Do companies understand all the factors involved and what they’re really getting when they select an open source business intelligence platform? Analyst Lyndsay Wise, author of the new book “Using Open Source Platforms for Business Intelligence: Avoid Pitfalls and Maximize ROI,” believes that people get caught up in the advantages of open source over proprietary software, often without evaluating whether the platform will fully meet their needs. Why is open source BI important for business managers to understand?

Lyndsay Wise: There’s a lot on the market about business intelligence, and there are different books on the market about open source BI, but normally what they are is a developer’s guide or a how-to for a specific product. With the market transitioning in more of a commercial open source set of solutions, there’s nothing really to help management or decision-makers, or even business users, understand what open source is, what it does and what the benefits and challenges are of implementing it, even in terms of letting developers look at things more broadly, instead playing around with it to develop it. It really just means that they’re spending more time developing something than they might need to.

The initial draft was actually much more technical in nature, so it went into even more of the nitty-gritty of examples of development and broader examples of how to actually do the integration and it focused a lot on some of the products. But because software changes so quickly and vendors really change directions or improve upon their solutions so rapidly it made sense to take a step back, and one of the things that I was always interested in – and still am interested in – is more of the BI strategy. The publisher was very open in letting me combine that introduction to open source BI with that BI business strategy in terms of “Is this right for you?”.

What are some of the most interesting findings you uncovered in your research for the book?

I went into the project thinking “Oh, open source is great in many ways” but I came away being more cautious. At the same time, when I would speak to developers, consultants and different practitioners, even though they knew that it might be more time or more effort or require more in-house development to get solutions up and running, they were still almost in love with the open source platforms that they were using. So I thought that was one of the interesting points, that even though there are always benefits and challenges to each and they have to weigh what those benefits are, a lot of the people I spoke to were so happy and really like working with open source and almost wanted to increase their use of open source, even though it wasn’t for the traditional reasons that you’d think, like because the software’s free. It was more because of the flexibility and design and they felt that they could be more creative.

What sparked that caution for you?

I think that it was more of a caution in terms of whether companies really know what they’re getting into when they select open source. If you look at Pentaho and Jaspersoft for an example, when they brief me about new products, a lot of their new products and where they’re headed is very commercially focused. And I know they could sit back and say “Well, out of these 10 features, three are available in the free version.” And so what that means to me is that unless an organization really understands what they’re getting into, they might think they’re actually getting more than they are by downloading software. They might not understand the importance of weighing the fact that even though you might not have software costs initially, there’s still the maintenance, development and potential expansion if you want to grow with it to move toward commercial. And I kept getting the feeling that a lot of companies were really unaware or didn’t take these things into account as they were evaluating their potential software solutions.

What suggestions would you give for open source BI adoption in restricted industries or where governance operations have a very low risk appetite?

I think that open source BI can be adopted no matter what because, in terms of the governance and all of those restrictions, if you build those into business processes and they’re managed properly, as long as you do that well then it is okay to use open source. I don’t see that being some sort of restriction that you shouldn’t or that you should overlook it

What are the challenges that open source BI vendors face when competing with the big traditional vendors in the space?

A lot of their products are over time improving, but in terms of comparing them to other, larger BI vendors then you’re looking at commercial solutions, which really mimic a lot of the traditional solutions anyway. So it is almost moving away from what real open source should be. I think over time the open source solution vendors will get there, but then what they’re providing – and even now what they’re providing – isn’t pure open source. It’s essentially part of open source where you can download and play and change something, but at the same time if you want a full-blown solution you really have to get the commercial version.

Are there any overarching trends in the open source BI industry that stand out?

A lot of the open source vendors, as I mentioned, are trying to compete with other more traditional vendors, which is mainstream BI, so a lot of the same things that they’re tacking are actually the same that other vendors are tackling. Cloud computing and big data seem to be ones that are very big right now, as well as the ease of use and self-service models making it easier for savvy business users or just more business users to handle applications in general.

What are you most excited about in the BI industry these days?

I recently wrote a blog post about seeing a lack of innovation in BI. In a lot of the vendor briefings that I go to, they think what they’re doing is really cool, but essentially they’re developing the same things only separately. But one of the things that I think is really cool is the fact that technology is now really able to do what the promise of BI was ages ago in terms of really getting data and helping organizations make better decisions. And the idea to be able to integrate social media info and data and consolidate different data and then access it on tablets and then create your own applications on those tablets and interact with data in a way that you want – meaning at any level, whether you’re a technical person or a business person that needs to make decisions – that’s one of the things that I think is cool. I think that in terms of the ease of use, certain vendors are still looking at things from a super-user perspective, but others are making it really easy to interact with, they’re doing some cool stuff, and that’s what I like in terms of seeing how data is really transformed into information and making business people’s lives easier.

For Lyndsay’s checklist of considerations and implications of adopting open source BI, read this excerpt from her book.

Julie Langenkamp-Muenkel is editor-in-chief of Information Management. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @JulieLangenkamp.

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