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Embedded business intelligence: Open source or commercial?

Embedded business intelligence is a new requirement for applications. Learn why developers choose to integrate commercial or open source business intelligence software.

Developers that want to embed business intelligence (BI) and reporting features into applications must find a balance among requirements, cost and development time.

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Embedded reports are a standard requirement of most applications, according to the developers interviewed for this article. But users are increasingly demanding more sophisticated reporting from applications -- seeking such features as custom report design, ad hoc report creation, analytics, and even performance management. Independent software vendors (ISVs) and application developers have choices ranging from open source tools to high-end commercial BI platforms.

Embedded commercial business intelligence software: More than technology?

Five years ago, Bellevue, Wash.-based Onyx Software Corp. partnered with Ottawa-based BI vendor Cognos Inc. to embed basic reporting functions into its CRM tool. Onyx has since changed its strategy to extend its CRM offering into corporate performance management (CPM) and business process management, and Cognos has moved to an SOA-based architecture. Through their evolution, the vendors have maintained their partnership. Embedding Cognos has helped Onyx get to market faster with competitive features, according to Andy Pedack, product manager for Onyx Performance Management.

Even with open source tools, there is some development that needs to take place. Do you spend the finite time of developers on integrating open source or get something already proven?
Rebecca Wettemann
vice president of researchNucleus Research Inc.

Beyond reporting, Onyx customers can also add on components from the entirety of the Cognos BI stack, including dashboards, metrics, scorecarding and OLAP analysis. The primary alternative that Onyx considered was building the new features themselves, Pedack said.

"We have the development wherewithal to [develop these features]," Pedack said. "We might need additional expertise, but we could hire that. The difference with Cognos is that they provide evolved tools, as well as an evolved, data-driven architecture."

The development team didn't consider open source BI that seriously, according to Pedack. It didn't have the features they wanted, and they were concerned about managing quality and version control -- open source software tends to see more frequent updates owing to its community-based development.

ISVs must also contend with additional royalty costs when embedding third-party software. But the two companies have been able to make the numbers work, Pedack said. Though Cognos generally offers role-based pricing for its BI application, they customize original equipment manufacturing (OEM) pricing so it takes the ISV's specific licensing model into account.

The additional costs incurred by licensing Cognos are justified when compared with development costs, Pedack said, and the advanced BI/CPM features have helped win deals.

Other companies had similar experiences, according to Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research for Wellesley, Mass.-based Nucleus Research Inc. Cognos commissioned Nucleus to study ISVs embedding its technology. Most ISVs were motivated by the ability to leverage data produced by their applications, but not reinvent the BI wheel, she said. They liked the architecture, established BI product and organizational support, she added.

"Even with open source tools, there is some development that needs to take place," Wettemann said. "Do you spend the finite time of developers on integrating open source or get something already proven?"

Open source business intelligence software: The price is right?

For other ISVs, open source offers developers the allure of embedded BI in return for a little extra work -- and without a commercial price tag. A recent study of open source BI by San Mateo, Calif.-based Ventana Research found that many companies were seeking out the technology specifically to embed in applications.

It's quite a competitive market. Anything we can do to cut costs is good. It can be hard to start off having licensing costs before we do any work.
Iain Morrison
senior systems engineerSAIC, Inc.

Open source BI is especially attractive to Java developers because the software can be plugged in and customized with relative ease, explained Bernard Golden, chief executive officer of Navica, a San Carlos, Calif.-based services firm focused on open source. Most of the open source BI projects are Java based, including Eclipse's business intelligence and reporting tool (BIRT), JasperSoft's JasperReports and Pentaho. Custom application developers are just starting to discover the tools, Golden said, and there's growing interest from ISVs -- for an age-old reason.

"It's a direct cost of doing business," Golden said. "Not paying royalties to another software company is a huge benefit."

The drawbacks of open source may be more marketing than technical, Golden added. ISVs with embedded open source BI may find themselves encountering the objections of customers who aren't quite sure about the technology.

That remains to be seen for Phoenix-based Ivis Technologies, which developed xProcess, a business improvement and process management tool released in April 2006. Ivis is using the Eclipse development framework, so the associated BIRT project was a natural choice, according to Andy Carmichael, vice president of international operations. Now, xProcess offers canned reports and incorporates a report designer. Open source BI helped to speed time to market and keep costs down, he said.

"We are distributing this as a very cost-effective platform, so we looked for a low-cost reporting tool," Carmichael said. "We did consider building it ourselves, but we don't want to become experts on reporting. We said, 'Let's take what others have done and use that.' "

Ivis will probably integrate other reporting tools in the future, but BIRT was an obvious solution for the initial versions, Carmichael said. Customers can also add on enhanced features, such as financial reporting from South San Francisco-based Actuate Corp., a BIRT development partner with commercial BI and CPM tools, he added.

This model of commercially backed open source BI also appeals to developers at San Diego-based research and engineering firm SAIC Inc., according to Iain Morrison, senior systems engineer. His department builds custom applications for the oil and gas markets, also using the Eclipse framework. Depending on the requirements and budget for the project, developers might choose open source BIRT, Actuate's commercially supported version of BIRT, or its commercial platform, Morrison said, adding that open source BI fits the environment and often meets the requirements.

"It's quite a competitive market," Morrison said. "Anything we can do to cut costs is good. It can be hard to start off having licensing costs before we do any work."

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