Business Intelligence on a Budget? Try Open Source

Open-source B.I. won't actually create little glowing squares in mid-air, but it can do a lot of other things.

Once viewed by some within the enterprise as a low-budget option built on rickety and unfinished architecture, open-source software has evolved into a strategic asset for many CIOs and IT administrators, earning equal footing in their businesses with proprietary software.

There’s perhaps no clearer sign of open source’s corporate relevance than business intelligence (B.I.) platforms, which increasingly incorporate open-source components into applications. And the desire for B.I. is increasing: according to a recent report from research firm Gartner, organizations will spend more than $12 billion this year on business intelligence, analytics and performance management (PM) software. In turn, that makes open source more relevant than ever to companies.

Vendors of open-source B.I. software argue their products offer significant cost savings over proprietary rivals, while still giving businesses the analytical firepower they need to make better business decisions. Jaspersoft is one of these vendors; its open-source B.I. applications include JasperAnalysis, a tool for analyzing multi-dimensional data, which comes in both a free Community Edition and a Professional Edition with support and services.

“A lot of B.I. projects now can be rolled out in a couple of months instead of a year, and a lot of that has to do with pricing. Companies like subscription pricing so they can just pay for what they’re using,” said Jaspersoft’s director of product marketing Mike Boyarski. “With open source, if it doesn’t work out, they can move on and the upfront investment was not so significant. We don’t want the license model to get in the way of B.I. being used by more people.”

According to Sonatype’s annual Open Source Software Development Survey, which looks at how organizations adopt and use open-source software, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed use open-source tools. Around two-thirds contribute to open-source projects, and half have standardized on an open-source development infrastructure stack.

Other players in the open source B.I. space include Pentaho, which offers integrated reporting, dashboard, data mining, workflow and extract, transform and load (ETL) capabilities, and SpagoBI, which bills itself as “the only entirely open source business intelligence suite.” The latter’s platform is built on Java on a single Lesser General Public License (LPGL).

Then there’s Actuate, which founded and co-leads the Eclipse Business Intelligence Reporting Tools (BIRT) open source project. BIRT provides a set of reporting and data visualization tools and technologies used by developers to build information applications. ActuateOne, a commercial product suite built on BIRT, includes additional products that speed up BIRT implementation, automate and secure reporting, as well as tools for interactive report creation and customization.

Actuate senior vice president of marketing, Nobby Akiha, suggested the B.I. market is being fueled, in part, by the consumerization of IT and how people interact with data. “There’s a level of expectation that you should be getting more out of data,” he said, “and B.I. is a key technology to do that. It’s being accelerated by the sheer volume of data, but also cloud computing has made a lot of the data and technology more accessible.”

Akiha added that, as enterprise judgments of open source technology fade, they’re more willing than ever to try out open-source solutions. “We’re also starting to see IT management becoming more aware of open source opportunities,” he said. “You’re starting to see these guys really paying a lot more attention—we’re seeing them come to our roadshows and initiating the use of open source technology. They’ve overcome the more traditional fears about it, and they see the advantages in terms of costs and the time to value proposition.”

Actuate’s BIRT platform is helping provide Miami-based digital marketing company Media 8 stay flexible when managing data, explained technology manager Esteban Siravegna. “It has been a very positive experience especially in terms of lack of restrictions that come with open source technology,” he said. “We can do whatever we want with the technology.”

Siravegna suggested that B.I. is critical to his company, because digital marketing boils down to providing actionable insights about the current landscape. “It also lets us know what we’re doing with our client’s money,” he said. “Our reports should be timely and accurate, and the report must be available across the company and for the clients.”

Media 8 moved to a licensed version of Actuate’s software after testing the free version. “Essentially it’s pretty much the same thing we got with the open source version, what we care most about is support,” he added. The rest of it is open source.”

For John Kearny, director of administrative systems at Commonwealth Medical College, finding a B.I. platform that could handle the truckloads of medical, financial, and student data pouring into the system—and not break the IT budget—led him to Jaspersoft. Kearney said Jaspersoft’s flexibility, ease-of-use for end users, and the option to purchase a commercial version with support were critical factors in the decision.

“Our IT model is very lean, so it was a big focus on where we were going to go. We were looking for the flexibility of Ad Hoc reporting, which was big with Jaspersoft,” he said. “There are risks and pros and cons with any open source solution, but they’ve become wonderful alternatives for tight budgets and leaner IT departments. The ability to run and schedule reports and run advance reports was crucial. And everything being Web-based was huge for us.”

Image: nokhoog_buchachon/

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