A lot of people have heard about QlikView and Tableau, which in my opinion are the top two in dashboard software. But I found there are 3 dashboard software which are quite good, but much less well known: Dundas, iDashboards, Datazen. Today I would like to write about iDashboards, perhaps in other opportunity I’ll write about the other two. I want to write about them because I feel that these 3 software need more exposure in the BI community, because they are functionaly good, but most BI developers don’t know them.
What I write here is purely my opinion. I will start with what a dashboard is, and what features are important for them to have. Then I will be investigating iDashboards software with regards to the visualisation, development environment, data integration, security & collaboration, miscellaneous. After the conclusion, I’ll mention 43 other dashboard software which are outside the above 5.
What is a Dashboard?
A dashboard is a BI tool used for visualising and analysing data (BI tools which are not dashboard are reporting tools, OLAP cubes and data mining). Using a dashboard, business users can view their data at a high level to understand the trends and anomalies, then they can drilldown but still kept at high level (not at transaction level like in a BI reporting tool).
From the user point of view, a dashboards consists of a collection of controls i.e. widgets such as tables, charts/graphs (bar, pie, line, combi), maps, pictures, videos, gauges, thermometers, sparklines, KPI indicators (traffic lights, smileys, thumbs up/down, arrows), clocks, heatmap, dropdown, button, texts, labels, tabs, scrolling bars, sliders.
From the developer point of view, a dashboard system (I’m talking about a good one here, one which has undergone at least 5 years of evolution) consists of a development environtment (IDE = Integrated Dev Env), a database and a rendering engine. When we create a dashboard, we use the IDE to combine all those controls, connect them with our source database (or XML/text files, Excel spreadsheets, cubes), define KPIs, setup interactivity and drilldown path. When we click save, all those work is then saved into an internal database containing 40-50 different tables (controls, KPIs, users, dashboards, chart settings, permissions, data sources, formatting, hierarchies, tabs, etc). We then click view (or publish) and the rendering engine then read those tables and display the dashboard on the screen. The rendering engine also responds to mouse hover and mouse clicks from the users, showing different things and different data accordingly.
A scorecard was a particular type of dashboard which doesn’t have interactivity. It is a static dashboard where people can see the high level scores of snapshots of each key areas of the business so that at a glance, the business users will be able understand the status and position of their businesses. But that was 10 years ago. Now a days scorecards are interactives and users can filter, drilldown, and highlight certain areas of the scorecard; no difference to any other dashboards, apart from their function which is to report a particular state and status of the business.
What features does a Dashboard need to have?
A good dashboard will have these features:
- Very slick, modern looking visualisation controls with good interactivity abilities, including drilldown/up, hyperlinks, mouse click/hover.
- Good, easy to use development environment, complete with version control, layout tool, calculation, KPI, undo, scripting language, migration tool.
- Data sourcing: fantastic ability combine data from different tables and files (mesh up), i.e. multi-table, multi-column joins, filtering, sorting, grouping, XML reading, executing SPs, able to accept parameters and variables, data type conversion.
- Collaboration: different users see different data depending on their permissions, users can copy and modify dashboards, saves and share their version within their team, collaborate and share comments, single sign on, integration with SharePoint, templates, export/import, printing, alert.
- Architecture: rendering engine, web-based platform (thin client not Windows-based app), mobile access, web server, database storage, API, custom extension, flexibility.
Dashboards are used by 3 groups of users, each using the dashboards in different ways:
- Administrators: install the software, create data sources, create user groups, manage user permissions, manage licences, upgrade and patching.
- Developers: create KPIs, charts, join data tables, feed to controls and compose them into dashboards.
- Business users: view the dashboards, modify and save them, share their comments within their teams.
In the next 5 sections I will describe how iDashboards is doing with the 5 dashboard features above: visualisation, development environment, data sourcing, collaboration, and architecture.
iDashboards has a stunning visualisation front end. If you download and install the evaluation copy, you will be able to see various controls and images such as thermometer-like controls, speedometer-like (gauges), sliders, bar charts and line charts, maps, clocks, cones, KPIs, bubble charts, month-chooser, calendar controls, videos, sliders, colourful pie charts and ring charts, pyramids, butterfly charts, calculators, data tables, buttons, dropdown lists, rolling marques, Gantt chart, heatmaps, count down timer, images, videos, two-axis charts, traffic lights, texts and labels.
The interactivity is basic but useful, i.e. filter charts based on input values (parameters), choosing an specific data in one control limits the data in other controls, we can drilldown and go back up, when we click on a chart it drilled own to lower level chart or data tables, if we hover the mouse it explains the numbers, we can choose the value which act as a parameter using a dropdownlist, calendar input or selecting a particular section of a chart which will automatically select the corresponding part in another chart.
I said basic but there is not much more interactivity you can expect to get from a dashboard. So from that angle I think it is quite good. Plus we still have the following interactivity features: we can add/open bookmark, enter dashboard parameters, print the dashboard, change language, change skin colour, create alerts, receive alerts by email, change zoom levels, import and export to Excel.
2. Development Environment
I feel that iDashboards is designed with the business users as the developers. It is not difficult for business users to create a dashboard. It is almost as easy as creating charts in Excel: choose a layout, create charts, customize a little bit and we are done. Unfortunately the development environment has a non-intuitive user interface. For example, to discard a dashboard, we click on the left arrow, and to return to the application we click on the right arrow. Another example: to set the thickness of the border, we use a slider. It is not the standard Windows interface like what we find in Excel or PowerPoint. Throughout the development process I don’t feel comfortable with the user interface.
Putting a chart into a dashboard is quite easy, i.e. using drag-and-drop. We can read data from the output of a stored procedure, Excel file, text file, or database tables and views. We can create various charts, set the title size, colours, number formatting and margins. We can define legends and define drilldown to a different chart, different dashboard or a URL. We can create hierarchy for drilldown, we can pass a parameter when drilling down, and we can create macros.
Users can create reports based on the dashboard. The report can be in HTML format or in PDF. Reports contain the data snapshot which was in a particular dashboard at a particular point in time. Again, this “create report” feature seems to be intended for the user community, rather than IT developer. User can create reports for a particular chart, or the whole dashboard. This feature is very basic, almost like printing facility (to a PDF).
We can build custom application and place it into our dashboard. It is called VIPanel, stands for Visually Interactive Panel. In iDashboards Support’s website, developers can download VIPanel applications, along with their documentation. But VIPanel does not work on iOS (understandably as it’s iDashboards is built on Flash) and may not work on Android.
Unfortunately there is no facility for source control (check in, check out, version control), a feature which is important if more than 1 developers/users are working on the same dashboard. But there is a feature for migrating a dashboard from Dev/UAT environment to Prod environment and vice versa. We can export any chart or dashboard, from one environment to another.
3. Data Sourcing
iDashboards read RDBMS tables via ODBC or JDBC. It also read Excel. It can read SQL Server using native driver (version 6.5 to 2014), but the UI is not user friendly, i.e. we need to type server name, database name, instance name, port number, and table name pattern. It is not obvious that iDashboards can join multiple data sources. It seems (very vaguely) that using the “Custom SQL” data source we can join multiple tables, but it is not obvious nor certain. But as a work around, joining tables is not possible, we can create a view on the RDBMS. We can (definitely) use stored procedure as a data source, and when doing so we can supply parameters. We can create a custom drop down list for the users to choose as a parameter.
iDashboards has 3 data types: string, number and datetime. Data from RDBMS and spreadsheets are mapped into there 3 types. I don’t see that iDashboards can read XML file, with or without XSD/schema. It can not ready Analysis Services cube, or any other OLAP cubes. It can only read tables and files. There is a facility to pivot data, which I found very useful when I was developing dashboards using Spotfire.
User can create calculations, for example: colum1 / column2. The functions are very basic. Only a few functions are available: min, max, avg, total, median, standard deviation. iDashboards also have if statement to enable branching. We cannot filter on a calculated column. We can read text file, or stared procedure. iDashboards seems to have quite an extensive range of date function (they are called “date macros”), from “current month” to “beginning of current month + 3, MMMM d, yyyy” which means if today si 15th July 2014 it is “October 1, 2014” (3 months from now, the first day).
4. User Collaboration
iDashboards’ security is Single Sign On (SSO) friendly, meaning that users don’t have to login to iDashboards. When users access the dashboard, the dashboard server automatically recognise who the users are, and whether they are allowed to access that dashboard or not. “who can access what” are stored in iDashboards database in SQL Server (or Oracle, DB2, Sybase). This database is called the “repository”. Different users see different data depending on their permissions. Depending on their roles, users can copy and modify dashboards, saves and share their version with their colleagues. A dashboard consists of several charts. Charts and dashboards are grouped, and the users are grouped, then the permissioning assign which user groups can access which dashboard groups.
In iDashboards we have a function to get the current user, which is very useful pass into RDBMS to get “different data for different users”. The “Filter on user” facility is more direct: we set the chart itself to present different data to different users.
In iDashboards, users can not write comments about a particular chart within a dashboard, and collaborate using these comments. There is no integration with Sharepoint, i.e. the permissioning model does not inherit Sharepoint security, such as folders and sites, so users can’t collaborate the sharepoint way, i.e. via webparts. Still about collaboration, in iDashboards we don’t have “corporate templates”, i.e. where all standard styling are stored to ensure that they adhere corporate standard. All standard appearance and stayles need to be implemented manually on each dashboard.
Excel is always a big topic in the user community when it comes to collaboration. “Can I export my dashboard to Excel?” is the most frequent question every BI user ask (because they want to share the data with their colleagues using Excel, merged with other data that they have). “Can I import my Excel file into my dashboard” is the 2nd most popular question. In iDashboards the answer is Yes to both questions. A dropdown list in a dashboard can be populated from a table in Excel, and the chart data can be sourced from a table in Excel. We can right click on any chart, and export the chart data to Excel. It is not native Excel format, but CSV, which can be opened in Excel.
Printing: users can print a single chart or the entire dashboard. Most dashboard software are web based and we can’t rely on IE printing feature, because this will include the menu bar of the browser. So an important question to ask is: “Does the print feature prints just the dashboard/chart, or the browser window?” The answer is just the chart/dashboard, not the browser window. iDashboards has “Print Dashboard” button which prints just the dashboard.
iDashboards, like all other good dashboard software, consists of 4 components: a repository/database, a development environment, a dashboard engine/server. On the server side, we have the repository (which is on SQL Server or Oracle), the dashboard server (which is on Java web server such as Tomcat or Websphere), and connections to all the source systems. On the client side, we have the users PC, and in this PC we have a browser (IE, Chrome, Firefox), and in this browser we have the Flash, and within this Flash we have the dashboards. On the admin PC, we have the admin application, which is an HTML application.
It needs a browser with a Macromedia Flash add-on installed. This is not a problem on PC, but it is a problem for tablets and mobile device. Flash gives iDashboards an edge with regards to appearance, but it does limit the platform it can operate on. There are mobile/tablets with Flash, but it’s limited.
As always there are always pluses and minuses. The top 3 strengths of iDashboards are: visualisation richness, self service (easy to use by business users), and I believe the cost as well. Its top 3 weaknesses are data integration capability (ability to combine data and perform calculation), development environment which looks outdated, it is too simple/basic.
Would I recommend it? Yes, if your requirements simple / not too complex and if self service is very important to your business users (they want to create the dashboard themselves). No if you need to read cubes, or perform complex calculations.
Beside the 2+3 I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are also 5 other dashboard software which have strong visualisation ability: MicroStategy, Birst, Roambi, Klipfolio, Inetsoft. Outside these ten, if you want a comprehensive list of dashboard software and you would like to evaluate them yourself, they are: Prognoz, Targit, Actuate BIRT, LogiAnalytics, Cognos Insight, Spotfire, Datameer, Information Builders, Cognos Express, PowerView, SiSense, BO Exelcius, SAS, Panorama Novaview, Jaspersoft, Salient, Board, Strategy Companion, BO Webi, CubePlayer, XLCubed, BO Voyager, PowerOLAP, Bitam, VisualMining, PureShare, Varigence Vivid, dminebi, Arcplan, Gooddata, InforSense, Pentaho, Alteryx, Zoho, Domo, Xtraction, Target Dashboard, Cartodb. Some of them are not just a dashboard software, but a BI software which has a lot of other capabilities apart from just creating dashboards. Most of their websites can be found by googling “Dashboard + their name”, but if you need their URLs please let me know. A good source for finding dashboard software are Dashboard Insight and Dashboard Spy.