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Open source BI can extend functionality of commercial software in recession

Companies should consider open source business intelligence (BI) software to extend the capabilities of their commercial BI platforms, analysts say.

Open source business intelligence (BI) software is undoubtedly enjoying a boost in popularity -- or at least getting more consideration from enterprises – as the recession continues to squeeze IT budgets.

But, with some notable exceptions, very few organizations have made the decision to rip-and-replace their existing commercial BI suites with open source platforms. Despite the lack of licensing fees, the economics simply don't make sense once you account for integration and retraining costs.

Instead, some companies are looking to open source BI software to complement commercial BI deployments, filling functionality gaps when and where they occur.

"It's a lot smarter for people to leverage the infrastructure they have," said Nick Halsey, vice president of marketing and product management at open source BI vendor JasperSoft. "We're not suggesting it makes sense to throw away any investments you've made that are working for you. But you could extend your BI [capabilities] with open source."

Mark Madsen, president of Third Nature, an IT consulting firm based in Rogue River, Ore., agreed, saying that all companies should at the very least consider and evaluate open source technology when looking to upgrade BI capabilities.

But he, too, said that replacing existing commercial BI deployments with open source isn't a viable option for most.

"Coexistence is more likely," Madsen said at a recent TDWI Boston chapter meeting. Specifically, he said that he is seeing more companies adopt open source BI for marketing purposes to supplement existing BI software and free tools like Google Analytics.

Steve Bennett, a consultant with the Sydney, Australia-based Business Intelligence Group, said he helped one of his clients, an Australian direct bank, tap open source business intelligence tools to enhance its marketing analytics capabilities.

The bank, which he declined to name, uses SAP BusinessObjects software as its main BI platform, as well as some SAS Institute products. He said the bank uses open source software within its BusinessObjects environment when it needs to extend its predictive analytics functionality for marketing campaigns and to enhance its visualization capabilities to include spark lines for trend analysis.

"Open source delivers value just at the time when the budget is exhausted and your project most needs to impress your users," Bennett wrote in an email interview. "Open source can be the silver bullet when a new business requirement emerges that your off-the-shelf solution cannot handle."

But turning to open source BI as a stop-gap measure or effective add-on to commercial BI deployments requires more than just a click of the mouse, said Howard Dresner, president of Dresner Advisory Services.

Organizations that decide to use open source BI software must have the internal IT expertise to fine-tune and customize the software to interact with commercial BI software as well as underlying data sources and applications, Dresner said. Such expertise is becoming a rare commodity, he said.

"The issue is whether you have enough expertise and experience and confidence that you're going to be able to manage the environment," Dresner said. "If your team is technologically proficient and steeped in the community environment, then I see no downside to doing it."

Many IT shops today, however, use mostly packaged applications, Dresner said, which has resulted in a dearth of the "core programming expertise" among IT workers that is needed to successfully manage an open source BI environment. Without the internal expertise, open source BI deployments can quickly get out of hand.

In addition to the management requirements, fears around vendor viability have also kept many companies from pulling the trigger on open source deployments. What if, the thinking goes, an open source BI application becomes critical to the business, but the vendor goes out of business?

While understandable, such fears are unfounded, JasperSoft's Halsey believes. He said that because the code behind open source BI technology is freely available to anyone and is being used by large communities of developers, even if a company's open source vendor of choice did shutter, the product itself would still be maintained and even improved upon.

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 "I would argue that if California fell into the ocean and the rest of our employees disappeared, our software would live on," Halsey said.

The same cannot be said for commercial BI software that may be discontinued or put into perpetual "maintenance-only mode" if its maker gets acquired by a larger software company, Halsey contends. He said: "Where's the security in that? In a funny way, open source actually offers more security."

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