IBM Cognos vs Tableau Positioning
IBM Cognos is a well established BI platform, typically used in large organizations with extensive reporting needs. Its reach is broad, covering reporting, planning, forecasting, mobile, dashboards and data visualization. Tableau on the other hand is almost pure-play data visualization, with an interface to the R statistics language for more advanced analytics. These could be seen as complementary products, since the data visualization capabilities of Cognos are not as easy to use, and in some cases not as advanced, as those of Tableau. However for many business needs the data visualization capability provided by Cognos will be adequate.
The other aspect worth considering is that IBM Cognos is one of several products provided by IBM that together provide a complete analytics platform. IBM SPSS is the statistics and predictive analytics platform, and IBM also provides business optimization capability in its ILOG products. They all work together and deliver quite a formidable analytics capability. Tableau on the other hand is really a stand-alone point solution to a very specific need – the exploration and visualization of data.
Without doubt Tableau Software set the pace for easy-to-use data visualization and exploration software. In practical terms this means business users can get to their data, typically without assistance from IT, and create graphs, charts and dashboards in a way that is most meaningful to them. Authoring takes place on Tableau Desktop which, as a stand-alone environment, can perform its own analysis, either against the Tableau in-memory database, or against external data sources – databases, cloud data sources, spreadsheets and so on. In a group or enterprise setting Tableau Server acts as a central facility for data access, delivering visualizations, enforcing security and managing user access. Tableau Server distributes visualizations through the web browser to almost any device that supports a web browser – desktops and mobile devices.
The architecture of Tableau Server is scalable, and is well demonstrated by the Tableau Public free service where millions of visualizations (albeit simple ones) are served up every day. It does support some level of extensibility, particularly the coding of bespoke applications that are not natively supported, but users have to resort to XML code to achieve this.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Tableau is its integration with the analytic language R. It is such a stark contrast – the easy to use Tableau product set, and the not so easy to use R programming language. Even so it does give advanced users, and programmers the ability to add other forms of analysis into the Tableau environment, and particularly statistical analysis and predictive analytics. This contrasts with some of the competition (Spotfire particularly) who, in addition to an easy to use visualization capability also offer easy to use statistics and predictive analytics tools.
I set out by saying that Tableau set the pace, but in reality it is now at least equalled by several other products. Qlik Sense and Spotfire have both been reengineered for an easy to use experience, and there are cloud based products such as Sisense and GoodData. And of course we should not forget Microsoft’s latest foray into the world of data visualization and exploration with Power BI Designer. It’s immature, but it will be disruptive.
Tableau is not an enterprise business intelligence solution, and the fact that several other suppliers use it as a data visualization front end betrays its real use. It is a powerful augmentation of a broader business intelligence solution.
As an organization Tableau is very much in tune with business user sentiment. Their marketing and sales activities are sometimes seen as a bit aggressive, but the rapid growth of Tableau demonstrates its effectiveness. They have taken business intelligence to the masses, and in the process have almost turned business intelligence into a consumer product, with associated marketing style and branding. There are dangers associated with this, but Tableau is addressing the frustrations of business users, who simply want to see their data in a meaningful format.
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IBM Cognos is a large, sprawling suite of products that will address every conceivable business intelligence requirement. Whether it does it with flair and efficiency is another matter. The platform will only be of interest to large corporations who have well established needs for production reporting, planning, budgeting, forecasting and what-if analysis. It does all these things very well, but the new age of self-service data visualization and exploration seems to be of secondary importance to Cognos. IBM’s leading data visualization technology tends to be associated with its big data products. This is not to say that Cognos does not address data visualization, but it’s definitely not as light on its feet as products such as Tableau and Qlik Sense.
Of course a large part of the Cognos suite comes in the form of TM1 – the planning, forecasting and budgeting applications and tools. Again, a facility of this magnitude will only be of interest to the largest businesses, with a substantial OLAP engine at the heart of the product.
Mobile support is good, with native applications for iPad, iPhone and Android devices. These provide a great deal of functionality, and are not just report and dashboard viewing apps. They work offline too if needed, with processing of local downloaded data sets.
Cognos comes in three flavors. Cognos Insight is a desktop platform for individual use, and it can play its part as a workstation in a larger Cognos deployment. I cannot imagine that anyone would use Cognos Insight as a stand-alone tool outside Cognos Enterprise (although they probably do!). Cognos Express is positioned as a platform for departments and medium size businesses, and can be extended with various add-ons. Cognos Enterprise is the full deployment and comes with a sophisticated architecture.
I have to admit that it is hard to get excited about IBM Cognos, with images of Victorian buildings full of accountants thumping away on calculators. Yes, it’s a little bit unfair to position it this way, but Cognos needs to reinvent itself if it is to appeal to the new mood for democratized, self-service business intelligence.
If an organization is heavily invested in IBM technologies then Cognos is certainly one alternative. But there is a shift taking place in the way businesses use business intelligence technologies, and Cognos is lagging to some extent.
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