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Is the time right for open source BI?

While both commercial BI vendors and the open source community are preaching the merits of open source BI, analysts say that it remains in an early adopter stage.

Open source business intelligence (BI) is gaining some attention lately in a market that's newly supportive of open source development and actively seeking BI tools. Yet, analysts agree that it remains a work in progress.

Proponents of open source BI point to the low cost of entry, flexibility and a variety of applications now available, while more cautious types say open source BI lacks the functionality needed to succeed right now.

Bernard Golden, CEO of Navica, a system integrator specializing in open source implementations based in San Carlos, Calif., counts upward of 25 open source BI projects. Some tout a complete BI application, including reporting, analysis and dashboards, while smaller projects are focused on specific areas of functionality.

Yet it's hard to say what companies are using these applications, Golden said.

"One of the tough things about open source is that you never really know exactly who's using it, because [developers] can download it anonymously," Golden said.

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Golden boils down the profile of open source BI users into either "early adopters" or companies that are "cheap" when it comes to technology expenditures. He is familiar with implementations that are driven primarily by a recognized need for BI combined with a small budget.

"Using open source reduces a lot of the upfront capital costs … and you can also pace your investment more as you get value," Golden said. "Open source BI gives you the ability to match your investment pattern with your value pattern, whereas the traditional model has been a huge investment up front."

But, Eric Rogge, a vice president and research director, at Ventana Research, cautioned, "When you invest in a BI system, licensing the software is just one piece of it. There's a larger investment component in the customization." And he added, after you customize an open source BI application, there are still the hurdles of indemnification, maintenance and support.

There are several commercially sponsored open source BI projects hoping to address these needs.

The Business Intelligence and Reporting Tool (BIRT), an open source Eclipse-based reporting system, is one of the options currently available. BIRT is sponsored and supported by South San Francisco-based Actuate Inc. and backed by the Eclipse Foundation, an open source community with a board of stewards that includes IBM, Oracle Corp. and SAS Institute. Business Objects announced that it too would be joining Eclipse this month and moving several products onto the open source platform.

Orlando, Fla.-based Pentaho Corp., another organization of industry veterans from IBM, Oracle, Hyperion and SAP, is focused on building a multifunctional platform for BI. This initiative integrates other open source BI projects into one system that it will then support.

And there's San Francisco-based JasperSoft, a "commercial open source" vendor and maker of JasperReports, which is free, and JasperDecisions, which is not. JasperSoft derives its profits from support, service and paid upgrades to more advanced BI modules. This is a fairly recent shift for JasperSoft, which was trying to compete in the commercial software market a few years ago.

Al Campa, founder and executive vice president of JasperSoft, said the company made a strategic decision to endorse open source about a year and a half ago, in response to two major trends. Big, commercial vendors were consolidating to offer full featured, expensive BI applications, at the same time that the concept of BI was gaining traction in companies of all sizes and budgets. Campa also said more companies want to put BI in the hands of not only the sophisticated data analysts, but the more casual business users as well, which can be an expensive proposition for commercial applications. Given these drivers, JasperSoft chose to move toward the commercial open source model and reports 750,000 software downloads of JasperReport to date.

Though each of the available open source BI technologies is structured slightly differently, Rogge said none of the open source BI projects could measure up to commercial offerings yet. While some components of the available open source BI technologies are reasonably complete, he said, other aspects are just not done yet. If decisions are being made on functionality, he believes commercial vendors still have the lead.

Rogge characterized open source BI as a "lightweight" way for organizations to start providing some functionality, without the investment of a commercial product.

Keith Gile, analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Inc., puts his take on open source BI bluntly, writing in an e-mail: "It is not ready for production use today. Open source BI is in its infancy, and will not be ready for a few years. Companies should not look to open source today for realistic BI functionality that can compete with the pure-play products. Open source BI is a work-in-progress."

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