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Find the Right Business Intelligence (BI) Software

Business leaders have access to more data than ever before.

But data by itself doesn’t generate insights.

Business intelligence (BI) tools are now the go-to resource for helping companies harness the power of big data and analytics and make smarter, data-driven decisions.

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BI Buyer’s Guide

What is BI?

Business intelligence helps users derive meaningful insights from raw data. It’s an umbrella term that includes the software, infrastructure, policies and procedures that can lead to smarter, data-driven decision making. In the past, BI software has been used exclusively by data analysts or IT staff. Nowadays, any user can take advantage of BI tools, regardless of their data skillset, due to the self-service functionality.

Common BI Features

Here are several common features found in BI software:

Source data – Most BI software connects to data in real time from internal and external sources, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, customer relationship management (CRM) systems, HR software, social media, spreadsheets, MySQL and many more.

Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) – A key part of BI is the tools and processes used to prepare data for analysis. The process of getting data ready for analysis is known as Extract, Transform, Load (ETL). The data is extracted from internal and external sources, transformed into a common format and loaded into a data warehouse. This process also typically includes data integrity checks to make sure the data being used is accurate and consistent.

Data warehouse – A data warehouse is a repository containing information from all the business’s applications and systems, as well as external sources, so it can be analyzed together.

Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) – The data warehouse and ETL process represent the back end of business intelligence, while Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) represents the front end. OLAP tools present data to users and allow them to group, aggregate and sort the data based on various criteria.

This is the function that allows users to pull out the data they want and make the comparisons they need to have their questions answered.

Visualizations – Visualization tools present data using charts, graphs and other formats. Traditional formats include bar graphs, pie charts and scorecards, while advanced data visualization can create interactive and dynamic content, automatically choosing the best type of representation and personalizing content for the user.

Dashboards – The dashboard is the primary graphical interface used when working with a business intelligence system. Typically the first thing the user sees when logging on, the dashboard presents the most important reports and data visualizations for the user, customized based on the person’s role.

The dashboard is a simple way to organize information in one place and allow the user to dig deeper for more.

Data mining – Data mining refers to the process of finding new information or patterns within large and complex data sets.

Predictive analytics – Predictive analytics uses a variety of sources to analyze current and past information to predict future events. One example of predictive analytics is data mining, which refers to the process of finding new information or patterns within large data sets

Ad hoc reporting – Users can create ad-hoc reports by choosing the specific metrics they want in their report. The results are then shown in the format the user specifies. Ad-hoc reporting features free up IT staff from compiling reports for end users.

Types of BI Tools

Here are the three main types of BI tools:

Analysis – Analysis is the main focus of business intelligence, as data is more useful when it’s being analyzed. The three common types of analysis are spreadsheet analysis, ad-hoc query and visualization tools. Another type is predictive analytics that uses techniques such as data mining and machine learning to predict future trends within the data. Predictive analytics isn’t just a feature found in BI software; there are dedicated predictive analytics solutions.

Reporting – Reporting tools help users visualize their data in different formats, such as graphs or charts. They have evolved from static (non-manipulated) reports to interactive reports that let users drill down into certain elements for more details. Some reporting features include ad-hoc reporting, scheduled reporting, and exporting or sending reports in different file formats (PDF, Excel, etc.).

Embedded BI – Embedded business intelligence (also known as embedded analytics) is an integration of business intelligence tools into a company’s existing applications. Examples of those applications include ERP, CRM, accounting or marketing systems.

There are several vendors (e.g., Izenda, Exago BI, Zoomdata) that focus exclusively on embedded software. However, a growing list of dedicated BI software vendors (such as Looker or GoodData) also sell embedded analytics.

Top Benefits of BI

Using a BI tool has several benefits, including:

The ability to combine data from internal and external sources – Companies tend to use many different systems to run their business, and each system can store large amounts of data. BI software connects data from multiple internal and external sources so users can perform analytics with one platform.

Faster access to real-time data for on-the-fly decision making – Businesses need to quickly adapt to any changing conditions within their company or industry to get competitive advantage. Therefore, they may not be able to wait weeks, days, or even hours, as critical decisions need to be made quickly. BI software includes automated features, so users get the answers they need right away.

Improved productivity for data analysts and IT staff – Many BI tools provide self-service functionality so end users are able to easily access features without having to rely on a data analyst or their IT department. Also, some features of BI software are automated, such as data cleaning, which allows data analysts to focus on more important job tasks.

Identify new areas of business opportunities – Business intelligence software provides companies with new opportunities to improve their business, such as making new sales or revenue, improving customer service or creating new job roles. The software has forecasting features, such as predictive analytics, so users can easily spot trends in their data. BI tools also help companies eliminate any processes that no longer work or hinder productivity.

Increased collaboration – BI tools can help improve collaboration and break down silos among teams, as everyone has access to the same information. The dashboards and reports are interactive and easily shareable. Anyone can provide comments directly within the dashboard or report. Reports are also shared securely to external users, such as clients or vendors.

How to Compare BI tools

The recent growth in business technology has made the investment into a BI solution significantly more affordable than it was just a few years ago, leveling out the competition for companies of all sizes. But just because the technology is more accessible doesn’t mean choosing a solution has become simple.

Now, there are more vendors than ever jockeying to gain your company’s business. That’s why you must do your homework before settling on a solution.

Knowing Your Company’s Needs

Before starting the selection process for a BI tool, you must do your homework. Talk to people from all the departments that’ll be affected by the BI tool (e.g., IT, finance, marketing, sales and operations) to find any issues that must be addressed. You’ll also want to ensure that top executives will be onboard with implementing a BI solution.

It’s key to prioritize your main objectives for using the software (also known as use cases). For example, where does your company need to improve? Revenue? Sales? Employee performance? New business opportunities? These objectives will be used to establish your use cases.

Creating a Shortlist

Once you’ve established your objectives for using the BI tool, create a shortlist of vendors that best fit your needs. We recommend listing out the must-have features, as well as the nice-to-have-but-not-urgently-needed ones, to help determine the type of tool you’re looking for.

In addition to features, you’ll need to consider the vendor’s deployment options (e.g., on-premise, cloud), implementation processes and customer support.

Contacting Vendors

Once you’ve established your shortlist of vendors, it’s time to reach out to them. Explain what your objectives are and what features you require in a solution. You’ll also want to request a demo of the software with real-data scenarios if possible. Vendors offer virtual demonstrations, but ask if a vendor is willing to meet with you at your office. Another way to test the software is to participate in a free trial, if there is one. Most vendors offer a 14-day or 30-day free trial.

You’ll also want to compare different price quotes you received. We explain more on pricing in our section below.

And finally, once you’ve selected your top two or three vendors, ask for references from their current or previous clients. While the vendor will give you the clients with the most glowing recommendations or experiences, ask to speak to clients that are in the same industry or are the same size as your company. You’ll want to get not just the positives of the solution or vendor, but any issues the client has experienced as well.

If you want to compare specific BI vendors, head to our Compare section, where you can do a side-by-side comparison of different solutions.


One of the most important factors in selecting BI software is pricing. Prices can vary depending on company size, customization, implementation and deployment. They typically range from $10 per user, per month up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an on-premise deployment.

Here are a few questions you should consider about pricing:

  • Is there a clear plan to judge return on investment?
  • What is our budget for implementing/hosting/purchasing BI software?
  • How many users will need to access the software?

BI software vendors use two popular pricing models: perpetual licensing (on-premise) or subscription hosting plans (cloud).

Perpetual licensing (on-premise) – Businesses that prefer to host their own data can purchase licenses that last for the life of the software. On-premise deployment requires the business to purchase hardware, servers and other infrastructure, as well as use IT resources to host and maintain the solution.

Subscription hosting (cloud) – Businesses that don’t have the time or resources to host their own solution can consider deploying BI in the cloud. They will only need to pay a monthly or annual subscription cost. Subscription costs can include the number of features the company needs, as well as any support and maintenance.

Regardless of deployment, you’ll need to consider implementation, training, data migration, the size of your data, customization and support. Depending on the vendor, each of these factors may require additional fees. Some vendors have a staff of implementation specialists, while others rely on third-party consultants.

For more information about pricing, including questions to ask vendors, head over to our Pricing tab. There, we’ve also compared pricing on popular BI software, such as Microsoft Power BI, Tableau and Sisense.

Market Trends

Like similar software markets, the BI market experiences changes in trends. Here are a few key trends:

Artificial intelligence will be a big factor in BI software – Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are becoming prevalent in many areas, and BI software is no exception. In fact, some software vendors have started to provide machine-learning features. One example is ThoughtSpot’s SpotIQ solution that automatically asks thousands of questions about billions of data points and brings back dozens of insights in seconds. Better Buys has asked industry experts for their thoughts on new BI trends, and the common theme is that AI features will be more accessible.

Data governance remains a priority – The goal of data governance is not just to protect the security of the data, but to help users put processes in place that ensure all aspects of data are of high quality. Data governance continues to be a high priority for enterprises, especially in light of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect in 2018. BI Survey asked 2,679 respondents for their views of important BI trends, and data governance is in the top 5 trends.

Increased demand for embedded analytics – While embedded analytics isn’t new, the demand is increasing since more companies want convenient access to analytics within their applications. Data Bridge Market Research predicts the growth for global embedded analytics solutions will rise 14% by 2025.

Free Report: Compare the best Business Intelligence solutions with our BI Vendor Comparison Guide – Download Here

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