Tableau is charting, graphing and data analysis with go-faster stripes. It has obvious appeal, with prolific amounts of eye-candy and a relatively easy to use interface. As with other products of this nature its utility is firmly anchored in visual exploration of data using every format imaginable. It is not a data mining tool or a text analytics tool, but sits in the traditional business intelligence camp, albeit with a rich visual interface. It is positioned as one of a new breed of BI tools designed to deliver pervasive BI capability throughout the organization, or at least to those who need such tools.
The entry level product is Tableau Public, available as a throttled down free version, or in a Premium version with fewer restrictions. It is primarily targeted at the creation of graphics for web sites and offers a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach to the creation and publishing of such graphics. A rich set of formats are supported including bar and line charts, heat maps, bubble charts, geo maps and many others (you are spoiled for choice really). Graphics are updated automatically when the underlying data is modified and links can be made to other content on a web site. The Premium version supports larger data sets and the optional suppression of access to the underlying data set. There are numerous web services of this nature (Jolicharts for example), but Tableau Public is certainly one of the best free offerings.
Tableau Desktop supports the visualization of data on the desktop and connects to a bewildering array of data sources, either individually or in concert. The Tableau Data Engine sits on a PC and calls upon the relevant data sources when needed. It executes queries in-memory for speed and switches data in and out of memory automatically, although clearly some wisdom is needed when accessing live data sources.VizQL is Tableau’s Visual Query Language and is claimed to bypass the usual extraction, format, graphing process to build a direct link between data sources and visual representations.
Tableau Server supports browser based tools for data visualization and as such opens BI up to a very wide audience. It provides the very wide range of visualizations and dashboards supported by Tableau, and also make them available on portable devices (iPad and Android).
Tableau places great emphasis on the ability to create visualizations without the need for any technical skills (scripting). Provided Tableau always offers what you need this is fine, the moment you want something different this could be problematical. For this reason I think it is wiser to have both options – scripting free visualizations for run-of-the mill tasks, but scripting capability for more unusual needs. Other offerings are stronger in this respect.