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More Thoughts On Open Source BI

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Monday, September 20, 2010

It is fascinating to see how business intelligence (BI) has evolved and matured since it came into the collective corporate technology consciousness, starting in the 1990s.  Legacy BI systems, based on client-server architectures and huge monolithic data warehouses, have steadily given way to agile web and service-based platforms, with the more advanced BI solutions stacks relying on remotely enabled devices or offering broad support for cloud computing models.  In present times, richly visual data mashup applications--brought to life by open source projects--are given away for free, as inflexible (and often far too costly) vendor-specific solutions start to become anachronisms.

There are now dozens of open source business intelligence (OSBI) code projects, toolsets, product suites and frameworks that can fit neatly into any enterprise information architecture.  OSBI offers viable alternatives to proprietary BI software, which usually comes attached with a high level of vendor lock-in and steep licensing costs.

To better round out the leading-edge BI landscape, commercial open source business intelligence (COSBI) fills the large void between total vendor reliance and what can often times be a gun-slinging Wild-West community of "public-domain code" cowboys.  In a like manner, many senior IT managers still feel (and rightly so) that having a name brand software company standing behind and steering a specific open source framework or product suite will help mitigate the risks of depending on a proletariat community of systems engineers and whiz kid coders.

While COSBI business models differ from vendor to vendor, the most attractive model has been where clients do not have to pay software license fees, but primarily pay for product enhancements and premium levels of product support or professional consulting services.  In addition, many COSBI companies derive a considerable portion of their income from training or by providing annual paid access to their deep knowledge bases.  Another cool thing about COSBI: it provides information architects with a decent hedge against the market consolidation of BI vendors (something which has been occurring at a high frequency in the last few years.)

OSBI has blossomed from a mish mash of lean applications and narrow-scope software components to enterprise-capable solutions stacks that contain a database layer, a data transformation layer (think platform independent ETL) and an analytics layer that will wield full capability to implement  a fully customizable dashboard or BI portal.  In the last year or so, the evolution of open source BI has been driven by the principles and tenets of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and the seemingly limitless possibilities of cloud computing.

The emergence of cloud computing models is of conspicuous consequence because the cloud gives business intelligence the ability to become even more decentralized and democratic in essence—taking the portability and openness of OSBI to a higher plateau of value for BI customers.  Not too long ago there were a few COSBI vendors who believed cloud computing to be a passing fad; that business organizations would not want to give up a large degree of control over their applications infrastructure.  Realizing this train of thought to be inherently flawed (security concerns were overblown, especially when weighted against the advantages of cheap and highly available data persisted in the cloud), they rectified their product strategies and primed their software suites to better interact and integrate with cloud structures.

In the past at Dashboard Insight, I have applauded numerous open source software companies. While Actuate’s BIRT (Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools), an open source Eclipse-based framework, remains near and dear to my heart, there are two other fantastic companies which I have yet to mention in this space: Leading the rally cry of cutting-edge open source BI are Pentaho and Jaspersoft, which are cloud-ready at both their community and enterprise levels.

One needs to look no farther than recent legislation to predict the future frontiers of open source business intelligence. For example, health care and medical records technology will be at the forefront of developments in knowledge management, data mining, predictive analytics, and other BI sweet spots over the next decade. This development will be driven in a large part by the United States National Healthcare Act, which became law earlier this year.  Billions of dollars will be earmarked for the modernization of medical records management at all possible levels—from the smallest of rural clinics to the largest of urban hospitals.

More than one vendor of open source BI software has expressed to me that opportunities in the health care arena are at the top of both their business development plans and product maturation strategies.  Projects which aim to build large and complex patient management systems, which electronically supervise and maintain medical records and diagnosis, have started to spring up all over the continental United States - with particularly enormous challenges around the integration and storage of unstructured data (the kind of which generally defies any standard of consistency in semantics or core definition).

Now is the time for open source BI to shine as never before by helping to reduce health care costs and contribute radical new efficiencies to the health care system.  From a personal and hoggish perspective, as a U.S. citizen, I would like to see some value for my hard-earned tax dollars sooner than later.

About the Author

William Laurent is one of the world's leading experts in information strategy and governance. For 20 years, he has advised numerous businesses and governments on technology strategy, performance management, and best practices´┐Żacross all market sectors. William currently runs an independent consulting company that bears his name. In addition, he frequently teaches classes, publishes books and magazine articles, and lectures on various technology and business topics worldwide. As Senior Contributing Author for Dashboard Insight, he would enjoy your comments at wlaurent@williamlaurent.com

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