Open source business intelligence tools have crept into BI tools market over last few years and have developed into strong competitive force. While commercial vendors usually offer complete packages inclusive service and support, the open source vendors concentrate on standalone solutions. There are still number of doubts and misconceptions around open source solutions, such as if they are truly a viable form of software development. This article examines the need for open source solutions for BI and data warehousing environments in today’s business environment, challenges in adoption of open source BI tools and some of the BI tools available in the market.

Positioning of Open Source BI

Open source BI platform products show limited penetration in the Gartner client base (as shown by informal surveys during Gartner BI Summits). Less than 2 percent of surveyed attendants reported current usage of an open source BI product. Interest in open source BI technology is high as companies seek alternatives to higher priced, commercially available products. Although the technology is being adopted by software vendors developing their own applications for resale, the adoption rate as a replacement to commercial BI platforms within enterprises is still low and growing slowly. This is due to the additional development skills required to realize needed capabilities and integration (such as security, scalability and administration, end user self service and metadata) available from commercial BI platform products. Marketing and better positioning efforts by open-source BI vendors are generating more pull in the market, and the platforms are more often used in project-based deployments, often complementing a commercial BI standard platform. While there is still a significant gap in terms of functionality, scalability or usability, open source BI has advanced significantly to become a viable alternative. However, many smaller open source BI projects are providing developer components for adding low-volume reporting into applications, wrapped into open source development environments such as Eclipse. The skills required to develop, maintain and integrate these technologies can be much higher than many of the more complete commercially available BI platform products.

Small independent software vendors increasingly opt for open source vendors to provide
BI functionality embedded in their products rather than including commercial BI platform software. Organizations looking for cost reduction in their large BI deployments hope that open source will give them greater leverage for their money. Other open-source BI deployments are initiated by application developers who are looking for a way to embed BI functionality into their applications. Additionally, companies often cannot afford to roll out BI technology to hundreds or maybe thousands of users, even from their preferred vendor, because of steep licensing costs and therefore consider an open source solution to complement the current infrastructure. There are about a dozen vendors or projects that offer open source BI, although quite a few of those same companies also provide commercial versions of the software, often with significant enhancements over the “free” version.

Some of the few open source BI tools that have finally made their presence in Gartner’s, “Who’s Who in Open source Business Intelligence” journal are Pentaho, JasperSoft, Actuate Corporation, SpagoBI and Jedox. Gartner predicts that by 2012 adoption of open-source BI being used as an enterprise-wide standard platform will triple.

As per Gartner, expect a three-wave approach to open-source BI adoption:

  • Wave 1: 2004 to 2007 - early adopters.
  • Wave 2: 2008 to 2012 - driven by midmarket enterprises.
  • Wave 3: 2012 and beyond - just another aspect of sourcing.

Benefits of Open Source BI

Open source BI has gained significant traction in both acceptance and popularity in recent years. A few key open source BI vendors have started providing a breadth of functionalities that can be considered to the closest match to commercial offerings from companies such as Business Objects, Informatica, Cognos or Oracle. The benefits that open source BI provides over proprietary tools include:

1. Affordability: Economic factors such as slowdown in IT spending inhibit potential BI implementations because of software license costs. Companies are looking for cheaper BI solutions while proprietary tools come with heavy license and support costs. Open source software is freely available without any licensing costs, and this itself is a compelling benefit to go for it. Once a company starts using the OSS, they are willing to pay for enhanced features and technical support. Total cost of ownership for OSS solutions is minimal compared to closed source solutions or proprietary tools.

2. Flexibility to evaluate the tool before buying: In order to perform the evaluation study of proprietary BI tool in a particular environment, either a license has to be purchased outright or a limited-time trial version needs to be used. Evaluation process of enterprise software often takes six to nine months because the good is to extract greater returns on large investments. This makes the evaluation process itself a huge investment for both buyer and vendor. Therefore, there is limited ability to test or perform a detailed feasibility study using proprietary tools in a given environment. But OSS can simply be downloaded and be used to build the prototype of a BI application in a project environment to test the feasibility and demonstrate a prototype solution to the business community.

Availability of open source BI user communities 24/7 helps in responding to problems faster.

3. Flexibility to customize and reduced dependency on vendors: Users can access the source code, change the code, and even submit enhancements and/or fixes of OSS back to the community to be peer reviewed and possibly added to the next build. There is no need to wait for vendor roadmaps or new releases. This reduces vendor dependency. Also, with this, developers feel empowered and have a sense of ownership of the end product.

4. Feature set is not bloated: In order to gain competitive edge in the marketplace, proprietary tools come with at least one more feature than others. They are rich in functionality and provide enterprise-level solutions. This causes products to consume huge amounts of memory and CPU power, even when only a few of the features are actually required. But features of open source software are mostly driven by community demand, hence are lighter and more manageable a compared to proprietary tools.

5. Higher quality code: Open source tools are said to be more reliable because they typically have thousands of independent programmers testing and fixing bugs in the software. Since OSS is open, all of the defects and security flaws are easily found. If a patch is required urgently, users can technically patch the problem themselves. Most studies show that OSS has higher flaw discovery, quicker flaw discovery and quicker turnaround on patches. But code of proprietary tools is not accessible, and users depend on vendors to provide patches for fixes.

6. Interoperability: It is likely that OSS BI tools are built on open standards and hence can be interoperable with other open standard systems. Also, open source vendors work together to ensure interoperability and offer joint solutions that simplify deployment and operations. But the same is not true for proprietary tools, because there is dependency on vendors to do the integration of proprietary tools with any open system.

Challenges in Adoption of Open Source BI

There are many open source BI offerings, but only few of them have gained visibility and are being used in production environment. They are still not on par with closed source BI. BI architects should understand the strengths and weaknesses of open source BI solutions before making procurement decisions. There are many challenges to adoption of open source BI by enterprises, including:

1. Lack of in-house skills to implement open source software and lack of availability of long-term support are perceived as barriers for adoption.

2. Lack of formal support and training: Many open source vendors are small and may lack professional support services. They may also lack in providing formal support and vendor training. BI developers require vendor support and don’t want to be left on their own with open source BI technology. Additionally, some of the open source applications are abandoned. Therefore, one of the challenges for adoption could be the demonstration of support by the BI OSS vendor.

3. Changes are unstable: Changes and enhancements to the tools are not done in planned order. They lack long term roadmap and maturity.

4. Open source licensing: License terms are not standard, so it is important to pay close attention to terms. There are no warranties regarding media, viruses and performance. If a third party claims that the licensee is using code that the third party developed, the licensee has no one to pay his legal fees and damages.

5. Other: OSS has limitations in relation to management of large data size (1 TB).
Other areas where additional development may be needed are security integration, data source adapters, administrative capabilities, metadata management and usage of dashboard capabilities.

Implementation of Open Source Software BI

When choosing a BI solution, use the same decision criteria (such as functionality, reliability, supportability, third-party support and stability) for choosing an open source BI tool as you would use for proprietary commercial options. You may consider open source BI products for application developers who need basic BI capabilities because proprietary tools come with rich enterprise features like load balancing, better monitoring features and support for multiple legacy systems.

For small and midsized companies implementing BI and data warehousing for the first time, open source solutions provide an excellent option.

Since application programming interfaces of open source BI tools are available, they can be customized to be deployed in existing BI proprietary tools. This will help provide enhanced features at low cost.

Best-fitted open source BI software solutions can also be deployed along with existing BI proprietary tools. This will help reduce single vendor dependency. Slowly, OSS BI tools can replace proprietary tools wherever required.

Open Source Software BI Tools

Open source BI tools are providing offerings across a breadth of BI capabilities such as query and reporting, interactive analysis, dashboards, extract, transform and load/data integration, data mining, including workflow capabilities, and the complete BI suite. Some of the known open source BI tools are grouped under various BI pillars in Figure 1.

See PDF below for Figure 1

Finding a cost-effective BI solution with enhanced BI capabilities is a key challenge in today’s stressful economic IT environment. Open source BI provides attractive solutions and are paving the way into the BI environment. OSS has come a long way, but it is still not on par with the commercially available BI platforms from the established vendors. Open source BI tools may not have the maturity and completeness of some commercial products.

Therefore, BI architects, internal application developers and commercial software vendors should understand the strengths and weaknesses of open source BI before making procurement decisions.

The authors of this report gratefully acknowledge Accenture for their encouragement in the development of this research. The information contained in this document represents the views of the author(s) and the company is not liable to any party for any direct/indirect consequential damages.


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