Tableau business analytics platform: A cheat sheet

Tableau is a robust business intelligence and analytics platform focused on data visualization. Get details about Salesforce's acquisition of Tableau and more in this primer on the BI/BA platform.

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Salesforce announced in June 2019 its $15.7 billion acquisition of data analytics platform Tableau, and it was big news in the tech and business markets. Tableau is considered one of the top business intelligence and data analytics platforms in the world, and its merger into the Salesforce ecosystem is bound to make it, and Salesforce, even more powerful. The purchase is also sure to raise questions among Salesforce customers and those looking for a new business intelligence/business analytics (BI/BA) platform.

If you want to learn about the Tableau BI/BA platform, here's a quick guide on what data analysts and business leaders need to know.

SEE: 60 ways to get the most value from your big data initiatives (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What is Tableau?

Tableau is a business intelligence and data analytics platform that is used by some of the largest companies in the world, including Verizon, Netflix, and Southwest Airlines. 

Tableau has ranked as a leader in Gartner's Magic Quadrant industry analysis every year since 2012, which is not a surprise considering its reputation as one of the top BI/BA tools available. 

With its mission statement of helping people "see and understand data," Tableau's software focuses primarily on data visualization. Tableau uses data gathered from various sources, such as spreadsheets, relational databases, and online analytical processing cube models, to create graphs and visual charts in a variety of formats. From simple bar graphs to mapping data onto real-world locations, Tableau has a wide range of capabilities suited to many business needs. It can even connect analytics reports to other products, like SharePoint, and display them right on dashboards.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

Unlike a lot of other business analytics products that focus primarily on cloud hosting, Tableau has locally installable versions as well as hosted applications. Versions of Tableau exist for desktops, local (and cloud) servers, and hosted environments.

Tableau's toolset isn't restricted only to data analytics--it has other software that it claims makes data preparation accessible to non-data scientists as well.

In short, Tableau is set up to be a one-stop data prep, processing, and intelligence shop. 

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Why should my business use Tableau?

Unless you've been ignoring the enterprise tech news cycle over the past couple of years, you've probably heard the big news: Data analytics, especially prescriptive analytics, is the way of the future. 

Businesses large and small are gathering enormous amounts of data, both structured (data organized into relational databases) and unstructured (everything else). Analytics gives businesses the ability to model the past, predict the future, and prescribe the course to the best possible outcome. That data can give businesses an edge--if they're proactive enough to use it.

SEE: How to win with prescriptive analytics (TechRepublic/ZDNet special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

Tableau models itself as an all-in-one BI/BA tool that tries to make analytics more accessible to businesses without dedicated analytics teams; this can be especially helpful for smaller businesses that need analytics to succeed but can't afford to expand their team to do so. For particularly small businesses, there's even a free version of Tableau called Tableau Public that, while offering only limited tools, lets individuals build visual data models without paying a dime. 

Businesses and organizations that are just getting started with business analytics and business intelligence should check out Tableau.

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Why did Salesforce buy Tableau, and how will the two integrate?

There are a number of reasons for Salesforce's $15.7 billion acquisition of Tableau, from a product perspective and a competitive one.

Salesforce is a customer relationship management (CRM) platform. CRMs store and organize all of a business's data on clients, customers, potential leads, sales data, and other outward-facing metrics. 

CRMs generally don't provide data analytics. Salesforce tried it with its AI-powered Einstein analytics platform, but Einstein didn't take off as well as Salesforce had hoped, potentially because its BA applications were largely restricted to CRM data.

Tableau fills a critical gap for Salesforce: General business analytics software that can integrate with Salesforce CRM tools in order to supplement their capabilities. 

Salesforce co-president Bret Taylor said Salesforce plans "to enable analytics and intelligence and data literacy for every department and every user and every company," making Tableau's plans for integration with Salesforce likely intense. 

Leveraging Tableau's ease-of-use features in connection with Salesforce's already rich stream of customer data will make the two combined products a force to be reckoned with in the BI, BA, and CRM worlds.

Expanding benefits for users isn't the only reason Salesforce acquired Tableau, however. As Larry Dignan from TechRepublic sister site ZDNet put it, "Salesforce's purchase of Tableau is about Microsoft as much as anything else."

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Salesforce has primarily been a cloud-based system, and makes its software-free design a major selling point. Adding Tableau, Dignan said, makes Salesforce more enterprise-software vendor and less cloud-services provider. 

Microsoft, for its part, has been building an enterprise analytics empire by connecting its Power BI tools to its data sources: LinkedIn, Microsoft Dynamics, Azure, and other tools have all been able to deliver similar services as the new Salesforce/Tableau entity. 

Salesforce clearly isn't taking the competition lying down: By purchasing Tableau, it is signalling that they don't want to just be a cloud services provider--they want to compete for enterprise resources as well.

Tableau is direct competition to Power BI, and Salesforce is a CRM comparable to Microsoft's Dynamics 365. The combination of Salesforce and Tableau puts the companies in direct competition with Microsoft.

The move can also be seen as a response to Google's purchase of Looker, a tool similar in function to Tableau. Google's purchase makes it a growing competitor to Microsoft, and Salesforce clearly didn't want to be left behind.

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Is it still possible to use Tableau without Salesforce software?

For now, users of both (or one) of the platforms can keep using them as is. ZDNet's Dignan notes again that some Tableau users have expressed reservations about the purchase and are unsure where the future of their BI/BA tool of choice is headed: 

"Salesforce ... is likely to maintain Tableau's mission and approach, but it'll have to prove it to some folks. BMO Capital analyst Keith Bachman noted that Tableau buyers are different than the folks Salesforce sells to," Dignan said.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff implied that Tableau will continue on as it has, saying "we plan to continue fully and enhance and invest in Tableau's existing go-to-market capabilities." 

What that means remains to be seen, but it's likely that Tableau will continue to be an independent product along with being packaged alongside Salesforce. Eliminating an independent product with over one million users wouldn't be a wise move for Salesforce.

As of January 2020, Tableau has its own website, is priced separately from Salesforce, and still looks and feels like an independent product. Tableau continues to release news about new partnerships independent of Salesforce, so fears about it disappearing into the background at Salesforce may be (as of yet) unfounded.

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How does Tableau compare to Microsoft's Power BI?

Tableau's biggest competitor is Microsoft's Power BI. Tableau and Power BI offer similar features, which include drag-and-drop analysis tools and strong visualization and graphing options. The areas where they differ seem more to do with user preference and ecosystem choice than anything else.

Businesses heavily invested in Microsoft products have no reason to venture far from the herd and are generally better off sticking to a tool that is made to integrate with the rest of their computing infrastructure. Those not tied to Microsoft, on the other hand, are free to choose whichever analytics tool they desire. 

Some other comparisons between Tableau and Power BI stand out: Tableau allows users to drill down much more into data (Power BI limits drill depth to 3,500 data points), Tableau more easily connects to non-Microsoft data sources, and it has publishing capabilities that Power BI lacks. If price is an issue, Power BI is definitely the better option.

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How much does Tableau cost?

Tableau's individual plan, Tableau Creator, starts at $70 USD per user per month. Enterprise Tableau installations get a bit complicated; there are on-premise and cloud-based installations, and both require at least one Creator subscription at the same price as above, and they bill separately (per user per month) for:

  • Tableau Explorer users can perform analysis with existing tools but not create new ones. $42 USD for Tableau cloud hosting, $35 USD for on-premise or public cloud (5 license minimum).

  • Tableau Viewer users can only view and interact with dashboards and reports. $15 USD for Tableau cloud hosting, $12 USD for on-premise or public cloud (100 license minimum).

At minimum you're looking at $1,445 per month for a Tableau enterprise setup; it's all charged up-front for the year, meaning you'll actually have to pay $17,340 in one lump sum. That's just for a local/public cloud Tableau installation--a cloud hosting package costs even more per user.

Power BI is cheap by comparison, at least for small businesses: An individual Power BI Pro license costs just $9.99 per user per month. Power BI Premium, Microsoft's large enterprise option, starts at $4,995 per month, but that's for an unlimited number of users. Depending on the size of your organization, Power BI could still be cheaper than Tableau.

On the other hand, if you use Salesforce and are looking to invest in or move to a different BI/BA platform, Tableau is a good choice. It's not known yet what kinds of pricing a Salesforce+Tableau package will be, and Salesforce has continued selling the two products separately, only with easier integration options.

The bottom line? It's less about features and more about your existing ecosystem, budget, and the size of your business.

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How can my business start using Tableau?

It's possible to get started with Tableau today: There are individual and organizational plans that can be tried for 14 days. The trial option provides a download for Tableau Desktop, and it doesn't require any cloud configuration or complicated setups--just run the executable and install it. 

Before signing up for a subscription or trial, it's a good idea to go through Tableau's Getting Started tutorial videos to see how the platform looks and feels. 

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