11 min read

Business intelligence is big business. Salesforce’s purchase of Tableau earlier this year (for a cool $16 billion) proves the value of a powerful data analytics platform, and demonstrates how the business intelligence space is reshaping expectations and demands in the established CRM and ERP marketplace.

To a certain extent, the amount Salesforce paid for Tableau highlights that when it comes to business intelligence, tooling is paramount. Without a tool that fits the needs and skill levels of those that need BI and use analytics, discussions around architecture and strategy are practically moot.

So, what are the best business intelligence tools? And more importantly, how do they differ from one another? Which one is right for you?

Read next: 4 important business intelligence considerations for the rest of 2019

The best business intelligence tools 2019


Let’s start with the obvious one: Tableau. It’s one of the most popular business intelligence tools on the planet, and with good reason; it makes data visualization and compelling data storytelling surprisingly easy.

With a drag and drop interface, Tableau requires no coding knowledge from users. It also allows users to ask ‘what if’ scenarios to model variable changes, which means you can get some fairly sophisticated insights with just a few simple interactions.

But while Tableau is undoubtedly designed to be simple, it doesn’t sacrifice complexity. Unlike other business intelligence tools, Tableau allows users to include an unlimited number of datapoints in their analytics projects.

When should you use Tableau and how much does it cost?

The core Tableau product is aimed at data scientists and data analysts who want to be able to build end-to-end analytics pipelines. You can trial the product for free for 14 days, but this will then cost you $70/month.

This is perhaps one of the clearest use cases – if you’re interested and passionate about data, Tableau practically feels like a toy.

However, for those that want to employ Tableau across their organization, the product offers a neat pricing tier. Tableau Creator is built for individual power users – like those described above, Tableau Explorer for self-service analytics, and Tableau Viewer for those that need access to Tableau for limited access to dashboard and analytics.

Tableau eBooks and videos


PowerBI is Microsoft’s business intelligence platform. Compared to Tableau it is designed more for reporting and dashboards rather than data exploration and storytelling. If you use a wide range of Microsoft products, PowerBI is particularly powerful. It can become a centralized space for business reporting and insights.

Like Tableau, it’s also relatively easy to use. With support from Microsoft Cortana – the company’s digital assistant – it’s possible to perform natural language queries.

When should you use PowerBI and how much does it cost?

PowerBI is an impressive business intelligence product. But to get the most value, you need to be committed to Microsoft. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be – the company has been on form in recent years and appears to really understand what modern businesses and users need.

On a similar note, a good reason to use PowerBI is for unified and aligned business insights. If Tableau is more suited to personal exploration, or project-based storytelling, PowerBI is an effective option for organizations that want more clarity and shared visibility on key performance metrics.

This is reflected in the price. For personal users the desktop version of PowerBI is free, while a pro license is $9.99 a month. A premium plan which includes cloud resources (storage and compute) starts at $4,995. This is the option for larger organizations that are fully committed to the Microsoft suite and has a clear vision of how it wants to coordinate analytics and reporting.

PowerBI eBooks and videos

Qlik Sense and QlikView

Okay, so here we’re going to include two business intelligence products together: Qlik Sense and QlikView. Obviously, they’re both part of the same family – they’re built by business intelligence company Qlik. More importantly, they’re both quite different products.

What’s the difference between Qlik Sense and QlikView?

As we’ve said, Qlik Sense and QlikView are two different products. QlikView is the older and more established tool. It’s what’s usually described as a ‘guided analytics’ platform, which means dashboards and analytics applications can be built for end users. The tool gives freedom to engineers and data scientists to build what they want but doesn’t allow end users to ‘explore’ data in any more detail than what is provided.

QlikView is quite a sophisticated platform and is widely regarded as being more complex to use than Tableau or PowerBI. While PowerBI or Tableau can be used by anyone with an intermediate level of data literacy and a willingness to learn, QlikView will always be the preserve of data scientists and analysts.

This doesn’t make it a poor choice. If you know how to use it properly, QlikView can provide you with more in-depth analysis than any other business intelligence platforms, helping users to see patterns and relationships across different data sets. If you’re working with big data, for example, and you have a team of data scientists and data engineers, QlikView is a good option.

Qlik Sense, meanwhile, could be seen as Qlik’s attempt to compete with the likes of Tableau and PowerBI. It’s a self-service BI tool, which allows end users to create their own data visualisations and explore data through a process of ‘data discovery’.

When should you use QlikView and how much does it cost?

QlikView should be used when you need to build a cohesive reporting and business intelligence solution. It’s perfect for when you need a space to manage KPIs and metrics across different teams. Although a free edition is available for personal use, Qlik doesn’t publish prices for enterprise users. You’ll need to get in touch with the company’s sales team to purchase.

QlikView eBooks and videos

When should you use Qlik Sense and how much does it cost?

Qlik Sense should be used when you have an organization full of people curious and prepared to get their hands on their data. If you already have an established model of reporting performance, Qlik Sense is a useful extra that can give employees more autonomy over how data can be used.

When it comes to pricing, Qlik Sense is one of the more complicated business intelligence options. Like QlikView, there’s a free option for personal use, and again like QlikView, there’s no public price available – so you’ll have to connect with Qlik directly.

To add an additional layer of complexity, there’s also a product called ‘Cloud Basic’ – this is free and can be shared between up to 5 users. It’s essentially a SaaS version of the Qlik Sense product. If you need to add more than 5 users, it costs $15 per user/month.

Qlik Sense eBooks and videos

Read next: Top 5 free Business Intelligence tools


Splunk isn’t just a business intelligence tool. To a certain extent, it’s related to application monitoring and logging tools such as Datadog, New Relic, and AppDynamics. It’s built for big data and real-time analytics, which means that it’s well-suited to offering insights on business processes and product performance.

The copy on the Splunk website talks about “real-time visibility across the enterprise” and describes Splunk as a “data-to-everything” platform. The product, then, is pitching itself as something that can embed itself inside existing systems, and bring insight and intelligence to places and spaces where it’s particularly valuable.

This is in contrast to PowerBI and Tableau, which are designed for exploration and accessibility. This isn’t to say that Splunk doesn’t enable sophisticated data exploration, but rather that it is geared towards monitoring systems and processes, understanding change. It’s a tool built for companies that need full transparency – or, in other words, dynamic operational intelligence.

When should you use Splunk and how much does it cost?

Splunk is a tool that should be used if you’re dealing with dynamic and real-time data. If you want to be able to model and explore wide-ranging existing sets of data Tableau or PowerBI are probably a better bet. But if you need to be able to make decisions in an active and ongoing scenario, Splunk is a tool that can provide substantial support.

The reason that Splunk is included as a part of this list of business intelligence tools is because real-time visibility and insight is vital for businesses. Typically understanding application performance or process efficiency might have been embedded within particular departments, such as a centralized IT function. Now, with businesses dependent upon operational excellence, and security and reliability in the digital arena becoming business critical, Splunk is a tool that deserves its status inside (and across) organizations.

Splunk’s pricing is complicated. Prices are generally dependent on how much data you want to index – or, in other words, how much you’re giving Splunk to deal with. But to add to that, Splunk also have a perpetual license ( a one time payment) and an annual term license, which needs to be renewed. So, you can index 1GB/day for $4,500 on a perpetual license, or $1,800 on an annual license. If you want to learn more about Splunk’s pricing option, this post is very useful.

Splunk eBooks and videos

IBM Cognos

IBM Cognos is IBM’s flagship business intelligence tool. It’s probably best viewed as existing somewhere between PowerBI and Tableau. It’s designed for reporting dashboards that allow monitoring and analytics, but it is nevertheless also intended for self-service. To that end, you might say it’s more limited in capabilities than PowerBI, but it’s nevertheless more accessible for non-technical end users to explore data.

It’s also relatively easy to integrate with other systems and data sources. So, if your data is stored in Microsoft or Oracle cloud services and databases, it’s relatively straightforward to get started with IBM Cognos. However, it’s worth noting that despite the accesibility of IBM’s product, it still needs centralized control and implementation. It doesn’t offer the level of ease that you get with Tableau, for example.

When should you use IBM Cognos and how much does it cost?

Cognos is perhaps the go-to option if PowerBI and Tableau don’t quite work for you. Perhaps you like the idea of Tableau but need more centralization. Or maybe you need a strong and cohesive reporting system but don’t feel prepared to buy into Microsoft.

This isn’t to make IBM Cognos sound like the outsider – in fact, from an efficiency perspective it’s possibly the best way to ensure to ensure some degree of portability between data sources and to manage the age-old problem of data silos.

If you’re not quite sure what business intelligence tool is right for you, it’s well worth taking advantage of Cognos’s free trial – you get unlimited access for a month. If you like what you get, you then have a choice between a premium version – which costs $70 per user/month, and the enterprise plan, the price of which isn’t publicly available.

IBM Cognos eBooks and videos

Conclusion: To choose the best business intelligence solution for your organization, you need to understand your needs and goals

Business intelligence is a crowded market. The products listed here are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to analytics, monitoring, and data visualization. This is good and bad – it means there are plenty of options and opportunities, but it also means that sorting through the options to find the right one might take up some of your time.

That’s okay though – if possible, try to take advantage of free trial periods. And if you’re in a rush to get work done, use them on active projects. You could even allocate different platforms and tools to different team members and get them to report on what worked well and what didn’t. That way you can have documented insights on how the products might actually be used within the organization. This will help you to better reach a conclusion about the best tool for the job.

Business intelligence done well can be extremely valuable – so don’t waste money and don’t waste time on tools that aren’t going to deliver what you need.

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.