When it comes to BI and analytics, it's crucial you use the right tool for the right job

I love my lawnmower because it cuts my lawn just the way I like it. It’s not too bulky and yet heavy-duty enough to make short work of the difficult bits. Just perfect.

However, I’m not tempted however to use it for every bit of cutting and slicing that needs doing around the house. I don’t use it for pruning my hedge, because it’s difficult to hold the mower up and the result isn’t very good at all. Nor would I use it to make apple sauce in the kitchen. In any area of life, it’s important to use the right tools for the job and your company’s data analytics needs are no different.

Data analytics is like having a conversation with your data; it simply won’t work if you have to wait long periods of time for each answer, or if your data is in the wrong place (nobody likes to shout) or your data isn’t speaking the same language. However when you’re engaged in conversation with your data, the insights you find will help you increase sales, save money, retain talent and allow you to innovate.

Ensuring you are equipped for the data-driven era is one of the most important things you can do in your business today, especially with those digital start-ups biting at the heels, winning market share and doing it fast because they are digitally-driven and data-savvy.

Use the right tool for the right job and get the most out of your data

So, how do you decide what tool to use? SQL or NoSQL databases? Columnar or row-stores? Open source or proprietary? Cloud or on-premise? What about visualisation? BI and reporting tools? There are so many options it may seem bewildering for a business.

Understand what you want to achieve

You need to take a step back and understand what you are trying to achieve from analysing your data. It will depend on what type of business you are and what skills you have internally to utilise the data. First, you need to look at the data you have available – whether it’s currently utilised or not – and work out what you want to get from it. For instance if it’s sales data you have available, you might want to investigate the factors that drive your sales or if it is web logs from your website, it may be to look at what customers click on before they buy.

Once you understand what you want you can start thinking about the tools that you need. It’s not about finding one tool for everything; you need the perfect ecosystem to get the most from your data, which can include a data warehouse, a database, data visualisation or business intelligence tools and perhaps some layers between.

Finding your perfect ecosystem

Now you know what you are trying to achieve, you can think about the best tools for the job. The best way to find the tool that suits you is to try them out; most vendors allow you to sign up for a free trial or community edition and built-in connectors should allow them to hook together simply. The key thing to bear in mind is whether your chosen solution will scale. While it may work for your business now, will it work for your business in 6 months? And in five years?

Moreover, bear in mind the costs of acquiring the tools as well as ongoing charges for service, maintenance and support? Be frank with the vendors and ascertain the full picture up front before committing to any license deals. What may seem like a good deal at the time, can often turn out to be quite the opposite when you come to renew annual licensing arrangements. One way to garner feedback is to talk to existing customers of a particular solution so you can get honest and not vendor-skewed feedback.

Keep the conversation going with your database

While businesses are becoming increasingly data-driven, and while the ability to analyse data and act upon insights is crucial, to have this conversation with your data you need the right database. Front-end visualisation tools allow users to see and understand their data, but BI and reporting software can often underperform due to the latency and poor performance of the underlying database.

So, it’s extremely important you choose your underlying database carefully. This is the engine in your analytic environment. There’s no point in having a fancy ride-on lawnmower or aerodynamic car that look great but lack a powerful engine. Traditional databases tend to be slow what with their reliance on indexing, aggregates and partitions, and therefore cannot satisfy the queries that are pushed down to them by visualisation tools quickly enough. Businesses need to see and understand their data fast, and poor database performance levels will only lead to frustration.

To put it simply, the database analysing large data volumes can supercharge your visualisation tools by satisfying complex analytic queries in real time. You can have your conversation without frustration. Moreover, with the right tool you can connect multiple disparate sources holding data of all shapes and sizes, including structured and unstructured data.

Greener grass

I love data like I love my lawn, but without the right tool for the job it becomes unmanageable and overgrown. If you’re not using the right tools to get the most out of your data, you risk being left behind in a data-driven age. You risk making decisions in the dark and you risk missing opportunities to both improve and save money.

The grass is always greener with the right tool.

Sean Jackson, chief marketing officer, EXASOL

 Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens