Can Open Source Solve Big Data For SMBs? - InformationWeek
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5/9/2011
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Can Open Source Solve Big Data For SMBs?

As smaller companies deal with larger and larger volumes of data, open source software providers may help crack the cost equation, but not necessarily the complexity problem.

8 Big Data Deployments In Detail
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The online age has done wonders to help small companies loom larger in the public eye, but that virtual growth is not simply a marketing phenomenon. Some small and midsize businesses today find themselves contending with enterprise-like amounts of data, but without the equivalent resources to properly manage it.

That's a sentiment expressed by vendors, analysts, and smaller companies alike. "One of the things that's been very clear in the last five years or so is that big data problems and big volumes of data are not an issue relegated to large enterprises," said Jaspersoft CEO Brian Gentile in an interview. Jaspersoft, which makes business intelligence (BI) software, is among a group of open source companies pushing their interoperable "data stack"--their phrase for the spectrum of database on one end to analytics and BI on the other--as a viable alternative to proprietary platforms.

Gentile is not alone in preaching the SMB data explosion. "It is a myth that the analytical requirements in smaller companies are less rigorous than large ones. In fact, it is often the opposite," said Neil Raden, founder and president of Hired Brains, via email interview. "We have clients with fewer than 100 employees who have data warehouses or equivalents in the petabyte range, because data is their business."

That's echoed by Cloudera's vice president of products Charles Zedlewski. "If you look at small and medium-sized businesses, there are a lot of them where their entire business is predicated upon data," said Zedlewski in an interview.

Super-sized data might lead some smaller businesses to sign on with vendors that have traditionally buttered their bread in the enterprise. But the big-ticket platforms--even those that actively seek small or midmarket customers--can still prove to be budget busters for many SMBs. Cost and lack of IT expertise were listed as the top two BI inhibitors for smaller firms in a recent LogiXML survey. As a result, LogiXML chief marketing officer Ken Chow told me in a recent interview, "do nothing and use Excel" is very much a competitor for analytics and BI vendors that target SMBs.

And that doesn't even fully take into account the back-end: All that data has to be stored and maintained somewhere if it's to be mined for analytical gold later. So can open source providers such as Cloudera, Revolution Analytics, and Jaspersoft solve the cost and complexity equation for SMBs?

It's a fairly straightforward sell on cost: Yes, open source software can save money on licensing and maintenance relative to commercial options. "They're typically easier to acquire," said IDC analyst Brian McDonough in an interview. "You don't have the large expenses of an on-premises enterprise license. You can start small, deploy it incrementally, and grow it as you need it." That accessibility has helped Jaspersoft, for example, hit 13 million downloads and 160,000 production deployments worldwide when including its free version in the count. McDonough points out that a key advantage of open source platforms is that SMBs--especially those relatively new to the analytics and BI world--can learn the technology and determine if it even meets their needs before making a significant financial commitment.

As a result, open source software is giving SMBs a new entry point into data management and BI platforms. "This move towards an open stack based on industry standards is really going to level the playing field, especially between SMBs and these larger players that had access to these very expensive solutions," said David Smith, VP of community at Revolution Analytics, in an interview.

But when it comes to IT resources and technical know-how--or lack thereof, in the case of many small companies--open source is not an open-and-shut case. "You're still going to need to be familiar with analytics concepts," said IDC's McDonough. "Things like data integration, information management, how cubes work, and structuring data for analysis." The ability to unlock value from the various platforms, whether individually or as an interoperable stack, depends largely on the abilities of the users. At a minimum, going open source demands a desire to learn the tools inside and out--let's say that's a given--and the time do so. And there's the SMB rub: That time is an ever-dwindling commodity.

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