Dashboard Software: Online or offline - Which is best?

Last Updated: Friday, September 28, 2012 by Johnathan Briggs

There are many applications that provide dashboarding tools, yet like most software there is a full spectrum of features and facilities available and you need to pick a solution that matches your needs and budget. Online dashboard software has risen rapidly and put, normally out of reach, Enterprise tools into the hands of smaller businesses. But which is best: online dashboard software or a more traditional offline Enterprise application? In this post I am going to review some of the common reasons to buy dashboard software and which features are important for you to decide which option is best.

BI vs. KPI

The first consideration when picking dashboarding software is, "what do you want it for?" Few managers consider this point carefully enough and yet this is fundamental in deciding which product you should purchase.

If you have a large database of data that you would like to "mine" for information and try to find patterns in the data that will help your business, then you should be considering Business Intelligence applications (BI). Typically these applications are very expensive and can provide many flexible views on your data, but the down side of this flexibility is complexity. Data manipulation requires an understanding of data "shaping techniques" and whilst many vendors promote their simple interfaces, if your managers don't know what a "cross tab query" is (perhaps the most basic data shaping technique), then it's unlikely you will get the most out of the software.

BI applications work best when there are a number of "data oriented" trained individuals within your company who can prepare the reports for your managers, applying their knowledge and skill to your requirements. Most BI applications have dashboards with filters and drill-downs. Once built, these dashboards limit the complexity of the system and allow managers to drill down into the data.

On the other hand there is dashboard software aimed at Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). A KPI approach is different to a BI approach. In BI we want to 'search for answers' in our data. But if you want a dashboard for KPIs, this is different. With a KPI we know this is an early warning indicator of something good or bad within our business so presenting it on a dashboard is all about "monitoring" a metric on a regular basis and noticing its overall trend.

KPI dashboard software is generally a lot easier to use for managers because of the slightly more simplistic nature of the data. With many KPI applications it can genuinely be said that no technical skills are required and this has the major advantage of allowing the managers to quickly build dashboards that meet their needs.

Online vs. Offline

The "age of the cloud"  is upon us and where once businesses would spend many thousands on enterprise software, online systems provide a more 'managed' system at a much lower cost.

Like all things there are plusses and minuses, and which option you select for your dashboard software will depend on your circumstances. Whilst there are a few BI vendors offering online solutions, the big problem here is that BI software works best when connected directly to your databases, or in other words, you buy the software and locate it in your offices. If you have large, live databases it's just not very practical to sync them out to an online service.

With KPI dashboard software things are different. You may well have a large database(s) but if you have defined KPIs or metrics its very easy for small applications to periodically extract the KPI data and post it off to the online service, usually via an encrypted secure channel. This makes online KPI dashboard software a very attractive proposition over a more traditional enterprise application.

The web interface is something we are all familiar with, so learning an online application is normally a much quicker and easier prospect than a traditional application making it easier for managers. There are also the big advantages of software evolution. In today's world software technology moves very fast, with the lifespan of a specific software version being shorter than it's ever been. Buying an enterprise application normally leaves you buying annual software upgrades with all the risk and cost that accompanies this, however, online applications normally evolve on a more frequent client led way so you benefit from more upgrades, more features and less risk than you otherwise would with a traditional application.

The other major advantage for online dashboard software is the platform independent nature of the web. These days the corporate world has become a mixture of devices: PCs are still dominant but Apple, Google and Microsoft mobile devices are all now playing a significant role. The advent of HTML5 and other cross platform standards means that an online dashboard will normally work on just about anything without the need to build or pay for some form of dedicated app for that device. One note of caution, there are a few online dashboard applications that use Adobe Flash. This allows over enthusiastic developers to make charts and graphs appear with whizzy animations but does not add to the overall presentation of the data. The problem now is that Flash is all but dead on mobile platforms with Apple, Microsoft and now Google Android no longer allowing Flash to run on their mobile devices. "Mobile" is now such a critical part of our corporate communication, in my opinion it would be very short sighted to procure a Flash based online solution that will almost certainly be obsolete within the next 18 months.

The future is online and for many companies the opportunity to have a shared service that they otherwise couldn't have is a major benefit. If your data is KPI based and you don't have specialist data guys in-house then the best dashboard software is an online dashboard solution as it will be easier to use, faster to implement, work on your devices and most likely cost you a whole lot less.

On the other hand if you have a lot of data to interrogate and 'mine' for answers, online applications just don't cut the mustard and there is no substitute for having a dashboard and reporting application hooked up to your database directly in-house. This often requires specialist skills and implementation, and as a result normally comes with a significantly higher price tag.

If you are thinking of implementing management dashboard software, get some great tips on how to put it to use with our Dashboard Best Practice Guide.