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Interactive apps help open source business intelligence compete

Open source business intelligence (BI) vendors are starting to win customers on their own merits, thanks partly to interactive applications.

Conventional wisdom holds that open source business intelligence (BI), with its lower total cost of ownership and lack of expensive licensing fees, stands to make up ground on its costly commercial competitors during an economic downturn.

And that may be so. Pentaho received more hits on its website in September and October than in any other months in the company's four-year history, and Actuate is on track to double its open source-based revenue this year over last, according to executives from the vendors.

But there may be more at work than just companies looking for a cheap alternative to commercial BI vendors like Business Objects and Cognos. Over the last year or two, open source BI functionality has largely caught up to that of commercial BI software in many areas, analysts say, and, in some cases, is winning over customers on its own merits. Networking giant Cisco Systems Inc., for example, is investing in open source BI.

"Open source BI has definitely matured a lot, especially in the last 12 to 24 months, [and] provides sufficient functionality for a majority of needs," said Mark Smith, CEO and executive vice president of research at Ventana Research in Pleasanton, Calif. "It hasn't necessarily gotten to all those bells and whistles [that commercial BI offers], but in a lot of cases, they're not necessarily required."

The addition of interactive, flash-based capabilities that are easier to navigate and let users tinker with how data is displayed so that it makes sense to them is a major reason open source BI vendors are gaining momentum, Smith said. As a case in point, he cited Actuate's recent upgrade of its flagship BI platform -- itself based on open source Eclipse BIRT (business intelligence and reporting tools) technology -- which includes the ability to build flash-based Web applications and dashboards.

A recent Forrester Research report on BI platforms likewise praised Actuate, saying the San Mateo, Calif.-based vendor "continues to differentiate with a sophisticated production report development environment, offers a unique e.Spreadsheet report delivery option, and is becoming more and more attractive to enterprises seeking to leverage open source alternatives."

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Other open source BI vendors, including Pentaho and JasperSoft, also continue to add interactive reporting and dashboarding capabilities, Smith said, with Pentaho in particular also focused on making interactive apps available on mobile devices.

Cisco, for one, chose Actuate's open source BI platform over commercial technology to give its Access Control Server (ACS) customers improved reporting capabilities. ACS is one of Cisco's network authorization tools, and Actuate's reporting technology, embedded directly in ACS, allows network administrators to monitor and analyze who accesses the network and when.

Until now, users wanting to monitor network access had to gather the raw data from ACS and cobble together custom reports themselves, said Neil Mehta, senior engineering manager at Cisco. With Actuate's Interactive Viewer and BusinessReport Studio, users now easily generate network authentication trend reports and display data for SOX compliance auditors without the help of IT.

Cisco evaluated commercial vendors for its ACS reporting capabilities, including Business Objects. Ultimately, Actuate won the business, not because it was an open source vendor, Mehta said, but because its technology was simply a better fit for Cisco.

"What we were looking for more than a lower total cost of ownership was a company that had an active roadmap, whether it be from open source or from their own development, which would allow us to grow our feature set without investing our own development resources," Mehta said.

Released last month, Actuate 10, for example, includes flash-based charting that Cisco's ACS customers had been clamoring for, he said. "Now we can give them that capability without [Cisco] actually investing in its development ourselves."

That its source code and APIs were open to Cisco developers helped Actuate's cause, Mehta said, but it was not a decisive factor.

"It was nice that Actuate was open source, and we have taken advantage of that in order to customize the engine to our needs, but at the time of the evaluation, that wasn't in our top-three criteria," he said.

Actuate's success at Cisco aside, open source vendors still have plenty of work ahead of them if they're to gain significant market share from commercial BI vendors. As Gartner pointed out in its most recent BI Magic Quadrant report earlier this year: "Open source BI has come a long way, but its vendors do not yet generate enough revenue to be included in the Magic Quadrant."

Still, improved interactive applications are certainly a step in the right direction for open source BI vendors, according to Ventana's Smith. Even now, he said, "there's no reason for a company not to fairly look at open source BI and evaluate it and do the comparisons [with commercial vendors]."

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