VoIP company embraces a brave new (and cheaper) open source BI world

Communications services provider 8x8 Inc. skipped over the big business intelligence vendors and decided to embrace the world of open source BI and data warehousing.

Like many companies, 8x8 Inc. wanted to streamline its reporting process, and that led to the formal implementation of a business intelligence (BI) system. Unlike many companies, 8x8 turned to open source systems from Infobright and Pentaho Corp. and away from industry powerhouses.

Bigger, better BI

Communications technology company 8x8 specializes in providing communication services for small and medium-sized businesses. While the company offers tools such as Web conferencing and managed hosting, one of its key products is its Virtual Office, which includes Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

That product alone, which enables 8x8 customers to treat an Internet phone in any location as just another office extension without investing in a private branch exchange (PBX) system, creates reams of data -- from customer service to billing to sales. Until recently, that data used to be placed into disparate information systems.

“We were running reports on different ,” said Ramprakash Narayanaswamy, chief technology officer for 8x8, “and we decided it would be better to have a single system rather than depend on engineers to run all of these different kinds of reports.”

Late last year, 8x8, which was founded in 1987 and services more than 23,000 businesses, embarked on a journey to configure those different information systems.

“Now that we are kind of a mature company, we wanted to have a solution that was more long term,” Narayanaswamy said.

Storage and summaries

The company came at the process the same way a customer might purchase a new car, by first establishing a list of priorities. Narayanaswamy said that meant two things: exploring how to store and organize data on the back end and then figuring out how to implement BI reporting tools on the front end.

However, 8x8 didn’t necessarily want to spend huge amounts of money to fulfill its need for an analytic database and the front-end tools.

“We were looking for a good product that would last but would not need to be an expensive solution,” Narayanaswamy said.

While the question of which vendor could provide the best database or reporting services at the lowest price didn’t oust BI technology leaders such as Oracle or Microsoft right away, it opened up another channel -- open source -- and brought 8x8 face to face with two companies that don’t garner nearly as much attention: Infobright and Pentaho. (Though it should be noted that Sun Microsystems, acquired by Oracle in 2009, is an investor for Infobright.)

Why open source?

8x8 didn’t limit its search to open source technologies, but it decided not to rule them out either. Instead, it created a checklist of criteria, which included items such as extract, transform and load (ETL) support, analytics, dashboard components, monitoring and configuration. Infobright and Pentaho met all of 8x8's criteria. And, 8x8 was able to implement these technologies at a fraction of what some better-known systems cost.

Still, Narayanaswamy approached open source BI with some hesitation. His biggest concern hinged on customer support. But as the cursory investigation took on more serious consideration, Narayanaswamy said that concern fell to the wayside.

“Even though these are open source, we still have a company behind the technology, developing additions to the software and providing support,” he said.

Beyond that, Narayanaswamy said Pentaho and Infobright were, quite simply, easy choices.

Another contender for data integration, Informatica Corp., which is not open source, provided software 8x8 felt was more difficult to implement and lagged when compared with the Pentaho BI Suite in its change data capture (CDC) support or the loading of data and data changes into the database.

“I would say that’s one of the reasons Pentaho stood out,” Narayanaswamy said.

As for the database, 8x8 also considered Sybase IQ, but found some of the features it was looking for were not supported by vendor Sybase Inc.

Not all roses

The company had to ETL the data from the existing system into the new Infobright Enterprise Edition analytic database over a six-month transition period building Pentaho scripts.

But, Narayanaswamy said, although Infobright and Pentaho looked great on paper, working with the systems themselves came with a set of short hurdles 8x8 needed to get over as well.

For example, some of the features advertised by Infobright didn’t quite work as 8x8 thought they would.

“Nothing that delayed implementation,” he said. “But things like, for example, when we have a number of people trying to access data at the same time, would it support multiprocessing?”

Narayanaswamy calls these things a “misunderstanding” between the two companies.

“For us, it limited the number of technical resources the system can make use of,” he said, but he quickly added that this particular glitch was corrected by Infobright in the newest version of the technology. As for 8x8, the company had to install a “much more powerful box,” which Narayanaswamy said was needed anyway.

He calls hiccups with Pentaho “technical issues.” For example, Narayanaswamy said, when looking at financial data for one data set, certain time dimensions wouldn’t blend over into a second data set, even though they contained the same time dimensions.

“So we have to associate them as if they are the same kind of data,” he said.

But, Narayanaswamy said, when questions or issues related to the software come up, 8x8 leans on Pentaho’s customer support.

So, what about those engineers?

And the engineers who the company used to rely upon to run reports are now building systems, something Narayanaswamy said is a more worthwhile endeavor.

“Running reports is not the best use of their time,” he said. “They are mundane, repetitive tasks.”

With the new business intelligence system in place, those reports are being run by departments directly and generated by a single system.

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