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BI Tools - A Complete Introduction

What are BI Tools?

Business Intelligence (BI) tools are proprietary or open source application software that are used to collect, process, analyze, sort, filter, and report large quantities of data from internal and external systems, for the purpose of transforming raw data into useful information for business purposes.

What is Business Intelligence?

Business intelligence is the process by which enterprises use strategies and technologies for analyzing current and historical data, with the objective of improving strategic decision-making and providing a competitive advantage. Business Intelligence leverages BI reporting tools to transform data into actionable insights that improve business decisions. 

BI tools dashboard from OmniSci

A Brief History of BI Tools

The concept of business intelligence, a term coined by historian Richard Miller Devens in 1864, began with the most rudimentary tools for information visualization: pen and paper. Devens noted the improvement of a successful 17th century banker’s business strategies with the use of empirical data rather than gut instinct. 

Frederick Taylor, an American mechanical engineer and leader in the Efficiency Movement of the late 19th/early 20th century, developed the “Stopwatch Time Study” and combined it with follow engineer Frank Gilbreth’s Motion Study methods to develop greater efficiencies that boosted industrial production. Taylor would go on to act as a consultant on the Ford Model T assembly line. 


In the late 1950s, IBM researcher Hans Peter Luhn, recognized as the Father of Business Intelligence, theorized about a Business Intelligence system that would employ what we know today as Machine Learning. 

Then in the 1970s, IBM computer scientist Edgar Codd’s paper “A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks,” would usher in the next generation of relational databases that would support the development of modern Business Intelligence software tools. Larry Elison and his partners would release the first true relational database management system onto the market in the late 1970s, guiding in better databases and lower storage prices, and paving the way for the user-friendly business intelligence tools we use today. 

The 1990s would introduce OLAP (Online Analytical Processing), a data warehousing approach to dealing with multi-dimensional analytical queries, and ETL (Extract, Transfer & Load), which is the process by which data is cleansed and prepared for OLAP. The new millenia would introduce social networking, big data analytics, and self service business intelligence tools like Google Analytics. And the last decade has shown the growing power of Business Intelligence and analytics tools. Business intelligence concepts, methodologies, tools, and applications are currently used in a wide variety of sectors and applications, including politics, science, and advertising.

How do Business Intelligence Tools Work?

Business intelligence platforms employ a variety of different methodologies, procedures, technologies, and architectures to enable the extraction and ingestion of large amounts of raw, disparate data into data warehouses, from which information can then be queried. BI tools process and prepare raw data for analysis, and facilitate the generation of reports, data visualizations, and dashboards. 

BI and visualization tools feature customizable dashboards that ensure the most relevant information is presented first. Business managers can explore what-if scenarios, which can help mitigate risk and inform real-time decisions. Machine Learning algorithms can help predict future trends, while historical data can be cross-referenced to identify recurring trends. 

Centralization of data sources helps managers get a complete, full-picture view of the business, and data integration with mobile interfaces helps business users view reports at any time, from anywhere in the world, which helps with real-time decision making.

BI data visualization tools aim to streamline the analysis process so that the average user can visualize, understand, and draw conclusions from their data. The results empower businesses to inform and accelerate decision making, identify trends and revenue potential, increase efficiency, determine KPIs, and reveal business opportunities. 

Types of Business Intelligence Tools

Some of the most common business intelligence tools include Dashboards, Visualizations, Reporting, Data mining, ETL, and OLAP. Business Intelligence tools features can include any combination of the following:  

  • Spreadsheets: organizes data in a tabular format that can easily be queried and formatted; available in web based format and downloaded software format
  • Dashboards: a real-time user interface that displays data visualizations that reflect the current status of data
  • Data mining tools: data mining employs AI, Machine Learning, statistics, and database systems to reveal patterns in data
  • Ad hoc data analytics: an analysis process designed to answer specific questions on the spot
  • Online analytical processing (OLAP): OLAP business intelligence tools provide a computing method that enables multi-dimensional analytical queries
  • Mobile BI: software that optimizes desktop business intelligence for mobile devices
  • Real-time BI: an advanced enterprise analytics approach that delivers real-time information to users by feeding business transactions into a real-time data warehouse
  • Operational BI: a data analysis approach that utilizes real-time business analytics to automatically integrate real-time data into an operational system for immediate use
  • Software-as-a-service BI (SaaS BI): a cloud-based, subscription-based delivery model for business intelligence software solutions
  • Open source BI (OSBI): business intelligence software solutions that do not require purchasing a software license
  • Collaborative BI: the merging of business intelligence software with collaboration tools in order to streamline the sharing process
  • Location intelligence (LI): software that is designed to relate geographic contexts to business data
  • Data visualization software: facilitates the detection of patterns and correlations by providing visual context
  • Reporting and query software: functions to report, query, sort, filter, and display data
  • Self-service data preparation software: cleans and prepares data for analysis
  • Data warehousing tools: integrated data retrieval from different sources creates a consolidated repository for data storage, which can be retrieved in the future for analysis
  • Unified modeling language: natural language used by developers to construct, specify, visualize, and document the software systems
  • Business performance management: the set of processes that are used to determine the efficacy of strategies put in place to meet business goals
  • Process mining: a family of techniques that supports the analysis of operational processes based on event logs

Why are Business Intelligence Tools Important?

BI tools give businesses a competitive edge in several ways. 

Taking advantage of Machine Learning algorithms and analyzing historical data can reveal future consumer trends and markets before the competition catches on. Managers can reduce manufacturing costs by analyzing data from inventory systems to identify and eliminate excess stock. And data analytics dashboards can improve the employee experience, providing clear, result-oriented tasks, and defined parameters in which to work. 

The enormous volumes of raw data to which we now have access are only as useful as our ability to understand it well and understand it quickly. Modern businesses are ingesting data for every avenue of their organization, from workflows and productivity to marketing and profitability. BI tools can help connect the dots for every aspect of a business, visualize relationships with visual data, and draw conclusions in a timely manner.

Another advantage of BI tools is their ability to make data more “human friendly” and enhance exploratory data analysis. Humans are visual creatures, and one of the most common ways that BI tools show data is through data visualizations. BI tools help transform cryptic, tedious, big data into visually colorful, interactive data visualizations from which business users can track trends, patterns, and anomalies, and make better, data-driven decisions.  

How to Choose Business Intelligence Tools

Choosing the best business intelligence tools for your business depends on a variety of factors, including budget, reporting criteria, target audience, storage needs, security requirements, and more. While each platform offers a diverse range of tools, all of the best BI tools and platforms consist of functionalities that help businesses focus on the most relevant information by presenting it in an actionable way. 

Below find a BI Tools Comparison list of some of the most common business intelligence solutions from which to choose:

  • HEAVY.AI BI Tools: HEAVY.AI enables accelerated analytics that redefines the limits of speed and scalability in big data analytics. With interactive dashboards capable of querying, visualizing and powering billion-row datasets, users are able to visually join and cross-filter multi-dimensional data with clicks, not code.

    Powered by the world’s fastest open source SQL engine, HeavyDB, users can go beyond traditional business intelligence tools by harnessing the massive parallelism of modern CPU and GPU hardware for visual data discovery, feature engineering, model inspection and other real-time insights.

    HEAVY.AI offers different pricing levels based on your businesses’ needs, and can be run on premise, on the cloud, or hosted by HEAVY.AI. HEAVY.AI Free is a full-featured option with data and sharing limitations, for those just getting started. HEAVY.AI Foundations provides up to 64GB of GPU RAM and 5 concurrent users with basic support for $2k/month. The full enterprise product includes enterprise support and additional features - pricing is variable, though a free 30-day trial is available.

  • Microsoft BI Tools: Microsoft Power BI tool offers visualization, analysis, and reporting capabilities for local or cloud-sourced data on their Power BI platform. Augmented analytics, data preparation, interactive dashboards, and visual-based discovery are also featured. The target audience is Microsoft shops. Available in a free desktop version for isolated users; in a Pro version for small teams at $9.99 per user per month; or in a Premium version for enterprises at $4,995 per dedicated cloud compute and storage resource (prices for 2021).

  • Looker BI Tool: Looker, a Google BI Tool, is a full-spectrum business intelligence and analytics platform that offers real-time visualizations, modeling capabilities, interactive dashboards, real-time business intelligence reporting tools, collaboration, data discovery, and can work on top of any analytical database. Designed to give a 360-view of the business to the entire team. 

  • AWS BI Tools: Amazon QuickSight BI tool is a scalable, serverless, embeddable, ML-powered BI Service built for the cloud. QuickSight offers interactive BI dashboard publishing, Machine Learning-powered insights, natural language responses from queries, massive scalability without infrastructure or capacity limitations, and accessibility from any device. Pricing can be pay-per-session, with the duration of one session being 30 minutes from sign-in. Standard edition is $9 per user per month with an annual subscription, or $12 per user per month with month-to-month. Enterprise edition for authors is $18/month with an annual subscription or $24 per month for month-to-month; Enterprise for readers has a max. charge of $5/month ($.30 session), or a per-session monthly or annual plan (prices for 2021).

  • SAP BI Tool: SAP BusinessObjects is a full Business Intelligence suite that offers a customizable dashboard where business users can access all of their BI tools in one space, real-time analytics, self-service reporting, streamlined workflow and full visibility, monitoring and security credential management for administrators, predictive modeling and cloud-based analytics collaborative reporting and more. Pricing on request.

  • Tableau BI Tool: Tableau, a Salesforce BI Tool, provides software for business intelligence that can be run on premises, on the cloud, or hosted by Tableau. The target audience is midsize to large enterprises across a wide variety of industries. Tableau utilizes natural language processing for communication, leverages Artificial Intelligence, features live visual analytics with drag and drop buttons, supports a wide range of data sources, supports easy dashboard sharing, and can connect to any database. Pricing for Tableau Creator is $70 per user per month, billed annually; $35/user/month for Tableau Explorer; $12/user/month for Tableau Viewer; and additional add-ons on offer (prices for 2021).

See how HEAVY.AI compares to Tableau and Snowflake.

  • Domo BI Tool: Domo’s cloud-based platform provides a scalable architecture designed to augment existing data warehouses, data lakes, and BI tools. Data can be connected from any cloud, on-premises, or proprietary system. Domo integrates an ETL tool, cloud data warehouse, and data visualization in one place. The analytics package is fully code customizable to standardize and automate business practices. 

  • Oracle BI Tools: Oracle Cloud Analytics, an extension of Oracle’s flagship Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition suite, offers self-service workforce analytics, Machine Learning and predictive analytics capabilities, collaborative reporting, an intuitive interface, embedded analytics support, data connectors, preparation, and visualization capabilities, and support for Natural Language Processing and embedded analytics. Pricing for the Enterprise version is $80 per user per month; $16 per user per month for the Professional version; or the Bring Your Own License rate at  $0.3226 OCPU per hour (prices for 2021).

  • Sigma BI Tool: Sigma offers unified spreadsheets, data visualizations, scenario modeling, collaborative data sharing, text for easy data storytelling, drag and drop dashboards, data preparation, ad hoc analysis capabilities, a live cloud data warehouse connection, security and governance management, and scalable access to billions of rows of trusted data in the cloud data warehouse in real-time.

  • Zoho Analytics: Zoho Cloud BI is a BI analytics tool that helps businesses transform raw data into insightful reports and dashboards on a single, unified platform, on which users can access a self-service analytics platform, integrate and prepare data for analysis, track key business metrics, forecast business trends, identify outliers, unearth hidden insights, collaborate online, and connect business applications and cloud databases. 

The preceding BI tools list consists mostly of subscription-based, proprietary solutions. There are also open source BI tools and free BI tools available for smaller teams with smaller budgets. Some of the top BI tools that are open source or free to access include: Apache Hive, BIRT Project, D3.js, KNIME, Orange, Pentaho, R, TACTIC, Superset, Grafana, JasperReports, Palo, Pentaho, BILM, Datacopia, icCube, InetSoft, and Splunk.

Business Intelligence has grown exponentially in the last decade and shows no signs of slowing. BI tools are now leveraged in nearly every major industry, including Automotive, Public Sector, Pharmaceutical, Oil and Gas (see Energy Business Intelligence), Utilities, Media and Advertising, Telecom, Investment Management, Logistics and more. BI tools are a fixture of modern businesses and will continue to be developed and improved as business competition continues to grow.

Learn more about how HEAVY.AI's visual analytics platform enables effortless BI on billions of rows of data, or see it for yourself with our interactive visual analytics demos.

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