Business intelligence tools are quickly becoming a necessity in the world of data, commerce and software. BI tools organize data, create visualizations, promote collaboration and make data literacy accessible to all employees. But there are so many different types of BI software that it can be hard to keep them straight. This article will explain specifically open source BI tools, the pros and cons of open source as opposed to closed, and how to select your own open source business intelligence tools.
What Are Open Source BI Tools?
What Is Open Source?
Open source refers to the accessibility of a software application’s source code. Most proprietary software doesn’t allow developers to get inside the base code and play around. This is what makes open source distinct from closed. Only the vendors can make any changes to proprietary software, whereas anyone with coding knowledge can update, change and modify open source solutions.
What Is the Difference Between Open Source and Free?
You might have seen open source and free used interchangeably to describe this type of software, but that isn’t actually correct. “Free,” in the software lexicon, actually refers to the freedom users have to access and make changes to it. The Free Software Foundation defines free software as any platform that “grants the user the freedom to share, study and modify it.” So this relates to both open code and freedom to share the code with others.
Open source tools have to meet a more specific set of criteria. According to the Open Source Initiative, it must be: (1) free to redistribute, (2) have publically accessible source code, (3) be open for modification and distribution in different formats from the original and (4) should not restrict the usage of other software.
So free software is more of a philosophy than an actual category. But the two definitely blend and overlap, especially since the definitions are almost identical. The business world typically uses open source as its preferred terminology, mostly to avoid confusion between free software and freeware — another term you might see thrown around. Freeware refers to platforms that are available free of charge. They don’t have to be free or open source. For example, Skype is freeware, but it isn’t free for users to modify.
Now that you’re equipped with some background knowledge, here is a breakdown of the benefits of open source business intelligence:
Lower Initial Costs
Many open source business intelligence platforms come at no cost or at a significantly lower cost than the alternatives. Typically, the core modules are free and any additional modifications from the vendor incur a fee; the point of open source is that the user can modify it themselves, so if they have the capability to do so, it definitely makes sense to take advantage of this.
In addition to charging that startup fee, most cloud-based software solutions charge a monthly subscription fee. While this is often more affordable than the chunk of change required upfront with a proprietary on-premise system, it can still put a drain on a small business’s coffers. Choosing solutions that are both freeware and open source is a great way to save on overhead costs.
The main draw of open source is its flexibility. Because it is basically raw code, you can do just about anything you want with it. Do you need industry-specific modules to meet security regulations — HIPAA, for example? You can make it happen, as long as you have the developer and the know-how.
This also means you can make changes along the way. If something isn’t working, if you need to make additions, if you just want something changed, the capability is at your fingertips. This flexibility and freedom is unrivaled by proprietary software.
Because you do all the development yourself, open source BI software is very customizable. With a proprietary solution, customization must be supported by the vendor and can come with a pretty price tag if it comes at all. This also takes valuable time while they pre-build or roll out the changes.
If you are driving your own customization ship, you can work while you implement at your own speed. You also have an immense amount of freedom to make the system exactly how you want it. For example, if you’re embedding it into another software solution, you can make it match the interface to streamline your workflow.
Because you are completely in control of your solution, you can program it to integrate with or embed into almost anything you want as long as the other application has those capabilities. Some integrations include ERP, CRM and web applications.
For example, you can embed your open source BI tool into your CRM to draw sales data directly from the system that generates and stores it. Because open source solutions are white labeled, you can make your BI tool match the CRM in appearance so your employees don’t have to switch to an unfamiliar interface to use it.
Embeddability lets you use your BI platform exactly how you want to and makes the user experience seamless for your employees. It’s also available from embedded analytics tools, which come in both open source and proprietary versions depending on the solution.
Because you control the source code, you don’t have to wait for the vendors to roll out updates, a process that can take weeks to complete and can take your access to the solution down for hours at a time. If you take control of your own updates with open source software, you’ll never wait for a vendor to get it done.
Additionally, you’ll be better prepared as to how an update will affect the customization you’ve put in place. With proprietary software, updates are released without regard to systems that have been altered, making it extremely difficult to implement the update. Some companies end up having to rebuild their customizations from scratch every update.
Open source might be looking like the perfect option at this point. Unfortunately, no solution is without its flaws. Here is a breakdown of the drawbacks of open source business intelligence:
The worst thing about a self-made system is that it is also self-managed. Open source tools require a robust support team of software developers, IT staff and users who are committed to keeping it up and running. This can be a huge drain on your resources. If your developers are skilled enough to manually run a BI platform, then you’re likely competing for their talent with the large BI vendors you’re avoiding by using open source software. This competition can result in loss of talent if you can’t offer competitive salaries and benefits.
Buildup of Costs
Although the initial costs may be lower, open source business intelligence software does have the downside of long-term costs. First, you have to maintain the team of developers who create and operate the system. There’s data security and governance. If the system goes down or, heaven forbid, crashes completely, you have to put your IT team on it and get the problem resolved.
These are just the foreseeable costs; the potential for problems from an unsupported, free-floating system can expand pretty quickly. If money is the only thing directing you towards open source business intelligence, you may want to consider these hidden costs carefully.
Another downside is that open source solutions are typically less comprehensive than proprietary solutions. You get what you pay for, so if you need extensive capabilities such as data exploration, OLAP processing or interactive visualizations, you might be better suited to a fully supported vendor solution.
While there is great freedom for users to create their own integrations with any other system they desire, open source BI software typically doesn’t have many (if any) built-in integrations the way enterprise-grade solutions do. This means that more than likely, any integrations you want, you’ll have to manually code them in. It’s more labor-intensive and has a lot of opportunities to go wrong when you do it yourself, so this is a fairly significant drawback.
For the most part, BI vendors specialize in creating intuitive user interfaces that make their solutions easy to use. Can you say the same for your personal team of developers? Many open source solutions are less user-friendly than proprietary solutions because they don’t have the same force of designers and specialists behind them.
While this may not seem like a big deal, user interface is one of the main contributing factors to poor usage rates. What that means is if your BI tool is unintuitive and difficult to use, your employees are less likely to utilize it to its full effect (or at all). This wastes the money and time you took to develop the solution and negates the purpose of having business intelligence!
Lack of Support
While many open source solutions have large online communities of users who help support each other, it usually lacks the kind of personalized, professional support we’ve come to expect from companies in the modern age. Your IT team is solely responsible for figuring out and solving problems, and if they can’t fix something, who do you turn to? Who is accountable for an unsolvable issue? This roadblock can cause big problems for organizations using open source tools.
Are Open Source BI Solutions Worth It?
This answer totally depends on your business. For many organizations with a talented team of developers and IT support with specific needs, open source can be a great option. For many businesses, this isn’t realistic, and it makes more sense to go with the vendor-supported version. Ask for demos of BI solutions as well as the open source version if they offer it, explore the online communities for various open source tools and do your research before settling on one or the other.
How To Select Open Source Business Intelligence Tools
On the subject of research, how does one go about selecting a BI tool, open source or otherwise? Follow this step-by-step guide and you’ll be on your way to confident software selection in no time.
The first step is to identify your requirements. If you’re not sure, don’t worry — this requirements template will walk you through the existing requirements and help you identify which are the most crucial. Once you’ve ranked them, you should have a better idea of whether your needs are basic enough for an open source system to meet or if you might need more robust support.
Now you’re ready to take that list of requirements to the market. This comparison matrix will let you compare vendors based on how well they perform in each of the requirement categories you selected as crucial. The top five to seven will make up your shortlist of vendors for the next step.
Your shortlist includes the vendors you should contact for a demo, trial and quote. Although our pricing guide can give you a general idea of the market and starting prices, all vendors price their solutions based on your module and support needs. The only way to get a feel for how the system operates and how much it will cost is to request a proposal and a demo. This BI RFP guide will help you with that process.
The best open source BI tools are software whose source code you can freely edit and modify to your needs. Now you should have a better understanding not only of the pros and cons of open source BI tools, but also how to go about selecting the perfect platform for your business.
Do you still have questions? Ask them in the comments!