From Users to IT -- How Tableau Broadens Its Appeal

Tableau first cracked the enterprise by inspiring envy among users. Increasingly, it's trying to do the same thing with IT.

When Tableau Inc. first cracked the enterprise, it did so by inspiring envy.

Someone (typically a business person) would see someone else (an analyst) using the Tableau solution. They'd be impressed with its intuitiveness, its user-friendliness, and its immersiveness. Users were attracted to its exploratory capabilities and liked the variety, disclosive power, and technicolor splendor of its best-of-breed visualization capabilities.

They'd want it, too. Someone else -- an IT person -- would typically be less impressed with Tableau, which once lacked for enterprise fit and polish.

Over the last 24 months, Tableau has worked to broaden its appeal -- in this case, by taking its pitch to the IT professionals who service Tableau's traditional user base.

This is true of most of Tableau's best-of-breed data visualization competitors, too. In the beginning, they didn't have to worry about appealing to IT: tools such as Tableau, TIBCO Spotfire, Advizor, and JMP from SAS Institute Inc. were typically used -- evangelized -- by elite constituents: analysts, power users, sometimes even data scientists. In the case of Tableau, more so than with competitors Tibco (owned by integration powerhouse TIBCO) and SAS (a mainstay in analytics and data integration for decades), this has meant beefing up its enterprise bona-fides, too.

One upshot, analysts say, is that Tableau now fields a creditable enterprise feature set. In fact, says BI tools expert Cindi Howson, a principal with and TDWI faculty member, Tableau version 7 -- which shipped earlier this year -- improved on Tableau's already creditable metadata management features with improved support for metadata sharing. Other new enterprise-friendly amenities include live connectivity into Hadoop, improved scalability (Tableau claims that version 7 of Tableau Server supports more than twice as many client connections as its predecessor), support for multi-tenancy, and the ability to share data extracts.

Dan Murray, director of business intelligence (BI) services and COO of Tableau integrator InterWorks Inc., has a first-hand story to tell. His hands-on experience with Tableau inspired him to quit his job (as a CIO) and sign on with InterWorks an IT services and business solutions provider. Since then, Murray has spearheaded InterWorks' Tableau practice, zeroing in on the enterprise.

At first, Tableau was something of a tough sell, at least to IT organizations.

When it cracked the enterprise, in fact, it usually got in through the back door: as part of a user-initiated insurgency. These days, Murray says IT is coming to him.

"A couple of years ago ... Tableau basically reinvented their extract engine. The amount of data they could address [thanks to this improvement] really made them a player in the enterprise market because they could work on much larger data sets. Our business really took off with very large clients and really coincided with that [improvement]," Murray explains.

"A lot of our clients are enterprise-type customers, so when [Tableau] started addressing tens of milions of records with a decent amount of speed, and [once] they added more things in ... the server product to address security and failover and the sorts of things that are of concern to IT, that's when we started having IT [organizations] come to us."

A Farewell to (Insurgent) Arms?

Tableau is part of a BI insurgency that first started making waves half a decade ago.

The chief characteristic of insurgent BI offerings is that they don't get "used" by the people who adopt them: they get championed.

Tableau's popularity among its adoptees has prompted savvy industry watcher Ted Cuzzillo, who blogs about BI and information discovery (ID) at and writes frequently for BI This Week, to christen Tableau the "Apple" of the BI world.

Tableau isn't alone. The popularity of tools such as QlikView from QlikTech Inc., Necto from Panorama Software, and Spotfire -- to say nothing of Tableau itself -- is in part a function of how these tools first cracked the enterprise.

The most common adoption scenario involved users (or an entire user community) going out-of-band around IT. The use of a tool such as Tableau in an enterprise context sent a message. On the one hand, it could be interpreted as an act of sedition on the part of a frustrated user community; on the other, as a wake-up call to an IT organization nominally charged with servicing that same community.

These days, the relationship between IT and the line-of-business is much less antagonistic, Murray maintains. To the extent that tools such as Tableau are able to address issues such as scalability, performance, availability, consistency, and portability, IT is satisfied. None of these vendors -- with the exceptions of SAS (a giant in both enterprise BI and advanced analytics) or QlikTech (which markets a collaborative BI and analytic platform) -- seems interested in positioing itself as a replacement for existing BI systems. If anything, the Tableaus, Advizors, and Spotfires pitch themselves as supplements to -- as enriching -- Big BI.

That said, Murray isn't overly fond of enterprise BI systems. In this sense, he's evincing the suspicion and hostility of many one-time user insurgents. Keep your big BI, these users say: just so long as I don't have to give up my tool of choice.

"I'm an IT person who was an operational manager for 20 years. I bought those [BI] technologies, and I was a customer of Tableau's, too," he comments. "I don't view Tableau as a replacement for any BI or [analytic] database company. it's just going to make any existent [analytic] database or BI deployment better -- make it more accessible [and] more useful to the average information consumer."

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