4 money-saving, open source business intelligence suites

Knowledge is power, but spending a giant wad of money on fancy BI software won't do you any good.

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A Web interface is fast and efficient because drilling down is simply clicking, and custom report design is drag-and-drop. All that drag-and-dropping is really sophisticated database queries, without requiring the user to know how to craft queries in SQL, or whatever the underlying databases require. Reports can run on a schedule, or per event, and can display graphs and pie charts of all kinds, spreadsheets, and even Flash animations. Reports can be exported to a variety of formats for printing or further manipulation such as PDF, ODT, RTF, Microsoft Excel, CSV, and XML. CSS-savvy users can easily make further customizations.

The Web UI is designed for mobile devices and desktop PCs, and it is built on a W3C standards-based Web application stack, so it should render correctly in pretty much any Web browser.

Behind the pretty reports are your data. Most shops have evolved into motley collections of disparate data stores: receivables and payables have their own systems, shipping has another, payroll has yet another, document archives are ad-hoc by department and individual, sales teams are notorious cat herds, and so on. Jaspersoft ETL (extract, transform, load) pulls together data from multiple databases. Jaspersoft ETL is powered by Talend, which is yet another enterprise open source software vendor.

Dashboards are big deals in BI because they present a snapshot of multiple activities and quick access to multiple reports, and Jaspersoft's are just as customizable as the reports. Jaspersoft calls them "dashboards and mashboards" because they support mashups, which are information pulled from multiple private and public data sources. Some common examples are stock tickers, weather, maps, and on-time flight statuses.

Jaspersoft uses dual-licensing, both copyleft (GPL and LGPL), and sells commercial licenses. They also sell training and manuals for reasonable prices.

Pentaho

Pentaho is the other big open source BI suite. There is a bit of a Hertz-Avis competition going between Jaspersoft and Pentaho. Jaspersoft says they're #1, Pentaho says they are the "open source business intelligence leader." Jaspersoft claims cost savings up to 80% over proprietary BI offerings, Pentaho says 90%. Whatever. They're both excellent.

The feature sets and customizability are similar, both run on Linux and Windows, both integrate a lot of the same technologies (such as Eclipse, Java, Tomcat, AJAX) but the pricing models are different. Pentaho sells annual subscriptions which supply support, more functionality than the free-of-cost community edition, managed release cycles, access to more documentation and support resources, training, and priority fixes and updates.

Both have try-before-you-buy offerings, and both offer hosted services.

SpagoBI

Spago is an interesting BI project, calling itself "the only entirely open source business intelligence suite." It is written in Java under a single license, the LGPL. Spago is maintained and supported by Engineering Ingegneria Informatica, which is based in Italy. Spago's documentation is written in English and French, while Engineering's Web site is in English, Italian, and Portugeuse.

The software and community support are always free. Training, commercial support, consulting, and custom development are all added-cost options. Spago has many elements in common with other open source BI suites such as Talend for ETL, dashboards, support for many document formats, support for many databases (Oracle, MySql, PostgreSQL, Ingres, Microsoft SQL Server) and the JasperReports reporting engine. It also offers a real-time monitoring console, and GEO/GIS (geospatial enterprise office/geographic information systems) engines to incorporate location data.

Actuate

Actuate aims for a "suite of integrated capabilities within a single environment." Actuate provides a consistent look and feel, and delivers all services from a single server. Actuate is built on BIRT (Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools), which is built on Java and Eclipse.

Actuate puts heavy emphasis on "rich information applications" that are interactive and animated, using Adobe Flash and integrating multiple data sources and GEO/GIS information. Actuate offers a mix of open and closed-source applications, and hosted and customer premise products.

The bottom line

BI is a must-have. It's an essential part of running a business, and these good open source BI suites let you test and deploy inexpensively, at your own pace.

Also by Carla Schroder:
Making money in open source: Drupal future looks bright
8 strange places to find USB ports

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