Managing Tableau upgrades: 5 key considerations for enterprises

Updating to the latest release version of Tableau, or any self-service data analytics solution used heavily across enterprise business, is never a task that should be taken lightly.

Taking into account potential compatibility issues, application dependencies and manual effort required, the risk in losing or corrupting outdated workbooks, reports and data sources with a rushed version upgrade is too much to approach the task ad-hoc - especially in large-scale businesses.

Tableau’s support cadence is regular enough with helpful bug fixes, feature upgrades and general tweaks that it’s important both your heavy users and key analytics decision-makers in the business must remain aware of what’s been added or changed, as it’s easy to lose track.

In 2019, there have been two major release version upgrades - 2019.1 and 2019.2 - and a slew of smaller dot (also called maintenance patches) updates each month.

But before your business considers upgrading to the latest version of Tableau, it’s important to tick off the following 5 key business considerations within and across the entire enterprise.

 

#1 - Identify compatibility and dependency issues

In most large-scale enterprises, different users and departments might need to use different versions of Tableau Desktop and Tableau Server depending on their usage and needs. Best case scenario would be for everyone to run the same version, but it’s not always possible.

The first thing enterprises wishing to upgrade versions across the organisation must address is compatibility. You can identify the version number of your Tableau product (Desktop or Server) by navigating to Help > About Tableau. Compatibility is only a major issue between release versions of Tableau, not the maintenance/dot updates that are periodically released in between.

Some common examples of compatibility pitfalls that need to be identified and addressed:

  • Workbooks created with any version of Tableau Desktop can connect to and be published to Tableau Server if Tableau Server is the same or a newer version than Tableau Desktop. These workbooks can also use data sources published to later versions of Tableau Server. However, if you use a data source with features that aren’t in the earlier version of Tableau Desktop, those fields are not able to be used.
  • If your Tableau business users created reports in a much older version of the software such as Tableau Desktop 2019.2 and you need to publish it to Tableau Server which is still on version 2018.3, you can run into unnecessary compatibility issues that either require a complex downgrade to temporarily publish it. You might also accidently have users overwrite content created in an older version without a backup to revert back to - reinforcing why upgrading to the latest version key.
  • In general, new release versions contain a number of new features and updates. It’s recommended not to try and publish workbooks to an older version of Tableau Server, otherwise your workbook and data becomes incompatible.

The nature of Tableau and cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions in general lends itself to continuous updates that never really stop coming. There’s always more improvements or new features inevitably around the corner, and it’s up to your business to evaluate and determine whether fresh functionality introduced in the latest release version is useful for your business analysts and worth the time and money spent to ensure a safe, compatible upgrade.

 

#2 - Manage Control Product Updates for pre-set delivery

All versions of Tableau Desktop automatically installs dot/maintenance releases.

If you have multiple business analysts using Tableau Desktop regularly, and want more oversight and control over when and how you upgrade to the latest release versions across the business, it’s highly recommended that you turn off product update feature for your users.

Via command-line or the customisation page on the Windows Installer for Tableau Desktop, you can ensure users still get the automatic maintenance updates delivered to their devices, but that major release versions are only installed manually (i.e. when you’re ready).

You can specify the maintenance update you want your users to get with Tableau Desktop by modifying the TableauAutoUpdate.xml file - Tableau have a great official walkthrough you can read here.

 

#3 - Manage and monitor licensing usage with Tableau tools

tableau_upgrading_version_best_practices

 

To avoid unnecessary wasted spend and resources, Tableau Desktop licensing management must be under strict control before you deploy a new release version upgrade for your users.

If any of your Tableau deployments are out of maintenance, you will be unable to use the software after a release upgrade due to expiration, which is just another unnecessary roadblock.

Ensure you properly track product keys and manage licensing and usage across your enterprise to gather information from individual instances of Tableau Desktop, which you can then send to an instance of Tableau Server to help you better manage licenses in your organisation.

Tableau currently offers three ways to streamline the licensing management process:

  1. Customer portal: The official Tableau website allows server admins to buy, manage and view registration information for product keys assigned to your users, managing all Tableau accounts for your organisation. While it only offers a high-level overview of overall usage data, it does let you identity who has installed Tableau as per registration records - helping you reign in licensing that may be going unused or were mis-assigned.
  2. Tableau Desktop Reporting: This feature allows you to report usage information to an active instance of Tableau Server, where your server administrators can track and monitor usage with much greater oversight and determine who requires an upgrade.
  3. Virtual Desktop Support: Tableau Desktop can be configured to automatically deactivate a license after a set amount of time, which can be particularly helpful for enterprises using non-persistent virtual desktops prone to forgetting to deactivate an installed Tableau Desktop license upon the VM being recycled or a device reimaging. This lets you reactivate that license on another computer without extra effort.

 

Tableau have a great official walkthrough for each of these three options that can help you get up-to-speed with your licensing management, which you can read here.

Another major area is take note of is expired maintenance. It is advised not to upgrade your server if your maintenance licensing product key is expired, as it may fail, or result in an unlicensed server. You can refresh your maintenance before upgrading using the Manage Product Keys application.

It’s also best practice not to install a beta version of Tableau Server in your production environment to avoid licensing complications upon installing the full version.

 

#4 - Backup your Tableau Server data before you upgrade

It’s absolutely essential you backup your Tableau Server installation and data prior to kicking off the upgrade process. This gives your administrations easy access to the data they’ll need to set up test versions of the upgraded environment - and, most crucially, a recovery option if the upgrade fails unexpectedly.

When you backup Tableau Server data (data extract files, Tableau PostgreSQL database, workbook and user metadata, configuration data, etc). It’s all saved as a .tsbak extension. This file should be installed on a computer is not part of your Tableau Server installation for additional protection.

Ensure subscriptions and scheduling in your production is disabled before taking the back-up, and only enable them once the backup is complete to avoid users receiving duplicate subscriptions and email messages when restoring backups in your test environment.

 

#5 - Take extra precaution with virtual machines (VMs)

Upgrading versions of Tableau Server on virtual machines (VMs) requires a little extra planning.

Whether you have your VMs running on-premises or in the cloud (AWS, Azure, Google Cloud), licensing can get a little complicated if you have Tableau Server running standalone or in a cluster. If you need to clone the VM to create new production or test environments to upgrade to the latest release version, your Tableau Server licenses must be deactivated before cloning. Only after cloning the VM should you activate the Tableau license and proceed with the upgrade.

Without deactivating these licenses beforehand, your new VM environment is likely to end up with an unverified license, ensuring that the upgrade process will fail - and cause more unnecessary headaches for your decision-makers and administrators.

 

Why you should upgrade to Tableau Version 2019.2

Tableau Upgrade Version Best Practices

Source: Tableau

Alongside three bugfix patches, Tableau Version 2019.2 offers up a slew of new and valuable capabilities and features that offer up deeper analysis opportunities for your analytics users.

  • Mapping improvements for spatial data analysis: There are new background map layers to utilise (subway, train stations, terrain, etc), new demographic data, spatial calculations, map styles (dark, light, normal, outdoor, satellite, street) and vector maps added for smoother inspection upon panning and zooming into our map data.
  • New personalised homepage on Tableau Server and Tableau Online: All users of Tableau 2019.2 can access a home page upon logging into Tableau Server and Tableau Online that is dynamically tailored to display content most relevant to their role, search patterns and work. There is a new navigation bar that makes it simpler for users to access favourites and recent dashboards and report, find new content based on popularity, and new walkthroughs through specific actions based on their assigned role.
  • Vector-based maps: Clear analysis of geospatial data is now possible with the introduction of vector maps, which let you zoom in, zoom out and pan through your embedded maps a lot smoother than in the past.
  • Visually change parameter values: Tableau 2019.2 has introduced the option to change a parameter's value using Tableau’s rich visualisation tools. You can now use parameter actions to drive calculations, filters, reference lines and SQL queries and interact with visualised marks on a viz, ultimately making your data more interactive

 

How to upgrade to Tableau Version 2019.2: Next steps

If you require assistance in upgrading to the latest version of Tableau, professional services and data analytics consultancies like Xello are recommended partners to engage if you want to ensure a smooth upgrade and deployment process following practices, get the most of the latest release features added to Tableau, and ultimately derive greater value from your data.