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Open Source BI Still Fighting For Its Share

With growing capabilities in a strong segment, vendors are looking past developer markets to business end users.

Steve Snyder had what he needed to go with an open source option for business intelligence software. The CIO had a business need, having wrestled with an inability to deliver timely, actionable data cuts to staff of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. He liked the idea of open standards and avoiding proprietary platform lock-in, and believed in the query, reporting, and analysis capabilities of the software, JasperReports.

So what could possibly hold him back? "Open source is a huge leap of faith," Snyder says.

Snyder took it, and it paid off for him and the MCCA. But his candid assessment might explain why--despite increasingly impressive capability from open source BI and prices that Richard Daley, CEO of open source BI company Pentaho, says can be one-tenth of closed source software--open source has failed to make a dent in what continues to be one of business software's growth segments.

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While commercial open source BI has closed the technology gap, closed source BI leads by years in delivering solutions adapted to the needs of particular employees and business domains, and in providing robust, mature end-user tools. The budgeting and forecasting and performance management offerings from leading closed source BI vendors, for example, won't be matched by open source for years to come. So while JasperSoft marketing VP Nick Halsey asserts that recent upgrades "put us on a level to compete with the major proprietary vendors" and Daley calls Pentaho "extremely competitive on the technology front and very lopsided on the price side," the market remains dominated by the likes of Business Objects, Cognos, Microsoft, and Oracle.

Yet it's a mistake not to look at the growing capability of open source BI. Recent commercially backed open source business intelligence releases are targeting the needs of organizations such as the MCCA, both enhancing the usability for end users and improving IT manageability for larger-scale deployments. Commercial backing has expanded open source BI beyond a narrow market of technically skilled Java developers to business adopters. An expanding roster of business deployments and partnerships between commercial open source vendors and top analytics companies should further boost open source BI's market credibility.

BI suites typically cover core query, analysis, and reporting functions, and also provide data integration and dashboard visualization capabilities. Commercial open source BI vendors, notably Pentaho and JasperSoft, offer these components in free community editions with open source licenses, and also packaged with non-open source extensions in paid, supported, indemnified editions. The extensions include spreadsheet services for Microsoft Excel, Ajax interactive dashboards, and metadata abstraction layers that insulate business end users from the underlying database schema.

Venkat Gaddipati, CTO at online marketplace OnForce, evaluated commercial BI options before going with Pentaho. On- Force's site matches IT professionals and service providers with enterprise IT buyers, hosting more than 13,000 service pros and 5,000 buyers. Gaddipati's only reservations relate to documentation shortcomings. "It's hard to get going without help from the vendor, and anytime I need to upgrade, I get a little bit nervous." Nonetheless, "the solution works well once it's configured correctly," he says.

OnForce uses Linux and the open source MySQL database, and the company's preferred closed source BI option didn't run on Linux, leading to the choice of Java-reliant Pentaho. For most open source BI adopters, however, the solution search starts with cost.

That core software components are free makes open source attractive to users as well as systems integrators and independent software vendors that sell products and services built on open source BI components. Integrator and ISV sales hinge on added value rather than the provenance of the underlying software.

Engineering Ingegneria Informatica is perhaps the most notable case in point for integrator adoption of open source. A 6,000-employee Italian IT services provider, it created a Java framework called Spago that it harnesses for BI application development, using Mondrian, JasperReports, Talend, and other open source software components, under the SpagoBI rubric. SpagoBI's architecture is partitioned into delivery, analytical, and data-metadata layers, allowing mixing and matching of diverse open source BI software components. Runtime engines, including engines for query-by-example ad hoc reporting and location intelligence, supplement the BI elements, along with an administrative interface and ability to integrate with standards-compliant portals, whether open or closed source. Engineering Ingegneria Informatica has released its software under an open source license, and it makes money from software subscriptions, implementation, and consulting.

Two additional open source BI offerings are worth considering. The first, the Eclipse Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools project, is primarily of interest to Java developers. The second, the Palo OLAP Server from German firm Jedox, develops enterprise technologies for Excel applications, targeting enterprise planning, analysis, reporting, and consolidation apps.

Business Intelligence
  • Core software is free, and overall cost can be much lower than commercial packages
  • Less vendor/platform lock-in risk
  • Commercial products offer more capabilities and better support, and their software is more tuned to specific business or industry needs
Key vendors
  • Eclipse, JasperSoft, Mondrian, Palo, Pentaho, Talend
Jedox designed Palo as a "multidimensional OLAP" tool for performance management apps. One customer-- Beyond Compliance, a provider of hosted compliance management software--uses Palo Excel-based reporting for analytical reports that include tables and graphs. Beyond Compliance harnesses the Palo OLAP Server on the back end and the non-open source Palo Worksheet Server for report distribution. "The nice thing about Palo is that we've taken report design away from developers and brought it to our client-services team, to end users," says Rick Clazie, Beyond Compliance's technology and infrastructure manager. The company doesn't measure the ROI of its open source choice in financial terms, trusting that faster reporting turnaround and extended capabilities increase client satisfaction.

MCCA CIO Snyder similarly prioritized the ability to deliver critical BI capabilities over traditional ROI measures. The MCCA's JasperReports solution lets it segment and analyze data and generate advanced revenue metrics along multiple dimensions such as event, industry, and type of service provided. "We're pushing information and knowledge out to the end user, giving them access to what they want to see," Snyder says.

Will others take this leap to open source BI? Gartner projects triple the adoption by 2012, implying much faster growth than the overall BI market. BI is making progress, particularly when commercially packaged to deliver usability and support lacking with free components. As people like Snyder and Clazie push these tools out to employees, that packaging, coupled with open source's lower costs, will be critical to open source BI's enterprise success.

Seth Grimes is an analytics strategist with Alta Plana. He consults on data management and analysis systems.

Photo illustrations by Sek Leung

Photo illustration by Sek Leung
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