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The Evolution Of Open Source For BI

by Lyndsay Wise, President, WiseAnalyticsMonday, September 13, 2010

The increasing popularity of open source business intelligence continues to contribute to the changing landscape of BI and the way in which these solutions are offered.  Traditional BI offerings used to avail themselves to a subset of organizations with the development of a strong internal data infrastructure and continued IT management.  In the past, traditional open source has also relied on a similar company structure letting developers take free source code to develop targeted applications.  As technological advancements make it easier to apply analytics without strong IT infrastructures and as open source BI transitions towards providing businesses with commercial offerings, many companies that previously would not consider open source are now comparing these solutions alongside the traditional BI players.

This article looks at the transition of open source applications from a purely developer-centric tool towards a set of solutions that are applied within organizations at the business level.  This article also discusses the continued success of open source BI, its expansion, and the role of commercial open source, collaboration and subscription-based licensing within the broader BI environment.

General open source success

Open source solutions have always been popular with developers looking to create customized solutions, improve current software applications in-house, and collaborate on development projects on a larger scale.  Where enterprise software bases itself on providing the organization with structured processes, open source allows development teams the flexibility to build and to improve upon business solutions on a continuous basis without being hampered by proprietary constraints.  In addition, because of support provided by other developers through the open source community, the ability to get feedback on iterations or to get advice on potential stumbling blocks can occur almost immediately.  Consequently, many developers choose to work with open source code, not only because of the cost, but because there is continuous support from the open source community.  Unlike proprietary software that is only supported as long as certain aspects of the underlying code remains the same, open source solutions base themselves on the premise that there will be continual changes, breakages and collaboration to make things work better. 

The ability to collaborate across the Web and publish improvements adds creativity to the development process.  Within many organizations, flexibility and creativity is stifled when looking at off-the-shelf products that will most likely require customization as part of the implementation.  Open source works on the premise that by providing free code, everyone will benefit because of the collaborative nature of software development.  In general, bugs are identified sooner and upgrades have a shorter lifecycle than commercial software products because of the number of developers contributing to the community and working together to improve upon what currently exists.

Open source for BI – from niche adoption to mainstream use

When looking at business intelligence specifically, the same attraction to open source exists.  BI developers have turned to open source BI to provide their organizations with similar benefits as other open source projects.  Traditional forms of business intelligence require strong data infrastructures to be built so that analytics and reporting frameworks can be developed.  Proprietary software creates bottlenecks in relation to flexibility and integration.  This means that integration activities may be the tasks that take the most time when plotting project timelines and actually implementing a solution. Unlike packaged software solutions, open source has always provided a more open approach whereby development and integration can be integrated more easily within a large number of hardware/software environments.

A few years ago, open source BI was popular within verticals such as post-secondary education, where budgets are usually smaller than their enterprise counterparts but where the need to consolidate and manage data is essential when looking at employees, financials, students, timetables, general planning and the like.  However, very few companies evaluating BI as part of their IT projects would cite knowledge of open source BI solutions.

In order to expand their customer base, open source BI solutions such as Pentaho and Jaspersoft made a conscious effort to educate the BI community about the availability of open source as an alternative to traditional BI deployments.  At the same time, these vendors started to move towards commercial offerings that expanded beyond providing general code, towards packaged solutions that take advantage of the open framework while providing consumer oriented modules.  This means that now open source extends beyond developer only use.  A single department that wants to take advantage of lower-cost solutions is also now able to include open source as a potential short-listed vendor during their BI evaluation.  Consequently, due to the general popularity of open source, its overall influence has been felt more broadly within the BI landscape.

Transition of the open source BI landscape

The following three areas provide insight into how open source has helped expand BI use downstream, making it more accessible to general BI use:

  • Commercial open source – As mentioned above, commercial open source solutions are offerings provided to companies that use the open source model but that move away from the traditional free offerings.  What this means is, while under normal circumstances, open source vendors make their money through services and support, now they offer packaged solutions that can be implemented in a similar fashion as traditional BI with the licensing fees of open source, and greater flexibility.  This includes quicker release cycles and access to community forums, etc. online.
  • Collaboration – Collaboration is another area that open source solutions have naturally provided customers.  Because much development is done independently, information is shared and communication is achieved through online communities.  These communities take collaboration for granted because the concept of communal development on projects is obvious based on the overall structure.  Because of this, companies that adopt open source may be more likely to apply these concepts more broadly and include collaborative options within their BI use.
  • Subscription licensing – This form of licensing enables organizations to take advantage of business intelligence without spending large amounts of money up front because subscription fees can be paid monthly or yearly depending upon the offerings.  In addition, with the popularity of this licensing model within Software as a Service solutions, many traditional BI vendors have added subscription-based licensing as an option for customers.


Overall, open source business intelligence has transitioned from the fringes of adoption within the BI industry towards being accepted as an alternative to traditional and cumbersome implementations.  The diversity its use adds to the mix is the ability for organizations to take advantage of lower price points and easily customizable solutions with a focus on continuous improvements and collaborations both internal and external to the organization.  Although the use of open source might not be a fit for every organization, the reality is that as solutions continue move towards commercial offerings that are consumer oriented, open source will increase its competitive edge in relation to many traditional BI players.

About the Author

Lyndsay Wise is an industry analyst for business intelligence. For over seven years, she has assisted clients in business systems analysis, software selection and implementation of enterprise applications. Lyndsay is the channel expert for BI for the Mid-Market at B-eye-Network and conducts research of leading technologies, products and vendors in business intelligence, marketing performance management, master data management, and unstructured data. She can be reached at lwise@wiseanalytics.com. And please visit Lyndsay's blog at myblog.wiseanalytics.com.

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Martin Eising said:

I think that a big allure to open source (data visualization and business intelligence) software is the ability to heavily customize that software to a company's particular processes. A good heads up to all commercial software BI vendors!

Adam Landefeld said:

I completely agree Lyndsay, open source offerings bring a vibrance and variety to a fairly feature comparable set of offerings. All but a couple of the vendors in this space have failed to realize that flexibility across the enterprise is one of the major barriers to widely adopted BI and data visualization benefits. Within the hundreds of visual reporting or dashboard applications that my group has created I could only think of a handful where this sort of adaptability was not key to the success of the project. While my group is tied to a vended product in this space, I am very hopeful to see what the open source community can bring forward in feature and use case value. At the end of the proverbial day, the real value is when business leaders can become more enlightened and make better decisions based on ALL of the available information, not just one data or BI stack. The collaborative nature of open source development strongly supports this evolution.

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