Review: Birst brings DIY to BI

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With straightforward data access, automated modeling, and easy reporting tools, cloud-based Birst Enterprise is the data warehouse for the rest of us

Birst Enterprise Edition

We're all aware knowledge is power and time is money. But for many of us -- particularly small businesses and departments without dedicated IT support -- the leap from static reports of yesterday's news to deep, analysis-driven insight might as well be a leap across the Grand Canyon.

Birst helps fill that analytics gap with a cloud-based BI suite, Birst Enterprise Edition. With Birst you really can create data warehouses in the cloud in minutes, slice your data into multidimensional drill paths, and display actionable reports and browser-based KPI dashboards with ease.

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The simplicity of Birst stands in contrast to competitors such as GoodData. Although GoodData's developer-centric IDE delivers powerful features for data massaging and transformation capabilities, the power comes at the expense of complexity.

Loading and modeling
Birst uses a Spaces metaphor to compartmentalize each deployment, allowing separate lines of business in a company to access and analyze shared data sets. Each Space provides a repository for your data warehouse, report and dashboard settings, permissioned user access rights, and the like. On first run, a navigation page divides development and administration tasks into four key phases: loading, modeling, processing data, and user access.

Navigation is intuitive enough, but it would be better served with a wizard-driven guide, or perhaps displayed in a side panel, so users retain quick access to links.

Loading data into the warehouse is easy using any of the available options. Flat files can be uploaded through the browser, while a Java app, called Birst Connect, allows uploading from the desktop. And Birst's cloud-based Extractors tap into cloud sources such as Salesforce and Google Analytics.

The Connect tool can be run as a Windows service, so the desktop app isn't constantly running, and both Connect and Extractors support scheduling.

Tested against a Salesforce instance, Extractor's fine-grained controls let me pull in individual tables or entire databases. For each of the import methods, I found uploads to be fast and easy to manage.

Reports and dashboards
Birst packs in all the tools you need to make effective use of data: custom charting, scheduled report delivery, and browser-based dashboards. A newly added visualization interface, although still green, further simplifies chart creation through easy, guided selection of measures, columns, filters, and chart types, allowing users to interactively update the visual display in real time.

The report Designer tab maintains a list of data attributes and measures along with pre-baked, business-focused time-series measures (such as "trailing 12 months" and "quarter to date"). As a result, creating a chart or quick report is literally as easy as a click or drag of measures and attributes onto the canvas and specifying a chart type.

Birst abstracts away the underlying SQL without sacrificing the ability to run powerful SQL queries. For instance, Birst provides its own Birst Query Language for trend analysis (even if it's only basic linear regression). Birst Query Language is SQL with added time-series functions and the ability to manipulate dimensions and measures of aggregated data.

Birst offers a good number of charting options, from bubble and funnel charts to gauges and maps. Maps, in particular, were easy to define -- using either Birst's generic maps or Microsoft Bing -- and geo markers configured for underlying data display.

A search tool would be a useful addition to Designer, considering larger data sets can become unwieldy in Birst's folder-based layout. More flexible and finer-grained layout controls would also be welcome.

On the downside, dashboards can't be created ad hoc. You must first build reports from the Designer tab, save them, then use these as widgets in a dashboard layout. Some minor layout irregularities, sizing issues mostly, required a few round trips to the report Designer for manual adjustment.

I would like to see better write-back tools for what-if forecasting, such as those available in QlikView, where easy slider manipulation adjusts graphics in real time with updated perspectives. Birst's graphics are essentially static.

Finally, Birst reports are easily exported out of the browser -- either manually or via scheduled email delivery with attachments for PowerPoint, PDF, and Excel in tow. The chance to create a quick distribution list would have been nice, but email addresses can be entered manually, or a secondary report can be structured to manage distribution.

Data in, insights out
One of the challenges of the SaaS model -- for both providers and customers -- is managing the inevitable changes to the application. Birst rolls out updates regularly, and although you can control which engine is available to your users, you are limited to (roughly) two back-dot revs at any given time. As Birst retires older revs, users are automatically updated and pushed new features, some beta, whether they like it or not. Many IT shops would prefer tighter control over updates.

It should also be noted that Birst sells a virtual machine appliance for on-premise deployment and supports an API, but declined to provide either for this review.

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