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How to Create Real-Time SQL Dashboards

What is a Real-time SQL Dashboard?

Dashboards let your team track and analyze important metrics. Some metrics are urgent and need to be checked often. Others only need to be reviewed once a month. You probably have a handful of business-critical numbers that need to be tracked in real-time so that your team can react immediately. That's where real-time dashboards come in. Most modern applications are built on a SQL database, and analytics databases and warehouses are mostly relational databases that you can query via SQL. This post will show you how to set up a real-time SQL dashboard on top of your database.

Product Usage Dashboard | Explo
Product Usage Dashboard | Explo

Why Do You Need a Real-Time Dashboard?

Data is a critical part of any business. Real-time dashboards give you a clear overview of metrics like the volume of support tickets or the number of active users through an easy-to-read visual interface. These charts help you identify patterns, trends, and correlations to make data-informed decisions that directly impact your business. A company that deals with time-sensitive operations without real-time tracking of critical metrics is flying blind.

Think about a food delivery app like Doordash monitoring the number of late food deliveries. If you see a spike in late deliveries, you can give the team on the ground the signal to increase the number of drivers being dispatched.

Or consider an online retailer monitoring inventory in their warehouse. If they see inventory running low, they can discontinue a sale or place more orders from their suppliers. These companies need real-time dashboards internally to track and act on these numbers.

If your product handles a critical business function for a company, you might need to build a customer-facing dashboard to show your customer the metrics that your platform manages.

For example, suppose you're a marketing platform that delivers emails to customers or a virtual conferencing platform hosting thousands of attendees. In those cases, you'd display metrics like email open rate or number of active attendees.

Online Marketplace | Explo
Online Marketplace | Explo

What Do You Need To Create a Real-Time SQL Dashboard?

At a high level, you'll need the following to set up a real-time SQL dashboard:

1. To have a relational database that you can query with SQL

2. To identify the relevant tables and write the queries needed to extract the right data

3. To build a user-facing frontend dashboard. You can use Excel, Google Sheets,  an internal tool builder, a BI tool, or your own custom web application

4. A way to run the SQL query at intervals to poll the database for data

5. A way to display the data on your front end with low latency

Setting Up Your Relational Database

Your engineering team is populating data into a database or data warehouse. If you want to query using SQL or a similarly powerful language, you need to store your data in a relational database like Postgres.

A relational database has tables that "relate" to each other by storing pointers to records in other tables. This makes it possible to run complex queries like "find all the late deliveries sent from Domino's to addresses in Soho, London."

You can query data using a DBMS (Database Management System) like MySQL or PostgreSQL. If you're on a budget and looking for something quick, you can get started on the free tier of AWS RDS or similar.

If you use a data warehouse like Amazon's Redshift on AWS, Google BigQuery, or Snowflake, you can still query data using a SQL-like syntax. It's important to note that most data warehouses will not actually support real-time analytics, and the data pipeline often causes a delay. If you're looking for a real-time analytics database, you should consider options such as Rockset.

Creating Your SQL Queries

For real-time reporting, your dashboard or BI tool should be able to connect to your data source and fetch real-time data.

If you don't have a BI tool in place, you'll need to build a real-time API running SQL queries that can fetch live data from your relational database. The SQL query needs to be optimized to bring in the data without delays. Factor in the cost of running the query:

  1. Cost: Certain providers charge you based both on data stored and the number of queries or tables queried per month
  2. Latency: Complex queries can sometimes be slow. Make sure you set up the right virtualized tables, optimize your queries, and structure your data for fast retrieval

Decide how fresh the data needs to be:

  1. The SQL query can be called up via an API that pulls data from the database once and caches it for later use. You can set up a polling framework to periodically get the latest data. Set user expectations when it comes to how "real-time" the data is by adding a label that reads (for example) "Updated 3 hrs ago" to show your user the freshness of the dashboard
  2. You can also simply have your API run the SQL query each time, refreshing the dashboard whenever it is loaded1`

You'll need to figure out what works better for your specific needs by testing your query and measuring how long it takes to fetch the data.

Building the Dashboard UI

Your real-time SQL dashboard needs an easy-to-read UI that the right members of your team can access.

You can build your own dashboard using a modern frontend JavaScript framework like Vue, React, or Angular. Use a charting library to visualize the data.

Another option is to use Business Intelligence tools. Open-source BI tools usually have a steep learning curve, which might scare away users when creating simple reports and visualizations. Commercial tools are much more user-friendly, so you can focus on the information and not the tool itself.  If you choose to go the open-source route, some of the best open-source BI tools are Metabase, The ELK Stack, Jedox, and Helical Insight.

Your dashboard also needs to be responsive and adjust its size to the screen it's being viewed on. This is important because it allows users to view the dashboard on any device. Operations teams are often on the move when viewing real-time data. They might not have access to a fast internet connection or a large screen.

A good dashboard design fits your user's needs.

Real-Time SQL Dashboard
Real-Time SQL Dashboard

4 Things to Consider Before Buying a Dashboarding Solution

If all the above sounds like a lot of work, that's because it is. You can buy off-the-shelf tools to make your life simpler.

  1. Check what data source integrations are available: Your solution should have access to all data sources you use to make them a part of your workflow.
  2. How easy is it to create a dashboard? Do you need code, or is it possible to create dashboards with no-code tools? Are the pre-built dashboards and data visualizations well designed? Da‎ta visualization is a core part of building dashboards. How you display and represent your real-time data will determine how useful it is to its audience.
  3. Learning curve and implementation costs: Understand how long it takes to implement a solution. You'll probably have to write SQL queries and some code to integrate dashboards. Make sure you know what the required implementation effort looks like before signing up.
  4. What's the core purpose of the dashboards? Certain solutions are better for different use cases such as internal analytics, ad hoc reporting, or external dashboards.

If you're embedding dashboards into your product so that your customer can access real-time data, or need a solution for external reporting, there are dedicated solutions such as Explo. We make it easy to create sophisticated dashboards with minimal code that directly queries your data source and can be set up to be always up-to-date.

‎FA‎Qs

1. Why Are Real-Time SQL Dashboards Essential?

Real-time SQL dashboards are essential because they allow you to see what's going on in your company at any given moment. Having real-time data available on a dashboard is a massive improvement over running reports that give you a stale snapshot of your data at infrequent intervals.

2. Do I Need to Be Proficient in SQL to Create a Real-Time SQL Dashboard?

SQL is helpful to understand but it's not strictly necessary to build a data dashboard. There are lots of no-code tools that let you visually create SQL queries, but if you're not proficient in SQL, that is a factor you need to consider when choosing a dashboarding solution.

3. Why Use Commercial Instead of Open Source Tools for Building Dashboards?

It's not a secret that open-source software solutions satisfy most data visualization needs. However, they lack dedicated support. You might run into implementation headwinds and suffer from performance issues. Commercial tools come with enterprise support to help you build dashboards that serve the right data to the right people at the right time.

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