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Pros and Cons: Open Source Business Intelligence

Giuseppe Costa,

Open Source Business Intelligence provides more freedom for companies that use it.Open source software solutions are often confused as alternatives to commercial solutions, with the benefit of being “zero cost”.

But this “zero cost” software is only true for Community versions and not the Enterprise versions. Community versions are free and supported by their community of developers while Enterprise versions are available through the payment of an annual subscription and have the same functional coverage of commercial solutions with excellent quality of their functions. In truth, the only components that are free of cost are the tools and/or their source code.

Despite Community version being technically “free”, there are still some costs associated with it:

  • The only components free of cost are the tools and/or their source code;
  • Sometimes they are accompanied by limited documentation. The time taken to understand how to operate them and reach a good level of productivity is a cost;
  • In some cases, the instruments made available user interfaces are often very basic and complicated to use. In these situations you need to have software development skills to use them fully. The time taken to achieve good results using advanced interfaces is a cost;
  • Some features are made available with limitations. To change the code or write your own to take advantage of the full functionality is a cost;

With all the points listed above, we can see how open source solutions have a cost which varies according to the users' internal competencies. This is true even for open source solutions within the area of Open Source Business Intelligence (OSBI).

OSBI Solutions: What It Is, and What It Isn't

Like all open source solutions, an OSBI solution involves the existence of the freely available source code and tools, even without licensing costs. Whoever uses the software therefore has full access to its features and can customize them if necessary.

However, OSBI solutions are not like free versions of commercial solutions. For some commercial solutions you can get the free trial versions, usually with limited functionality, with a deadline or bound to be used for study purposes and not for production environments. These versions also do not allow access to the source code, at least when it comes to the "core", to ensure the smooth operation of the product itself. Lets go further by examining the pros and cons of open source business intelligence.

Strengths

The main positive aspects of an OSBI solution are:

  • No cost for the purchase of licenses. This of course if there is content on the version supported by the community. Even in the case of versions with enterprise support, the cost is very often far lower than the commercial solutions;
  • The absence of license costs makes it very easy to build prototypes and test the platform with limited investment in time and manpower dedicated to the development of a "Proof Of Concept".

  • There are frequent updates by developers supporting the platform community. This in particular is something to consider when choosing the tools in open source. Having a very active developer community is a guarantee of quick responses to the discovery of bugs and frequent additions of new features to the software;

  • A complete set of BI tools: from ETL, to reports and dashboards up to for predictive analytics and data mining software. Often, commercial solutions concentrate only on a subset of tools, perfecting them to provide the best user experience within a specific sector to entice customers to purchase. In Open Source solutions, because they lack the commercial aspect in the sale of tools, developers usually try to cover a wide range of areas. A part of this is because of their desire to offer a complete solution, and another is their desire to eliminate the software’s defects;

  • Cutting-edge tech support. This is a very important aspect of Open Source solutions, and in particular the OSBI solutions. In Business Intelligence, we constantly deal with the emergence of new technologies. This because it is an area of study that is still partly unexplored and so, the tools have not yet been standardized. Communities that support OSBI solutions, in their curiosity and the constant drive to meet new challenges, has developed into the most reactive of the commercial solutions development teams which have been continuously changing and adopting new technologies.

Collaboration by the Open Source Community allows for faster roll out of updates, debugging and new features for BI platforms

Weaknesses

While OSBI maintains many positive traits, there are also some negative aspects that could make you think twice about adopting the OSBI Community version are:

  • Little documentation and difficult to use. The documentation with the open source solutions is often technical, bare-bones and too technically-demanding for the average user

  • OSBI solutions has a wide range of functionalities that cover many areas, but in some cases they are raw and/or experimental. Again, you can avoid modifying the source code, but it is only possible if you have people with very specific technical skills;

  • Sometimes the user interfaces are pretty basic and complicated to use. This is especially true when the data is analyzed by business users with little technical knowledge. In the end, it leaves an unpleasant impression of the platform;

  • When implementing of new features or improving existing ones, developers do not necessarily follow the current demand from the users, so at times you may have to wait long before you can have a specific need fulfilled;

  • Then there is the factor of the legal liability, that in case of license purchase for a commercial software may be left to the supplier, while in the case of open source solutions the legal liability falls to the user;

  • Even if you want to eliminate the shortcomings listed in the previous points, the platform costs will go up, whether you decide to buy an enterprise version with dedicated support or whether you opt to customize the platform with internal resources.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, the "professional" versions of OSBI solutions (and open source in general) do not have these weaknesses and do not have the problems described above. Even when you compare commercial and open source solutions, open source will generally have a far lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) than commercial solutions.

When Do Companies Choose OSBI Solutions?

Companies using OSBI solutions often do so because they operate in IT and therefore have the skills internally to manage the customization of the platform. Often, they also sell their expertise through consulting with other companies, who install and customize the same solution. Another reason is because of their choice of operating system.

Some commercial solutions are not in fact available for all operating systems and this often leads to the choice of a OSBI solution which is usually more flexible. Another aspect is the license fee. The fact of open source not having a fixed cost to be incurred, often entices companies to use such solutions, even if they could have to compromise usability or customization in case they don't have a team of internal developers.

A further advantage is that by being able to access the source code, they can be easily integrated into existing architectures in a very cost effective way. And when you adopt "professional" versions, you can expect the same features (functional and support) of commercial softwares, but with these other advantages:

  • A lower overall TCO, even in the presence of subscription costs that guarantee support, documentation and updates
  • High quality, guaranteed by the large "community" that work behind the product and can provide early identification and resolution of bugs and therefore better quality software
  • Presence of the most innovative technological components to commercial servers
  • Possibility to divert most of the project budget on customization rather than concentrating it on the purchase of expensive licenses of proprietary solutions

CONCLUSIONS

Today, we have debunked the myth that OSBI solutions are virtually free. In truth, most of the costs are indirect, being linked to learning and platform management. I hope that at the end of this blog you have understand OSBI and its main strengths and weaknesses. OSBI solutions should not be seen as "the solution to all ills" nor too complicated to be used profitably.

In the end, an "out of the box" OSBI solution does not suit all kinds of companies. There are companies that will benefit more than the others. Nonetheless, the limitations of OSBI platforms are often overcome with investments of varying extent and type either through purchasing support for configuration and customization, purchasing advanced versions of the supplied tool platform or investing in the formation of an internal team with the necessary skills to meet these needs . Now you are ready to consciously choose the solution for Business Intelligence that is best for your company. Good luck!

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