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First thoughts on DataZen

Following the recent announcement of Microsoft acquiring DataZen, I’ve been having a play around to see what it can and can’t do. Here’s a very brief summary so far:

The Good:

  • Very quick and easy design interface
  • Fantastic way of modifying dashboard layout for tablets and mobile devices
  • It seems to ‘just work’ very well
  • You don’t have to worry about the pixel perfect layout of what’s where, it takes care of it for you

Screen shots of the same dashboard running on an iPhone 6 and in a web browser:

datazen01
datazen02

The Bad:

  • The designer is Windows 8 only. Really?!
  • Yes it technically connects to SSAS cubes, but the interface is quite frankly no more than smoke and mirrors.  It connects in the same way as QlikView does; it seems that you have to write an MDX query to return an entire fact table at whatever level of granularity you want to be able to filter by. DataZen then pulls back all of the data and then re-aggregates this for your dashboard. This may be ok for a small cube, but with a large measure group that needs to be sliced/diced by a number of different attributes at the same time this quickly becomes a bad idea. It is not able to use the power of SSAS, it treats it as simply another flat data source.
  • Scalability seems to be limited. For example you can provide a flat dataset containing a key and a parent key, and DataZen will turn it into a tree filter for you. Except that I tried this with a 7000 node parent child hierarchy in a tree and it just couldn’t cope. It did eventually load after numerous attempts, but it was so unresponsive that it was unusable. It seemed to work ok with a few hundred nodes.
  • You don’t have to worry about the pixel perfect layout of what’s where, it takes care of it for you. Yes this is a good point, but it also unfortunately means that there is little scope for customisation. This gets frustrating when it doesn’t ‘just work’. For example resizing a chart with a legend, in some sizes on the mobile view the legend was so big it left no space for the chart. It would be nice to be able to turn off the legend for the mobile view or something similar.
  • SSAS calculation logic is not supported. Well, this is an extension of the smoke and mirrors SSAS implementation, but it’s particularly relevant in this point. One of our existing clients is a heavy dashboard user, with data sourced from SSAS multidimensional cubes. They have a number of KPIs defined, for which the target is the actual value of the previous period. Now SSAS takes care of this beautifully. If the user selects a month then the target is the previous month’s value. If they select a week then the target is the previous week’s value, etc. However DataZen provides SSAS with no context over what is selected, and so SSAS is not able to dynamically do its magic. Therefore KPI targets cannot be dynamic, they need to be static and fixed at the point of DataZen data refresh.
  • Dates from MDX queries don’t seem to want to hook into the Time Navigator filters, and there’s no way of forcing them to. Although I’m guessing that this is a problem with how I’m doing it, so probably not fair to include it here.

Summary

I’ve not been playing with the tool for very long, so I may find ways around all of this. However at the moment I’m concerned that Microsoft are placing their dashboard/analytics future on a product that doesn’t properly support SSAS. In my mind the core strengths of the MS Business Intelligence offering is underpinned by the power of cubes, backed up with SSIS and a the strength of the SQL Server database platform. To buy into a dashboarding platform that doesn’t support and build on this is a cause for concern.

My hope/expectation is that Microsoft take elements from PowerView (that does properly support realtime queries against a cube) and elements from ProClarity/PerformancePoint (e.g. the decomposition tree, etc.), and embed them into DataZen. In which case they could end up with an awesome product.

Yes I’m a cube guy, so I’m naturally focused on the poor SSAS integration. If you don’t use cubes then you’ll probably love it. But MS have some work to do to bring me around.

Anyway, time will tell what happens next… Lets keep fingers crossed

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The Frog Blog

Team Purple Frog specialise in designing and implementing Microsoft Data Analytics solutions, including Data Warehouses, Cubes, SQL Server, SSIS, ADF, SSAS, Power BI, MDX, DAX, Machine Learning and more.

This is a collection of thoughts, ramblings and ideas that we think would be useful to share.

Authors:

Alex Whittles
(MVP)
Reiss McSporran
Jeet Kainth
Jon Fletcher
Nick Edwards

Data Platform MVP

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