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Open source BI gets down to business

Open source business intelligence may not cost less to implement, but more funds can be spent on services instead of licensing, a proponent says, and that means more customized BI.

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BOSTON - Open source business intelligence (BI) can flip a project budget on its head, according to a presenter at a recent LinuxWorld session.

Open source BI projects don't necessarily cost less, but they do shift the percentage of a company's budget spent on licensing and maintenance versus customization and professional services, according to James Dixon, "chief geek" (aka chief technology officer) of Orlando, Fla.-based Pentaho Corp. Traditional BI projects often allocate 80% of the budget for licensing and maintenance fees, and 20% for services, Dixon said. An open source BI project typically puts 20% of the funds toward licensing and maintenance, and 80% toward services. The overall budget might be the same, he said, but an open source BI implementation will be better customized to an organization's needs.

"There are a lot of services involved to get a good BI implementation," Dixon said. "Major players don't do a good job because an application has to be customized to the specific domain."

Pentaho's approach is to shepherd the development of open source BI software and leave most of the implementation and customization services to vertical domain experts. The venture-backed, open source company offers a free version of its open source BI platform and plans to release a for-fee professional version of the platform in the next few months, Dixon said. The professional version will be licensed on a subscription basis per CPU, at a cost that is about 20% of a traditional BI licensing fee -- even less, in some cases, because there is no set limit on the number of users accessing the application, according to Dixon. Pentaho also makes money from paid support, services and training. Despite its open source moniker, it's important to potential enterprise adopters that there be a profitable business model in place.

"People want to know that you have a good business model so that you'll continue to be around," Dixon said.

That's the approach of some other open source BI projects, such as San Francisco-based JasperSoft Corp. and the commercial version of the Eclipse Foundation's business intelligence and reporting tool version 2.0 (BIRT), available from South San Francisco-based Actuate Corp. Notably, BIRT, which is focused on operational reporting, is integrated with Pentaho's BI platform -- so the two projects aren't mutually exclusive. Actuate's BIRT 2.0 is also priced by annual subscription, with fees per report designer license and per CPU for the reporting engine. The Actuate product isn't much different from the free open source BIRT 2.0, said Paul Clenahan, vice president of product management with Actuate.

"Today the difference is just in the support and indemnification, though we also provide a number of additional data connectors that aren't in the open source version," Clenahan said. "But over the next year, we'll be layering additional value on top of BIRT." He declined to give more detail on what that additional value might be.

Although Actuate is seeing more interest from enterprise users, many of the people particularly interested in BIRT to date have been application developers, Clenahan explained. Developers are looking for open source reporting functions to save time and money. Phoenix-based Ivis Technologies, which makes xProcess for business process improvement, has incorporated Eclipse BIRT 2.0 into its application, according to Christopher Lank, the company's CEO and president.

What are your thoughts about open source BI?
Talk to us (on or off the record)! Is your company using open source BI? Have you looked at the tools? Do you think it's a viable alternative to traditional BI vendors? What else would you like us to research about open source BI?  Please e-mail Hannah Smalltree, news writer, with your comments and questions!
"We did not want to go out and invent a wheel that had already been invented," Lank said. "We were able to cut the development time on the reporting functionality of xProcess from over a year to less than 120 days."

But there's still the question of whether open source BI can compete in the enterprise market. Despite the touted advantages of open source BI, Pentaho's features and functions are not yet equal to those of traditional, pure-play BI tools, Dixon conceded. Open source and traditional BI platforms will be comparable within 18 months, he predicted. That squares with recent analyst opinions that open source BI is gaining steam but is not quite ready for prime time. If the choice is between no BI or open source BI, however, one consultant thinks that open source could be a boon for some businesses.

"I don't think [open source BI] will completely replace traditional BI platforms," said Eric LeDonne, a BI consultant with Waltham, Mass.-based DataSense Solutions Inc.

LeDonne attended Dixon's open source presentation and is interested in having "more tools in the toolbox" to aid clients with BI projects. Open source BI offers capabilities to companies that could not otherwise afford to implement commercial applications, he said. But, from what LeDonne has seen so far, commercial BI applications still have the upper hand on features, especially for such things as report design by less-technical users.

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