Open-Source Business Intelligence Software - Should
you Take it Seriously?
Open-source software has moved from once being unheard of in a corporate
software environment to a standard part of most companies day-to-day operations,
simply another option that is considered along with all the others whenever a
new development project is being contemplated. Despite this, though open source
programs have become well-established in certain niches, there are still areas
of enterprise computing which are regarded as so vital to the running of the
company that managers prefer the reliability and rigour which (they imagine)
comes from a old-school corporate product.
Databases, for example, are one such
area, although even there MySQL has gained some traction. Will
Intelligence (BI) be another?
Business Intelligence is one of the latest corporate buzzwords and the market
Business Intelligence software has grown dramatically in recent years.
Business Objects, SAS, have established themselves as the major players and the
software giants from other sectors, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, are eyeing the
market up and starting to make some serious moves on it. The BI big hitters have
tailored their marketing and developments efforts towards large corporate
customers, companies which don’t mind shelling out serious cash on enterprise
software. The more cash-constained smaller and medium enterprises have been
feeling a little left out, like there’s a party going on somewhere round the
block and they didn’t get an invite. This is where those touting open source BI
might make some headway, if only they can convince potential users to take them
Actuate, a company which started the Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools
sub-project of Eclipse, a popular programming development tool, commissioned a
survey to assess corporate acceptance of open source BI software. It found that
24% were already using it and 31% expected to be using it soon.
Pentaho is the leading player in open source BI currently. By all accounts a
dynamic company which has recruited (or poached) much of its talent from the
heavyweight corporate BI vendors, it markets its suite of Java-based BI
applications while offering its source code for free. How does it make money? By
selling support for the product which, of course, you’re under no obligation to
buy; and by selling higher-end “professional editions” of the basic Pentaho
package. Pentaho claims the open source variant contains 90% of the features
present in the professional edition.
Jaspersoft is another of the leading open source BI companies. Like Pentaho it
makes money by charging for specialised add-on modules to its core product which
it distributes for free. Its JasperReports tool was created originally as an
open-source alternative to Crystal Reports and is now well-established, with
over 10,000 installations worldwide.
You can read more about Pentaho and Jaspersoft’s products
So, apart from cost, are there any advantages to be gained from going the open
source route rather than using a proprietary solution? Well, for one thing, it
might help you to avoid lock-in. That is the phenomenon when one vendor’s
products become so intimately and fundamentally tied up with your company’s
business processes that it becomes almost impossible for you to do without it.
If, at some future stage, you make a strategic decision to liberate yourself
from your formerly preferred vendor’s embrace, you might find yourself in a
world of hurt. The corporate BI vendors make little secret of their desire to
get you locked in. They even tout it as a good thing. Consider this extract from
some SAS marketing literature, for example.
By their very nature, open source projects are fundamentally community-oriented.
They depend on the support of a community of sympathetic developers and, both
through culture and necessity, they have no interest in establishing little
empires of dependency. They are based on open rather than proprietary standards.
If you want to mix and match parts of your BI setup with some of your existing
preferred software packages or with a bit of in-house development, you are
likely to find that far easier to do by committing to open source rather than
proprietary BI software. Alternatively, if you’re going to “roll your own” BI
software, you can use bits of the open source projects as building blocks for
your own code.
Business Intelligence software, of course, is not like, say, a word processor.
You can’t just buy a shrinkwrapped package and expect it to work. Instead, it
needs to be intimately tailored and customised to the distinctive needs and
requirements of your business. In a typical proprietary BI rollout, this will
involve extensive consultancy and development work between client and vendor (or
very often, one of the vendor’s preferred consultancy partner firms). Is this
option available if you decide to go down the open-source route? Yes is the
short answer. Both Pentaho and Jaspersoft are serious companies who don’t just
ship code or product but offer a full range of related professional services.
Full technical support for their products is offered as well as
their use. Training can done online or in person, even on your own site. Expert
consultancy is also available, either to advise on the applicability of their
product to your problem, to consult on the high-level details of your proposed
development plan or to have them go all the way and carry out the development
In conclusion, there are already some very credible Business Intelligence
software products out there which certainly deserve to be taken seriously if you
find yourself looking for a BI solution. They may lack some of the bells and
whistles of the proprietary software, but they are a great deal cheaper too.