Better Dashboarding – Grafana or SquaredUp?

Sameer Mhaisekar

SquaredUp, Technical Evangelist

As part of my job as a tech evangelist and a pre-sales engineer here at SquaredUp, I often find myself talking to a lot of people. And understandably, when you as a consumer are trying to evaluate a product that you may potentially invest in, it’s only natural that you want to compare different products and decide which one’s better and/or offers more value for money and why.

We’ve been compared with our only direct competitor in the SCOM space, and judging by the overall positive feedback, it’s safe to say we’ve been the best choice when it comes to SCOM.

However, since the launch of our Azure product, we’ve been getting this one particular question a lot – “This looks great! But why should I invest money in this over a free tool like Grafana? It lets me do all these things for free”. This brings us to the topic of discussion today (note the text in bold in the question, it is the key to this discussion)!

Let’s try to answer this question here. While we get compared with Grafana mostly for our Azure product, we seldom get asked this for our SCOM product. I will try to address both as we go and will make sure to include references so as to not cause confusion.

Alright enough chitchat, let’s get real!

[NOTE: we have since launched the free Dashboard Server product that lets you dashboard anything. Find out how SquaredUp Dashboard Server compares to Grafana.]

What is Grafana?

Grafana is an open-source visualization platform that allows you to query, visualize, alert, and generally display your data no matter where it’s stored. Honestly, it’s a pretty neat solution, and some of their visualizations are beautiful. Welp, did I really just complement another vendors’ visualization tool? I sure did, and the reason is rather simple – we’re not claiming to be a rival to Grafana. Why? Simply because while we’re technically in the same competing space as them (the space being data visualization), we are distinct in the end result that we provide, and also the way in which we do it. Of course, we’ll talk more about this later.

Grafana Play Home example dashboard (https://play.grafana.org/)

What is SquaredUp?

If you’re not familiar with SquaredUp, well, it’s an excellent visualization tool that sits on top of your existing System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) landscape or Azure Monitor implementation.  Simply put, we provide a dynamic solution to allow your users to drill into the metrics you are already collecting without someone having to create the dashboards. We also provide quick access to most of the administrative tasks that you’d expect to use day-to-day. Think “console”, as much as “dashboard”.

An example NOC dashboard from SquaredUp 

So, what’s the difference?

At first glance, they look largely similar. They are similar in the sense that they’re both visualizing data – with graphs, lines, bars, etc. However, while the differences aren’t very obvious just yet, they lie within the operability of these dashboards and trust me, the differences are BIG.

Here I will list the quick and broad differences in these products, in reference to the things that matter the most in any tool’s implementation. Note that I’ve tried to keep this very factual, with no bias on either side. Let’s get into it!

The end goal

Grafana:

To provide a single tool that connects to a multitude of data sources and visualizes data no matter where it comes from. As a part of it, you can connect to any databases or use plugins from other tools to bring the data in.

SquaredUp:

To provide an extension to your SCOM or Azure console, that can not only visualize data “natively” from these sources but also provides the ability to perform some day-to-day tasks without having to log into the SCOM or Azure portals. SquaredUp also connects to any SQL database as well as most external tools over a JSON API. 

Ease of deployment

I’d say both products are fairly matched when it comes to the ease of deployment, the duration to finish installation and documentation available.

Points to both!

Time to value

Grafana:

A new installation of Grafana is completely blank. You’ve only got the canvas set up, now you still have to perform a series of tasks before you see your first dashboard. The reason is rather simple – Grafana doesn’t know what data source you’re going to collect the data from, so it can’t predict what dashboards to offer you.

SquaredUp:

SquaredUp comes with a collection of dashboards out-of-the-box since it already knows the data sources you’re going to use. In the SCOM product, SquaredUp requires a connection to your SCOM data warehouse database, while in the Azure product it connects natively to the Azure Monitor service you have for the tenant where you deployed SquaredUp.

This is why you get immediate returns on the fresh install of SquaredUp since it knows what data you’re trying to get and gives you some common useful dashboards by default. Major win!

Azure Cost Management

Grafana:

You can show the cost details on how much your spend has been for your cloud deployment, but that’s about it. Again, it’s read-only and offers little to no insights on identifying whether the cost is justified, and hence no tools to effectively control what you’re spending.

SquaredUp:

This here is probably the biggest single reason to convince you to implement SquaredUp for Azure. You can not only just see what you’re spending, but also make an informed decision whether that cost is justified by tallying it against the performance of that resource.

For example, I have a very highly capable (and expensive) machine running in the cloud, but after investigation it turns out that the machine has actually been over-provisioned and I’m not even using it to 30% of its full capacity. Then why should I pay for the remaining 70% capacity when I’m not even using it?

Grafana won’t help you identify this, SquaredUp will.

Dashboard creation

Grafana:

Since Grafana treats your SCOM database as any other SQL database, to create dashboards you have to write SQL queries to extract the data you want to see. New dashboard, new query!

For Azure dashboards, once adding the desired subscription as a data source, you can select the metric you want to chart from a dropdown.

SquaredUp:

Since SquaredUp specializes in SCOM and Azure visualizations, most actions are simplified by a helpful and rather obvious GUI. All you have to do is choose the result type you want to see (list of alerts, performance charts, etc.), SquaredUp has a GUI to guide you through it end-to-end.

On top of this, if there’s some very custom data you wish to display that is not covered by the GUI options, you can write a SQL query to get it from the database, just like you would in Grafana.

SquaredUp for Azure has a similar experience here, but I’ll give it a slight edge due to the fact that you can return multiple data types like alerts, status, matrix in addition to performance whereas Grafana is bound to showing performance.

Operability of dashboards

Grafana:

Grafana’s dashboards are “standalone” – meaning that all you can do with them is look. You can’t really “work” with them to zero down on the problem. There is no drill down available in a Grafana dashboard so if you spot something of interest, it can’t take you to that next layer down.

However, you can link different dashboards together, so that clicking on one dashboard will take you to another. But again, end of the day, all these dashboards are individual, and hence need to be created individually.

SquaredUp:

SquaredUp has a decisive win in this regard. Nearly all dashboards you make are drill-downable, out of the box. You can not only drill from the highest-level object to the lowest, but also across any level to “fellow” objects. They also have “perspectives”, which are very useful to consuming information for a specific object from a variety of sources.

For example, if you have a dashboard with a list of alerts or a performance chart, in SquaredUp I can drill down into it to gather more related intel about it and possibly get to the root cause of the alert or the deterioration in performance, all without going to the SCOM console or the affected machine. In Grafana, I can’t.

Manipulating Dashboards

Grafana:

As we know by now, Grafana dashboards for SCOM are all built with SQL queries, so it’s hard to edit them “on the fly” if you’re not well versed with SQL. You will need to analyze the whole query and edit it without breaking it!

Editing Azure dashboards is easier with the GUI provided.

SquaredUp:

Since SquaredUp provides you a simple GUI based dashboarding in both SCOM and Azure products, you can simply go to the wizard where you need to make edits and change it. Simple as that. 

Sharing dashboards

Grafana and SquaredUp can both provide shareable links straight to the dashboard. However, the difference is you have to add all users in Grafana in order for them to view that dashboard, while SquaredUp allows you to share a direct link using its feature called “Open Access” that does not require the users to be onboarded to SquaredUp, and hence not consuming a license. 

Visualization options      

Grafana:

Grafana has some great visualizations, and lots of variety too. I like some of the fancy ones in there, but they only work with a very specific metric or data type in some cases.

SquaredUp:

SquaredUp also offers a variety of visualization options, but rather than a broad range to suit every possible taste they’re focused on the task at hand, to help a SCOM/Azure admin simplify their day-to-day work.

Skills required

Grafana:

Now this may not be a strictly technical point relating to what Grafana can and can’t do, but equally (or even more) important nonetheless. What skills do you need to use Grafana and do you have them?

Unfortunately, if you’re planning to use it for SCOM, I have bad news for you. Since everything here is written in SQL queries, your SCOM knowledge alone will do you no good if you don’t know how to write queries (which is very different!). And when I say queries, I mean some really elaborate and sometimes complex queries.

If you don’t have that knowledge, you will have to learn it and that can take any amount of time. What good is having Grafana if creating simple dashboards requires an additional skillset?

For Azure dashboards, you’re in a better place. Grafana provides some GUI for charting metrics so it shouldn’t be too hard. For Log Analytics dashboards, there is no escaping from KQL so you will have to learn it anyway, no matter the tool.

SquaredUp:

Luckily, your SCOM knowledge is key to making dashboards here. SquaredUp dashboards use the same class-object hierarchy that SCOM uses and combining that with a friendly GUI, it becomes very easy to make dashboards.

Here, you need SCOM knowledge (which you already have as a SCOM admin), and some SQL knowledge if you need to do some custom dashboards (optionally).

For Azure dashboards, the metric charting experience is quite similar and as mentioned above, there is no escaping KQL for the dashboards made from logs. 

Investment of time

Grafana:

This is another of those non-technical but still very important points in any tool’s implementation. How much time and resource are you spending on working with the tool?

Grafana is free to install, but don’t jump to conclusions just yet. As they say, nothing is free!

Even if you aren’t spending cash on the implementation of Grafana, you’re still spending in a different (maybe even more important) currency – time.

It should be obvious to you by now that creating, manipulating, maintaining dashboards in Grafana is MUCH slower and dare I say painful. It requires you to acquire new skillsets (or spend time improving it) if you wish to be successful with your Grafana deployment. There are no OOTB dashboards and each dashboard has to be created individually if you want to link them.

SquaredUp:

SquaredUp, on the other hand, utilizes your existing skillset and gives you immediate returns on investment. With its OOTB dashboards and drilldown capability, your dashboards are not only pretty but also useful, and most importantly, actionable.

Again, a clear win for SquaredUp. To operate Grafana, you will most likely need a dedicated team working only on Grafana, and most other teams will be dependent on them to get dashboards. And if they leave, you have to train the new people all over again.

SquaredUp has a much flatter learning curve and can be utilized nearly fully with existing skillset you have. You can also “delegate” dashboard creation to each app owners and simply let them create their own dashboards, with little to no SCOM knowledge.

Verdict

Finally, so what’s the verdict at the end? Am I saying Grafana is bad? Absolutely not! I love Grafana and some features it provides are absolutely fantastic like annotations, dashboard refresh times, and the overall look and feel.

This comparison hasn’t been trying to tell you Grafana is bad, but more to demonstrate that being free is rarely a selling point, and what you save on the license you’ll quickly see disappearing elsewhere. It’s not only about the money, it’s equally about time, skills, and ease of operability. 

As a matter of fact, I’d strongly encourage the use of both. Where SquaredUp gives you immediate value and the familiar context of your SCOM and Azure environments, the  ultimate goal is to give you a single place to look so why not leverage Grafana for those visualizations and data sources that you just can’t live without, but give them meaning by embedding them in SquaredUp.

Thankfully, SquaredUp has this neat capability using which you can bring your pretty Grafana dashboards in SquaredUp, not only that, but also populate those graphs dynamically without having to write the dashboard queries over and over again. The endgame to this looks like this and I’m absolutely in love with it!

SquaredUp dashboard with embedded Grafana visualizations.

So how do you go about doing this? Stay tuned for the next one!

Sameer Mhaisekar

SquaredUp, Technical Evangelist