This blog post is looooong overdue. I was supposed to attend TIBCO’s TUCON event in Las Vegas last October, bought the non-refundable flight ticket, hotel package and then caught the infamous East Coast SQL flu several hours before my flight. I was really upset since I had been looking forward to going to TUCON for the first time and seeing my former Extended Results friends there to see what they cooked up with Spotfire Mobile Metrics (formerly PushBI). Since then, I have read through the TUCON 13 session material, industry analyst Spotfire updates like excellent Andrei Pandre’s blog and other information that I could find on the latest release of TIBCO Spotfire 6.0. However, there is still nothing better than hands-on experience. Having just worked with Spotfire again on a dashboard development engagement for the first time in a few years, I’d like to share what is new and also some of my thoughts.
TIBCO Spotfire is a nice data discovery solution with fantastic predictive visualization capabilities that simply does not get a lot of market buzz. I was totally shocked to see Spotfire showcased at the 2014 Microsoft CIO Summit last week in the midst of the Office 365 Power BI marketing blitz. I often see Tableau, Qlik and Power BI compared but rarely is Spotfire in the mix. I also have never seen a TIBCO Spotfire sales rep in any of my BI, predictive and data related travels, groups or events. They seem a bit elusive and they also seem to be making a few mistakes in their recent go to market strategy changes as Andrei Pandre explains in his articles. I saw news from the latest TIBCO earnings report that they admitted to Spotfire sales struggling due to market pressure from other data discovery vendors. I suspect that if Spotfire revisited their go to market strategy, they would fare much better in the midst of exceptionally strong competition from Tableau, SAP Lumira, Microstrategy and other players. Like many data discovery solutions that I review, TIBCO Spotfire does have unique strengths and weaknesses.
Spotfire is certainly one of the top data discovery solutions that I have worked with in this space. They fared quite well in the latest 2014 Gartner BI Magic Quadrant results. Spotfire does not have as easy, intuitive dashboard build experiences as say a Microsoft Power View or Tableau but it does have excellent predictive, statistics, event-driven analytics, new cloud offerings and other advanced, robust TIBCO extension capabilities. Both my customer and I found it quite enjoyable for dashboard development.
Note Spotfire does have a small learning curve to get fully functional and the learning resources right now are primarily videos that I didn’t have time to watch and online docs. I don’t know about you but I LOVE to quickly read printed technical books. I am literally surrounded by at least a 100 or more technical books in my personal technology library. I looked for a decent Spotfire book for a long time and finally got one from TIBCO directly to fast-track my ramp up. Note that you won’t find great Spotfire books in the regular bookstore channels such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble like you can for other data discovery vendors. Also, do not to waste $39.00 on the TIBCO Spotfire for Developers book that is widely available. I learned the hard way that the best place to get a TIBCO Spotfire book is through TIBCO!
Predictive Analytics in the Spotfire Platform
In my honest opinion, TIBCO Spotfire is a real gem with easy embedded predictive visualizations that are simple enough, point-click menu options for regression, clustering and classification for a business user to get started applying advanced analytics into smart dashboards without any statistical programming. For more advanced analysts and data gurus, there is the TIBCO Enterprise Runtime for R (TERR), an enterprise-class environment for running R scripts and also TIBCO Spotfire Statistics Services (TSSS). TSSS provides a predictive analytics ecosystem and enables seamless integration of R, S+, in-database predictive analytics, SAS, MATLAB and more into Spotfire and custom applications. Spotfire’s enterprise predictive library capabilities can be used for developing, sharing and governing predictive models. In version 6.0, Spotfire added explicit parallelization of R-language scripts for high performing analytics and the TERR engine is now compatible with the RStudio IDE (my favorite R environment). I could write many blogs on this one topic alone. For those of you that like to follow vendor gurus on Twitter, my favorite Spotfire tweeters for predictive are Lou Bajuk-Yorgan @LouBajuk and Christof Gaenzler @CGaenzler. Michael O’Connell is another one but I don’t know if he is active in social media. Spotfire predictive has so much power and endless possibilities. Predictive visualization is indeed a core strength in this particular data discovery solution. For more information on TIBCO Spotfire predictive features, check out this white paper.
One of the functional areas of Spotfire that I really liked that not many other data visualization tools offer is statistical tools. There is the capability to add statistical lines and error bars to charts showing quartiles, standard deviations, regression lines, and other metrics. Spotfire has out an array of out-of-the-box statistical features for comparing data relationships: numerical/numerical, numerical/categorical and categorical/categorical. They support visualizing polynomial, exponential, logistic regression, logarithmic and Gaussion curves in the base Professional solution. There is also advanced visualization features such as adding jittering that are rarely seen.
TIBCO Spotfire has both in-memory data engine capabilities and direct connectivity for a variety of data sources including but not limited to text files, Excel, relational databases such as Oracle, Oracle Exadata, Hyperion Essbase, Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft SQL Server, Composite Information Server (ADS), HP Vertica, IBM Netezza, MySQL, PostgreSQL, SAP NetWeaver BW, Teradata, Teradata Aster and more. Spotfire developers can load data tables into Spotfire and define relationships in Information Models (like a semantic model) for a single-version-of-the-truth per se in Spotfire world. The replace data table feature is useful for rapidly repointing development projects to production data sources. Models can also include custom defined calculations, scripts and sophisticated data functions. The script library is fairly rich with capability including some data transformation features, such as pivoting data, that many other data discovery tools do not have today.
Data Visualizations, Dashboards and Publishing
Similar to other data discovery vendors, TIBCO Spotfire uses dashboard pages, charts, tables, text areas, drill-downs and non-overlapping dashboard sections to layout visualizations. The visualizations include bar, line, combination, trellis, pie, scatter, box plots, maps, heatmaps, tree maps and parallel coordinate charts. Starting in Spotfire 6.0, you can configure charts to show images on the axis of visualizations too. Visualizations do have contextual filtering and highlighting via Marks and targeted filtering schemes and other filtering features. I really liked the base filtering and ease of customizing a filter look and feel. I was a little disappointed in the chart building experience. I felt like there were too many clicks most of the time to get a simple, clean visualization without all the extra stuff taking up space. I also wanted more control of the legend placement. Mapping was more painful than Power BI and other vendor mapping functionality in this space. In version 6.0, Spotfire has added packaged geocoding data table libraries but getting a thematic map or a simple bubble map of sales by city was way too hard and I am technical. I hope that mapping continues to improve. Dashboards can include parameters, actions, prompts, bookmarks and other means for guided analysis.
When you have finished creating your analysis, you can share it as a dxp, image, HTML,PowerPoint or PDF file. You can optionally publish the dashboard to Spotfire Cloud or Spotfire Server to have viewers see and interact with it in a web browser via the Spotfire Web Player. Mobile BI was a little tricky for me. There is the old native TIBCO Spotfire Mobile BI app on my iPad that would not allow me to see my published creation in the Spotfire Cloud for some unknown reason. However, I was able to hit it via the web browser directly for a native HTML5 browser-based, touch optimized mobile BI experience. Spotfire Mobile BI does have editing on the web bowser that I felt was a super feature for on-the-go analysis. All in all, Spotfire dashboard development was decent and the amount of control that the developer does have for customizations was pretty good.
For more information on TIBCO Spotfire, check out the Resources page on the Spotfire web site. (For data visualization lovers, simply ignore their not so good use of pie charts in their marketing…classic!) Andrei Pandre also has other blog posts on Spotfire, Spotfire 6 and new Spotfire Cloud Services on his site. TIBCO Spotfire is one of the leading visual analytic solutions in the market today.
Update March 26, 2014: Thanks to Kurt Shaffer of Spotfire for sharing Partner Program information with me. TIBCO Spotfire does have a friendly Partner Program for services providers, OEMs, VARs and other technology partners in the channel ecosystem that bring domain expertise to add business value to the platform for Spotfire customers. There are no steep fees or barriers to entry per se. Partners simply need to be trained and certified by TIBCO Spotfire to ensure their teams understand the solution, can successfully implement it and be a valued resource for their customers.