The Market for Business Intelligence Systems

Finding the best BI tool for your organisation

With data and information becoming more central to business, the insight that business intelligence (BI) systems provide is now vital to a broad range of decision making roles, not just IT and the board. The upshot of this is that the difficult-to-use, technically oriented solutions of previous times are no longer acceptable. Vendors including Microsoft, Salesforce, Tableau, Qlik, SAP and IBM are developing tools that are fast, simple and accessible as they work to expand the reach of their products. In the chart below, we see how some of these vendors are operating in the areas that IT leaders responsible for BI told us are most important to them.

These days, users expect to be able to drill down into data without having first to learn to write queries or scripts. Over the years we’ve seen an emphasis on the front end: dashboards and data visualisation tools are an essential part of every modern BI system, and some are now highly sophisticated. Instead of logging a request to the IT team, sales managers – to give an example – can now interrogate data in real-time, using geospatial capabilities to quickly highlight regions that might be under-or over-performing and drilling down into the data in search of the cause, all without writing a single line of code.

The range of roles of those who produce reports using BI systems illustrates the democratisation of these tools. In Delta’s study into BI, 55 per cent of respondents said anybody authorised to use the BI system could create reports, compared to 33 per cent who said this was still the task of the IT department. Likewise, business analysts and senior executives with similar job titles are the people most actively involved with BI systems. They do not want to have to wait for the IT department to run reports on their behalf.

So, the current BI battleground is usability and visualisation. This was the secret sauce that Tableau and Qlik used in their recipe for success a few years ago. But they are joined by a newcomer: Microsoft. With its seamless integrations into O365 and Dynamics, not to mention its substantial corporate footprint, it’s no surprise to see Microsoft at the head of the table of vendors respondents believe to be growing in importance in BI. Salesforce was also thought to be a future contender, not just because of its purchase of Tableau (which was announced during the research process), but also because of its platform approach to managing enterprise data, and its cloud-first approach.

Around half of respondents said they deploy their BI from their own data centre, but almost as many are using a SaaS or hybrid cloud delivery model, with 9 per cent using the services of a hosting provider.

Is your primary BI deployment on-premises, SaaS, hybrid cloud or hosted by a partner?

The success of the cloud players in the hearts and minds of respondents comes at the expense of the traditional on-premises vendors: SAP, Oracle and IBM. However, it’s always a mistake to write off the large incumbents who are themselves moving to the cloud, but whose installed base means they have to cover a lot more seats. Elsewhere veterans like SAS, which date back to the 1970s and still enjoy a loyal user base in large organisations, jostle for position with new cloud-native applications like Sisense and Looker. In BI there is something for everyone.

Vendor comparison

Microsoft Power BI was the most trialled of all the BI solutions, ahead of Tableau and Qlik, which is remarkable seeing that it has only existed since 2015. Salesforce was fourth, again surprising given that it is best known for its CRM offerings. Oracle and SAP both offer a variety of on-premises and cloud-based BI offerings, with both companies keen to move customers to the latter model. IBM now augments its midrange Cognos BI solution with IBM Watson; a move, together with other modernisations, that has apparently gone down well with IT leaders.

There are plenty of smaller vendors that form the BI long tail and may be used not only by SMBs but also large organisations, or single departments looking to fill a gap. They include Zoho, Sisense, Yellowfin and Birst. Data on all of these providers is available in the full Delta report into Business Intelligence Systems.

What are the most important features when choosing BI software?

In the cloud era, choosing a BI system is not the technical process it once was, although it would be a mistake to think they are now plug’n’play – someone needs to integrate the data sources, apply access controls and ensure security and compliance, after all. Different offices or departments may prefer to run their own BI: about half of our respondents were running multiple BI systems, with 3 per cent operating more than five.

But as BI tools reach outwards for their data, to social media streams or public government datasets, they need to be able to incorporate open APIs and possibly streaming tools, too, depending on the business’ needs. Indeed, the IT professionals who took part in our study felt that integration with a wide variety of sources was thought to be the most important feature in a new BI tool.

Which of these features are most important when choosing a BI tool?

Asked about the importance of a mobile app, the results were middling compared with some other enterprise systems. This may be because the mobile form factor is limiting when it comes to querying at any great depth; however companies with a large remote workforce might have specific use cases which make mobile access essential.


We undertake our research in three stages. First, we perform an online survey with end-users responsible for the area we are covering in a managerial, decision-making or advisory capacity. More than 250, mostly in the UK, took part in the BI research. We canvass opinions on offerings from multiple companies, which for BI included Tableau, Qlik, Microsoft, Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, IBM, Tibco, SAS, Zoho, Sisense, Yellowfin, Hitacki Pentaho, Domo, Looker, Microstrategy, Information Builders, Pyramid, Targit, ThoughtSpot, Good Data, Kognito, Logi Analytics and Birst. We repeat this survey at regular intervals to track shifts in opinion.

A focus group, formed of IT leaders from a mix of company sizes and sectors, then discusses the results. This exercise is followed by a series of in-depth interviews (IDIs) with senior professionals focused on particular issues uncovered in the previous stages.

Finally, we undertake a programme of desk-based research to ensure we are up to date with market trends, mergers and acquisitions, and new and potentially disruptive technologies coming down the line.

Additionally, as important news arises, we make sure we keep the report updated.

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