I’ve been exploring Datazen for the last several weeks, and I’ve had the opportunity to discuss it with some clients. While it doesn’t do everything everyone wants it to, I think it fills some feature gaps in the MSBI mobile story.
What is Datazen?
Datazen was initially released in 2013 and gained popularity and many positive reviews. Microsoft announced the acquisition of Datazen on April 14, 2015. That announcement included the statement that SQL Server Enterprise Edition customers with version 2008 or later and Software Assurance are entitled to download the Datazen Server software for free. So many organizations just got a free mobile BI tool (not counting the cost of up set up, adoption, and maintenance). Microsoft has stated that they will be integrating some Datazen technology into SQL Server 2016 and Power BI, but the current version of Datazen could be useful depending on an organization’s needs.
Datazen shines in the following areas:
- Mobile BI: Datazen has feature parity on iOS, Android, and Windows 8. The native apps are optimized for touch gestures and offer useful features such as client-side caching for offline viewing.
- Maps: There are 70 built-in maps at the state, country and region level. You can also create custom maps using ESRI shapefiles.
- Activity Streams: Users can add comments with contextual information and interpretations of the numbers for other users to view.
- Integration into current environment: Datazen allows the use of Active Directory or ADFS for authentication. Datazen can be embedded into SharePoint or custom web apps through an iframe. It also supports custom branding.
- Security: Datazen encrypts data on the server, while in transit, and on client devices. Application pin locks are supported on all mobile clients.
The Datazen Suite
Datazen product elements include Datazen Server (control panel, authentication, data sources and views, dashboard and KPI storage), publisher app, and viewer apps.
Where Does Datazen Fit in the MSBI Stack?
Microsoft already has Power BI, which has mobile apps (in the new 2.0 version) for Windows and iOS, with an Android app coming soon. Yes, Datazen adds another tool to an already confusing array of options in the MSBI stack. But the scope and strengths of Power BI are rather different from those of Datazen. Power BI is a good data discovery and self-service BI tool. Datazen doesn’t really do data discovery; it’s more for structured analysis. Organizations that use Android devices, or those who need enterprise-mobile BI access now may look to Datazen (especially if they get the license at no additional cost). Organizations who are not ready to house their data in the cloud, don’t want to deal with the change management of constant updates in Power BI, or those with strong mobile security concerns may also consider Datazen.
Datazen is good for dashboards with defined drill-through paths. This is a similar paradigm to Reporting Services. You create the charts and navigators/filters and then define the drill-through destination to access when a user touches/clicks on a chart, passing the location of another dashboard or a custom url along with any parameters.
Datazen also allows you to create KPIs that can then be pinned to the start menu in Windows 8+ as a live tile. This is good if you have just a few KPIs that you want to monitor at a glance. without opening an app or website.
The best part of Datazen is that it just works on mobile devices without the developer having to do much of anything special to provide a good mobile experience. And the viewing/interactivity capabilities are the same whether you are on a laptop, phone, or tablet.
Datazen Is NOT…
Datazen isn’t a data manipulation tool like Power Query or a sophisticated calculation engine like Power Pivot. You must feed your data into Datazen in a very particular way to make the charts you want. It can do simple aggregates like sums and counts and calculate the difference between results and goals in a KPI, but that is about it. Any other calculations must be done in the data view (source query). This isn’t so much a criticism as a statement. I can appreciate that Datazen isn’t trying to be all things to all users but instead chose to focus on a few things (mobile dashboards, rapid dashboard development) and do them well.
While Datazen dashboards could be built by a data savvy business user, I don’t consider it to really be self-service BI. It’s more likely that BI developers and analysts will use it (similar to Report Builder) to build static but refreshable dashboards with the ability to filter data and drill through to more detail. You must publish the dashboard in order to use it or share it with others. I firmly believe that there is still a place for these kinds of reports and dashboards. They can ensure consistent measurement and analysis, and keep important metrics easily available to those who need them. Unless you live in SSRS, Datazen dashboards are quicker and easier to build than SSRS dashboards. Datazen keeps things simple with a grid system for easy alignment and color palettes and background options that are similar to Power View.
You can’t change Datazen dashboards (switch chart types, move graphs around, etc.) on the fly directly from a mobile device. The only way to update a dashboard is to use the publisher app which is available only on Windows 8 laptops/tablets. Another question I’ve been asked is whether the charts inside a dashboard are reusable. As far as I know, there isn’t a way to reuse a chart from one dashboard in another dashboard, unless you want to create a dashboard that contains just the chart and make it a drillthrough destination in multiple dashboards. When you build a dashboard, you build the master view first. This is the view you see from your desktop in the viewer app or on the website. Then you build the tablet and phone views by placing the existing charts onto the grid in a different configuration to fit the format. You can reuse a chart that you built on the master view in the phone or tablet view (any chart you want to use must be built on the master view). But you can’t use that chart in a completely separate dashboard.
Datazen also isn’t an SSRS replacement. SSRS has features such as alerts, subscriptions, printing, exporting, etc. that are not available in Datazen. SSRS also allows more fine-grained control of colors and formatting and has a robust expression language for calculations.
Another Tool in the Belt
Datazen has a place in the MSBI family. Although it does have some overlap with existing MSBI tools, it also brings some capabilities that were missing. My impression is that it is a good solution for mobile BI when data exploration features are not needed. It’s fairly easy to set up and doesn’t take much time to publish a decent dashboard. More time will likely be spent with data preparation than it would with other tools. Right now, Datazen enhances Microsoft’s mobile capabilities and complements Power BI’s features. There will be some organizations that use only Datazen or only Power BI and others that may opt to use both. It’s all about using the right tool for the job.
There are several great blog posts out there on Datazen. Here are a handful that I found informative.
- Richa Yadav: Closer Look at Datazen
- Teo Lachev: First Look at Datazen
- Datazen Blog: Datazen 3.0 Data Paradigm
- Ajit Kumar Thakur: Business Intelligence Reporting through Datazen
- Paul Turley (SQL Mag): Datazen series
- Power Pivot Pro: Datazen = Beautiful Mobile Dashboards to Make Power Pivot Shine
- Christopher Finlan: How to Setup a Test/Dev Datazen Server Instance in Microsoft Azure
- Eric Hyland (Skyline Technologies): Creating Dashboards With Datazen – An End To End Example
- Datazen Blog: How to implement Drill-through functionality in Datazen
- Datazen Blog: Implementing Row-Level Security For SSAS Data Views
- Christopher Finlan: How to Create a Custom ODBC Data Provider on Your Datazen Server
- Christopher Finlan: How to Connect to Azure HDInsight from Your Datazen Server Using ODBC