Alation Connected Sheets Brings Trust to Spreadsheets

By Jason Lim

Published on November 28, 2022

An organized at home working station with a laptop with Alation Connected Sheets displaying on the laptop screen.

With the release of 2022.4, Alation is excited to unveil Alation Connected Sheets, a new product that brings trusted, fresh data directly to spreadsheet users. Now, “spreadsheet jockeys” can pull the most current, compliant data directly from a range of cloud sources, without having to know SQL or depend on a data team to deliver it. They can even set their spreadsheets to auto-refresh on schedule, saving valuable time, money, and resources. Alation Connected Sheets is fully available for Google sheets, with plans to integrate with Excel coming very soon.

The spreadsheet problem

If your company is making decisions based on data, everyone needs to be included – not just data analysts and data scientists. Everyone has a responsibility to make the best, most informed decisions, which requires access to data. Yet too often people without ‘data’ in their title – business users – are left out or left behind.

What prevents business users from making data-driven decisions? Common barriers include:

  • Having to rely on overly taxed data engineers to provide data

  • Not knowing what data they have access to

  • Not knowing where to get trusted data

  • Not knowing the right expert for questions about the data

It’s not that these business users don’t know how to work with data. On the contrary, these “spreadsheet jockeys” are often talented at creating pivot tables and sophisticated functions faster than the most data-savvy professional. But they have no idea whether the data in their spreadsheets should be trusted in the first place. Or they don’t have the technical skill to extract, cleanse, or transform data they need.

Spreadsheets are dark matter

Spreadsheets dominate the activities of gathering and preparing data, and performing descriptive analytics. However, time spent in spreadsheets is often ineffective.

78 million data workers are advanced spreadsheet users 27% of their time is spent repeating the same or similar steps every time a data source is updated or refreshed

Source: IDC, Data and Analytics in a Digital-First World commissioned by Alteryx

Consider how many analytic spreadsheets exist in large enterprise organizations. Spreadsheets are created across different functions, from finance to sales operations, across different countries, and across different business units. Despite holding valuable information that is repeated or related between spreadsheets, they are disconnected from the data source and perpetuate a problem of people working in silos. This makes spreadsheets the dark matter of an organization. They are powerful, but can’t be seen at an organizational level.

Challenges of spreadsheets today

To take spreadsheets to the next level, we need to solve some fundamental challenges. Spreadsheets today are:

  • Impossible to discover. Spreadsheets are difficult to find, unless you know if they exist and where to find them.

  • Impossible to trust. Knowing which spreadsheet has the most accurate and valid data is difficult, because there is no governance or lineage to trace where it came from.

  • Slow to source trusted data. Analysts building spreadsheets typically depend on IT or data teams for fresh, trusted data; in this way, they struggle to get data quickly.

Introducing Alation Connected Sheets

Connected spreadsheets solve these challenges. As the next evolution of spreadsheets, connected spreadsheets are cloud-and-browser based, with a spreadsheet interface integrated with other data sources, via APIs. These supercharged spreadsheets unlock new potential to leverage automation and empower the large population of advanced spreadsheet users to do more than ever before.

We are excited to introduce Alation Connected Sheets in the latest 2022.4 product release. Alation Connected Sheets is a new product that pulls in trusted data from sources directly into the spreadsheet natively.

Spreadsheet power users will get the most value from Alation Connected Sheets; examples of these core user groups include:

  • Financial analysts rely on spreadsheets to make business-critical decisions around budget allocation, regulatory reporting for risk and compliance audits

  • Sales operations rely on spreadsheets for forecasting and resource planning

  • Demand generation marketing teams rely on spreadsheets for analyzing the performance and ROI of different channels

The risk of using untrusted data in spreadsheets is significant when you consider how many serious decisions are based upon them. Adverse business implications, such as making the wrong investment decision, could happen.

How Alation Connected Sheets works

Alation Connected Sheets will be rolled out in two phases:

Phase 1: Within the spreadsheet, the product enables business users to easily access, refresh, and pull trusted data, leveraging quality signals from Alation Data Catalog. Data can be pulled from sources such as Amazon Redshift, Snowflake, MySQL, and PostgreSQL. Google Sheets will be the first spreadsheet platform to be supported and users can access it through a Google Marketplace app. In the future, Microsoft Excel will be supported through an add-in.

Phase 2: Within Alation Data Catalog, spreadsheets will be a data asset; this means they can be curated, governed, and displayed on the lineage graph, like other data assets, such as database schemas, tables, or BI tools. This will be available in a future product release.

Key benefits of Alation Connected Sheets

Let’s explore the core benefits of Alation Connected Sheets by diving into the challenges of traditional spreadsheets today.

Bring trust and governance to spreadsheets

Alation Connected Sheets allows the right data to be pulled into the spreadsheet, natively and in real-time. By connecting the spreadsheet to searchable source data in Alation, the product can populate a spreadsheet with fresh, trusted data. For example, a certified customer table found in Snowflake can be inserted instantly into a spreadsheet, without the user having to copy/paste it from Salesforce or download it as a csv from another tool. This means spreadsheet users need to create and maintain just one master spreadsheet for further analysis – and spares them the headache of duplicating work in silos.

Guide users to governed, quality data

But how will spreadsheet users find trusted data to pull for analysis? Alation Connected Sheets integrates with the Data Catalog to add helpful context that guides users to great data. TrustFlags signal if data is trustworthy and tell users if a query or asset is endorsed, warned, or deprecated, and by whom. Spreadsheet users can also see brief descriptions about data alongside an asset’s top users, in case they have questions.

Within the catalog, the lineage graph will show how a spreadsheet was created, supporting impact analysis. The result? Spreadsheet users can work more quickly and confidently, as they no longer have to blindly rely on data, or guess at random which asset to pull before spending time analyzing it.

Alation Connected Sheets maintains security and compliance, by reusing existing security credentials at the source level, so only authorized users can pull in data. This prevents the risky scenario of someone either intentionally or unintentionally, finding a sensitive dataset or query and simply importing it into a spreadsheet. For example, if someone is not authorized to see data on employee salary at the source, they won’t be able to see it in the spreadsheet.

Easy to start and maintain

Anyone can use Alation Connected Sheets. Using the tool only requires a few clicks to find and filter data before importing it. SQL is not needed, nor do spreadsheet users need to learn or switch to another technical tool. Advanced spreadsheet users can continue to use the spreadsheet app they prefer, to self-serve accurate, governed data, without having to depend on technical resources like a data engineer. This is a huge boon for productivity.

By virtue of being online and connected, Alation Connected Sheets offers the benefit of timely, always-on data, since imported data can be automatically refreshed. This ensures a spreadsheet is always accurate, because it updates if the underlying source data changes. Then any changes made in the spreadsheet will be bi-directionally synced back to Alation Data Catalog. The pain of having to continuously copy/paste or export data goes away, making maintenance of the spreadsheet simple.

Alation Connected Sheets will allow us to work natively in a familiar spreadsheet environment while connecting to the catalog and enabling spreadsheet governance

Sara Cook, Director of Data Science and CMC Statistics, Novavax

In conclusion

We are thrilled to introduce Alation Connected Sheets to bring discovery and trust, to something so ubiquitous and loved, as the spreadsheet. This is a major milestone for Alation.

To learn more about Alation Connected Sheets:

  • The spreadsheet problem
  • Spreadsheets are dark matter
  • Challenges of spreadsheets today
  • Introducing Alation Connected Sheets
  • How Alation Connected Sheets works
  • Key benefits of Alation Connected Sheets
  • In conclusion
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