Business intelligence managers and other decision makers involved in technology purchases must consider a variety of factors when determining whether open source BI software is a good fit for their organizations. In this SearchBusinessAnalytics.com interview, Lyndsay Wise, author of Using Open Source Platforms for Business Intelligence: Avoid Pitfalls and Maximize ROI, discusses the potential advantages of open source BI tools and the reasons why some companies considering open source products might want to choose traditional BI software instead.
Wise, who is president and founder of Toronto-based consultancy WiseAnalytics, says she sees a growing number of companies that are adopting or evaluating open source business intelligence technology. But, she cautions, implementing open source tools solely because of expected cost savings could result in deployment problems and disappointed users.
What are some of the common reasons why companies adopt open source BI software?
Lyndsay Wise: There are two reasons that always come to mind automatically. One is that there are a lot of software developers who are already familiar with open source and like the flexibility of being able to download a general template and customize it to their organization's requirements. The second reason is the perceived cost. Many organizations looking at BI like the idea of open source because of the free software component, and they want to be able to lower their overall cost of BI implementations.
Does open source BI mean free BI?
Wise: Not at all. Many companies think it does, but what they really have to consider is that even if you're looking at a community version, which is free to a certain extent because you can download it, you still have to take into account that there's developer time and there's also the cost of maintaining the solution. Many [open source vendors] provide a bare-bones version, and then in order to get more robust features and functionality, they have a commercial version. So, many [organizations] will end up using the "free version" but then need to upgrade or [they] want to expand and have to use the commercial version.
You mentioned that there's an option to upgrade and then pay for more advanced features than what the basic free package includes.
Wise: Yes, and it's interesting because as an industry analyst, I'll speak to and get updates from a lot of open source BI software vendors, and they don't even market themselves so much as open source anymore because they focus a lot on their commercial software offering. So there's almost that two-tiered approach. Though they'll always have that free version, many of them are trying to focus on building out robust commercial solutions so it's not just documentation and support or training that people are paying for.
How big of a foothold has open source BI gained in the market?
Wise: If this was four or five years ago, I'd definitely say not much. [But] more and more organizations are starting to adopt open source or consider open source solutions alongside traditional BI solutions. When I've spoken with [organizations] in the nonprofit sectors, whether government or higher education, a lot of them either have a clause or some sort of process when they're evaluating software that they evaluate open source just because of cost in general. It's definitely gaining more of a foothold in the general marketplace because more organizations are aware of its value or aware that there is an alternative when they are evaluating and implementing their BI infrastructures.
For those who are considering open source BI, could you discuss some reasons why they might be better off opting for traditional BI software?
Wise: Open source is a great option, but many organizations try to move toward open source just because of their concept of price and cost, or lack of cost, and don't realize that in order to implement open source, you really do need to have developers on hand who already understand the technology, the scripting languages and everything else that's required to build specific open source solutions. If you don't have [people with] those skill sets in-house -- or if you do have them in-house, but they're busy working on different projects -- then it's not realistic to look at an open source solution and expect within two months to get something up and running. Without those things in place, it might be better to opt for traditional software.
In addition, organizations should always start smaller and then be able to scale. Depending on your growth and what you're hoping to achieve, it might be better to go with traditional BI software. I'm not saying that open source BI software can't scale, but if you're looking at potentially moving from a community version to a commercial version, it might be best to go with a traditional BI solution in advance. There are a lot of considerations, but much will depend on how much familiarity the organization already has with open source, what other projects are being done and what its BI infrastructure looks like.
Could company size be a factor, too, with a larger organization as compared to a smaller one?
Wise: Yes, definitely -- that's a really good point. I've had a lot of conversations with people who say right away that smaller organizations should look at open source because of the fact that it's free software. I've pushed back and said it depends on the level of small organization, because I've worked with several that in order to do something like this, they would have to hire a new developer on full time, which might end up being more expensive than just going with another type of BI solution. Smaller doesn't always mean that it's more conducive to open source.
In your book you referred to the frustration of "Excel Hell" that many companies face. Could you explain what Excel and BI software each has to offer to business users?
Wise: Obviously, most organizations are using Excel in some way. Many try to use Excel as their BI infrastructure. Even though it's great as a spreadsheet and to help organizations look at and analyze information, it doesn't really help consolidate information, integrate data or manage compliance for your business. It doesn't help support that at all because people can go in and potentially change information or fudge data, which I've seen a lot of.
So though Excel provides a lot of value because of its ease of use and interactivity, it doesn't provide the control. It doesn't provide forecasts or in-depth analytics. It doesn't help organizations get a full view of their customers or identify what they should do next without having to do a lot of things manually. BI does all of these things and automates the processes so that [business users], instead of having to play with their spreadsheets, can go to a dashboard, or a report, or even export things to Excel, but they'll have what they need at their fingertips.
What's your take on consolidating data from disparate sources? Is a single view of the truth really possible in organizations?
Wise: When I work with businesses, often their problems stem from the fact that they have important information located in different systems and they don't integrate well together. One of the goals is to consolidate information to get a better view of financials, or customer data, or products and services. In terms of data consolidation, there's a lot of value there. You can create a single view of accurate data. But, at the same time, users, decision makers, executives, etc., all have different views of what is true to them in terms of who's their main customer, what area of the supply chain they deal with, what area of sales and marketing they deal with, what type of operational processes they're looking at on a daily basis. The information has to be accurate and valid, but it's not really possible to create one view or one set of dashboards to do it all or [that will] be looked at in the same way by everyone in the organization.
Melanie Luna is managing editor for SearchBusinessAnalytics.com and other TechTarget websites. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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