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Chris Gerrard – Exploring the world of Better Business Intelligence

A note on Tableau’s place in BI history.

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I began this note as a response to Eric Paul McNeil, Sr’s comment on my earlier “BI Bis is dead…” post, here, in which he notes that history repeats itself, relating the emergence of Tableau to Client/Server RDBMS’ effect in the mainframe-dominated 80s.

I agree. History does repeat itself, although I see a different dimension, one more directly tied to business data analysis, the essence of BI.

Back when mainframes ruled business computing data processing shops controlled access to businesses’ data, doling it out in dribs and drabs. Sometimes grudgingly and only under duress, sometimes simply because the barriers to delivery were high, with lots of friction in the gears. Designing and writing COBOL to access and prepare data for green bar printing or terminal display was laborious and difficult.

Fast forward to the present and the modern Enterprise Data Warehouse is today’s data processing shop. Monolithic, gigantic, all-swallowing, the data goes in but business information has a very hard time getting out, for largely the same reasons: the technology is enormous, and enormously complex, requiring legions of specialized technologists to prime the pumps, control the valves, man the switches, and receive their sacrifices. Size and Complexity are universally accompanied by their partners Command and Control. Simply put, the engagement of the resources and personnel required to get anything out of modern Big BI data warehouse-based systems demands the imposition of processes and procedures nominally in place to ensure manageability and accountability, but pretty much guaranteeing that delivering the information required by the business stakeholders takes a back seat. Sad but true. As a very wise man once said: “Beware the perils of process.”

The parallels continue. In the way-back some very clever fellows realized that there was a better way. Instead of mechanically writing the same structural COBOL code to munge data into the row-oriented, nested sorting with aggregations reports in demand, they abstracted the common operations into English, resulting in the ability to write this:
  TABLE FILE EMPLOYEE
    SUM SALARY
    BY DEPARTMENT
   END

with the expected results. This was the birth of the 4GL. Ramis begat FOCUS, with NOMAD in the wings. All was good in the world. Businesses could get immediate, direct access to the information in their data without needing to offer the appropriate sacrifices to the DP high priests.

Then came the dark years. The clarity was lost, the ability for business people to directly access their own business data diminished as the data became locked first in impossible-to-comprehend atomic data tables (sometimes even relational), and then in an irony too delicious for words, the massive dimensionally modeled monsters that were supposed to save the day but instead imposed themselves between the business people and their data.

And now we have the emergence of Tableau which, along with its cousins, delivers the same paradigm-changing ability to short-circuit the data guardians and establish the intimate connection between business people and their data.

-Their- data.

Once again, as BI professionals, and I consider myself lucky to have been one, albeit under different names, for 25 years, we have the opportunity to observe and honor one of the maxims of our profession:

All BI is local.

In the five years I’ve been using Tableau I’ve been watching it, and wondering what trajectory it would follow. Would it preserve its essential beauty and grace as it evolved, or would it choose a path that led it into darkness, like its conceptual ancestors. I watched FOCUS stumble and lose its way, and haven’t wanted to see it happen to Tableau. So far, so good. Tableau has preserved its integrity, its nature, even as it has grown and adopted new features. There have been a few rough edges but the company seems truly committed to continuing to create and deliver the absolute best product possible. One that helps, supports, and lives to serve as unobtrusively as possible instead of demanding that people make concessions to the machinery.

Sometimes history knows when enough is enough.

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Written by Chris Gerrard

November 14, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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