Review: Birst brings DIY to BI

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

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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.

For instance, Designer has a secondary Layout Mode that's better suited than the Designer to text-based row reporting, where summation and Group By clauses can be put to work along with conditional display and custom formatting. But once you enter Layout Mode, you can't go back to the Designer to reformat your layouts.

That said, the layout controls work perfectly fine and the underlying SQL grouping and joins are mercifully hidden from the user. Ultimately Birst produces nicely tailored, good-looking reports with minimal fuss.

Birst's browser dashboards perform well and provide built-in prompts to update data on-the-fly. You simply click or lasso groups of data points to drill through data. All of the charts on the page autosync for a seamless presentation. Currently, users can choose a Flash or HTML5 interface, with only minor inconsistencies between the two, but Birst claims it has plans to migrate away from Flash in the future.

Birst Dashboard
In addition to clicking directly on charts to drill through data, Birst's Dashboard prompts let you quickly filter data sets.
At a Glance
  • Cloud-based Birst really does bring advanced analytics to business users.

    Pros

    • Easy setup
    • Good data source management
    • Data loading and modeling accessible to nontechnical users
    • Easy, drag-and-drop data visualizations and reporting
    • Good support

    Cons

    • Limited forecasting tools
    • Browser and iPad access only; no rich client for the desktop
    • No support for NoSQL data sources
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