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.
Business intelligence (BI) is one of those buzzphrases that sound super-cool, but are often misunderstood. What is business intelligence and should you care? Do you need to drop a giant bucket of money on BI?
Smart, bold decisions
There is little that is magical about making wise decisions for your business. The fabled steely-eyed rock-ribbed American businessman or businesswoman who stuns allies and competitors alike with daring and boldness doesn't pull those daring decisions out of the air -- the smart ones rely on data and analysis. Lots and lots of data and analysis. There are two general categories of business intelligence: competitive intelligence, and internal intelligence. Business intelligence doesn't have a strict definition and could encompass both, but for the purposes of this discussion we'll limit it to internal intelligence, because it is most important to have a thorough understanding of what's happening in your own shop.
Let's dispose of a popular BI myth right now, and that is the myth that spending a giant wad of money on fancy BI software will do you any good. It won't. BI software suites are marvelous tools, but like any tool they are no better than the people using them. The most important tools are brains, knowledge, and the time to do the job right. Equally important are good data, so you may need to invest some resources in improving your data collection and organization. Don't skim over this step, because as the brilliant Charles Babbage said:
On two occasions I have been asked, 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
What do you want to know?
Before dashing out to purchase exciting new BI software, think about what information you want. The more you think about it, the more you realize that even in a small company there are daunting quantities of information available: sales, revenues, performance of various products and services, employee performance, supply chain, management performance, different departments, IT infrastructure, facilities, customer loyalty, and on and on. This is where the brains come in: knowing what's important. A good BI setup helps you identify ineffiencies and bottlenecks, measure performance, and uncover opportunities.
For example, many retailers use BI very aggressively, like tracking sales hourly, so store managers know right away what's hot and what's not. A shop launching a new product or service wants to know if it's a success, which sounds rather obvious, but I'll wager we've all experienced working for management that tries all manner of new things without taking the time to measure the results. Just throw it at the wall without waiting to see what sticks, or if the cost of stickage is justified.
Open source BI
SAP, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, and SAS are some of the big names in BI, with big price tags. Dealing with these giants of tech is not unlike seeking audience with the priests of the temple, and hoping to be found worthy. Before committing to something that will be sucking rivers of money out of your pocket, take a look at some of these good open source BI offerings. Most of them have free-of-cost community editions and enterprise version free trials so you can try before you buy. It may be that the free versions will meet your needs. If you have programming talent in-house you'll be able to dig into the guts and customize your chosen BI software. Though keep in mind this is a two-edged proposition -- if your coders coordinate their efforts with the project's core dev team and contribute back upstream, then everyone benefits. If you keep it all in-house then you are creating a big maintenance headache for yourself.
Jaspersoft claims that they are "The World's Most Widely Used Business Intelligence Software." The Jaspersoft user interface is a flexible, customizable Web-based framework that is friendly to non-gurus. To use the modern parlance it is skinnable, which believe it or not in the Vulcan-like cold, logical business world is one of the top user wants. People like to pretty up their reports and organize them their own way, which is not as frivolous as it might sound, because presentation is a key element in understanding complex data. Any report is more persuasive when it has a polished, professional appearance.
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 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.
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 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:
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