have used Excel before. The sharing facilities in Qlik Sense Enterprise and via the cloud are also fairly basic, with Qlik yet to add more comprehensive collaboration options such as scheduled distribution of reports, or the kind of social media integration, that's available from rivals.

      In its favour, however, Qlik Sense has good developer tools and extensive API and embedding capabilities. It's also a very extensible application with lots of add-ons -- available both from Qlik and third parties -- to fill the gaps and enable customers to do a lot more with this very likeable BI and visualisation solution.

      See also

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