/ 3 min read /

Metabase Limitations and Top 4 Alternatives (BI)

by Huy Nguyen

Metabase is a good, popular open-source BI tool that anyone can quickly install on your local environment to get a simple BI system up and running.

Yet when your analytics needs grow, you might face some of these pain points when using Metabase:

  • Have your business users ever found Metabase’s “Ask a question” too limiting for complex queries, and end up coming back to the analytics team to ask for custom reports?
  • Metabase only works well with a single SQL data source. If you have data from multiple sources, Metabase likely won't work well for you since it doesn't allow joining of data.
  • With Metabase, you can only work directly with your database tables because everything in Metabase is designed for simplicity.

In this post, we'll share with you a few alternative options to that, and tell you which pain points of Metabase each of these alternative addresses. So depending on your needs you might be able to pick the right option to replace, or use alongside with Metabase.

The below list of options are only tools that eventually offer a drag-and-drop interface to end users. At the end of the post we also include a list of tools that is only designed for technical users, SQL-to-chart translation.

1. Holistics

Holistics is a nice BI alternative to Metabase. It works similar to Metabase in a way that it allows you to map your database tables into models and relationships, and expose this to the end business users to "self-service explore".

Similars/Difference to Metabase:

  • Both are built on top of SQL querying engine and both offers a drag-and-drop experience for non-technical users.
  • Metabase fits only at at the visualization layer, Holistics offer additional ELT capabilities (data preparation).

Pros (compared to Metabase):

  • A stronger data modeling layer that allows handling sophisticated raw data.
  • Business users can ask more sophisticated questions using their Explore interface.
  • Works well with non-SQL data sources as they offer a mini-ETL experience with common sources (MongoDB, Google Analytics, etc)
  • Have an in-built DAG-like transformation layer so that you can transform raw data into aggregated datasets before exploration
  • Cloud-based so it doesn't take time to setup.

Cons (compared to Metabase):

  • Might not look as visually appealing as Metabase

Pricing:

  • Free, paid plans start from $50-$500 per month.

2. Tableau

Tableau is considered the best tool when it comes to visualization (prettiness) as it's their primary focus. Tableau is also recently acquired by Salesforce.

Similars or differences to Metabase:

  • While Metabase translates everything to SQL, by default Tableau uses their in-memory datastore, making it more difficult to debug when things go wrong (you can't look at the SQL query to troubleshoot).

Pros (compared to Metabase):

  • Pretty visualization (best in their class)
  • Friendly for business users to build your own chartings
  • Work with a wide range of data sources

Cons (compared to Metabase):

  • To design charts effectively you need to use their Desktop version

Pricing:

  • Based on user roles (Creator, Explorer, Viewer) with mimimum commitment required.
  • They have a Free desktop version if you're publishing the reports publicly.

3. PowerBI

Coming out of Microsoft and with strong history of Excel and PowerPivot, PowerBI is a fine choice to replace Metabase. They also have ability to load custom visualization.

Similar/Difference from Metabase:

  • While Metabase translates everything to SQL, by default PowerBI uses their in-memory datastore and their proprietary language DAX, making it more difficult to debug when things go wrong (you can't look at the SQL query to troubleshoot).

Pros (compared to Metabase):

  • Their explorer interface is comprehensive for end-business users to work with.
  • They offer from loading data from multiple sources, to drag-and-drop transform UI, to visualization.

Cons (compared to Metabase):

  • We suspect if you're more inclined towards SQL-backed data reporting like Metabase, you might not like Microsoft-style, Excel-like, proprietary approach of PowerBI.
  • PowerBI Editor can only run on Desktop running Windows. (that's why we wrote a post on how to use PowerBI on Mac devices)
  • Their best practice require you to host your data into PowerBI servers, i.e duplicating your data into their server.

Pricing:

  • Free for single user (desktop)
  • $10 per user for small-scale shared resource deployment
  • Starts to get fairly expensive for medium-to-large scale deployment (starts at $5K USD a month - listed price on website).

4. Looker

Looker (now part of Google) is quite a good BI tool to replace Metabase, but only if you're a big organization with large budget.

Pros (compared to Metabase):

  • Have a custom-built DSL layer (called LookML) to perform mapping between database tables and business logic, thus it's more flexible and customizable.
  • Have an in-built transformation layer so that you can transform raw data into aggregated datasets before exploration
  • Cloud-based so it doesn't take time to setup (as compared to Metabase)

Cons (compared to Metabase):

  • Since they use their own DSL language to model data, it takes quite a learning curve to get started.
  • It's also expensive and meant for large-scale deployment

Pricing:

  • Quite expensive, starting from $3000/month.

5. Other SQL-to-chart tools (without self-service functionalities)

If you don't need self-service capabilities that Metabase offers for business users, you can also check out these tools:

  • Redash (open-source SQL to chart tools)
  • Cluvio (SQL to chart tool, paid offering with a free plan)
  • Superset (opensource, SQL to chart tool, coming out of Airbnb)
  • Mode Analytics (SQL to chart tool with paid offering)

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Tang Yee Jie - Senior Data Analyst, Grab

Tang Yee Jie

Senior Data Analyst, Grab