Everybody loves free stuff. Whether you’re a college kid clamoring for a free T-shirt or someone who just enjoys free samples at Costco, there isn’t a person alive who dislikes free things. Believe it or not, you can even find free reporting software. Yes, that crucial, game-changing module of business intelligence software can be yours for a flat rate of $0. And no, we don’t mean free for a limited time, e.g. a free trial. We mean forever, never-have-to-open-your-wallet free reporting tools.
Free reporting software can be great for any small business, especially when they’re just starting to get into data analytics. That said, there are certain limitations to these reporting tools — in addition to their impressive benefits. As such, let’s review some of the biggest pros and cons of free reporting tools.
Yes, we’re starting with the most obvious advantage: free reporting software can tremendously help your bottom line. Full-service BI tools can get expensive quickly. Although there are vendors that make their platforms accessible for $10/user/month, there are some that go higher than $250/user/month, or $3,000/user/year. And if you choose to deploy business intelligence software on-premise, implementation and management costs alone can skyrocket. For businesses that just need the ability to create reports and visualize data, free reporting tools can be highly beneficial.
Powerful Basic Functions
Many free reporting solutions have the backing of robust paid software. For example, Microsoft Power BI has its paid versions, but there’s also a powerful free edition. Although it doesn’t have all the features of the paid versions, as a simple reporting tool, it’s more than sufficient. These tools all come with some kind of ETL (extract, transform and load) capabilities, some of which can pull from a SQL server.
Not all free reporting software have the most powerful data visualizations, but they provide easy-to-understand charts, graphs and data clusters. However, there are many free editions that have the same or similar capabilities as the paid versions. And some free reporting tools, such as Tableau Public, even offer dynamic report builders that you can use to make professional, presentation-ready visualizations.
Most, but not all, open-source software is free and available to use. If you’re not familiar, open-source software is a unique solution that’s created and maintained by a developer community. In addition, everyone has access to the source code so they can customize it however they want. Software customization is one of the biggest benefits, as you can develop a feature for a specific kind of report your company needs.
Another benefit is updates happen more frequently in open-source analytics tools than a traditional BI reporting vendor. Because a whole community works on improving the software, updates, added features and bug fixes occur much more frequently. And if you have developers on staff, they can help improve the software by adding their own features and bug fixes.
Although many free reporting tools have great and powerful features, they lack many of the more advanced tools of their paid counterparts. For example, most aren’t available on a mobile device (that said, if it’s a browser-based application you can still access it, but it’s not as user-friendly). Solutions such as Qlikview Personal don’t allow sharing capabilities, so whoever makes the report is the only one who can access it without printing.
One of the more helpful features of reporting software is dashboards with real-time updates. They’re great for understanding data at-a-glance, which can help in report creation. Not all free reporting software supports real-time dashboards — Power BI is one of the tools lacking in this area.
Even more detrimental is a lack of real-time data. While most BI and reporting tools collect real-time data that can be output into reports, the free versions require data to be input manually. In other words, free reporting tools are good for reporting on data that’s not time-sensitive, but they’re not as helpful for on-the-fly decision making.
Lack of Scalability
There’s a reason almost exclusively SMBs use free reporting tools. Most of these solutions limit the number of users, in many cases to just a single user. Although a small business can survive with one person reporting on data, eventually you need more collaboration as you grow.
On the other hand, some of the tools that don’t limit the number of users make all the data that goes through the system public. If you’re a small company reporting on inconsequential data, that’s fine. But as you scale and you collect more sensitive data, such as people’s identifying information, you have to keep it private and secure.
Additionally, free reporting software providers often put caps on how much data it can process. This is usually put forth in daily, weekly or monthly allotments. When you’re first starting your foray into Big Data and data mining, you’ll probably stay well below those allotments. However, as you grow and collect a treasure trove of data, you’ll start to easily surpass those figures. Once a business reaches a certain size, a free reporting tool just won’t cut it.
Yes, this makes both lists. Although open-source software can be hugely beneficial, you have to factor in its potential pitfalls as well. Open-source reporting tools — like all open-source technology — is community based. Although this has its advantages, it also means there’s little to no support available. If there’s an issue such as a system failure, you can’t just call up the customer service team and have them fix it for you. You have two options: 1) wait for the next update, or 2) have developers on hand to perform ongoing maintenance and fix the system when needed. Although this isn’t necessarily ideal, it is cheaper than implementing on-premise software.
The other drawback to an open-source solution is they aren’t always very user-friendly. Without a corporate budget funneling money into the user interface, open-source systems have to make do with an easy-to-code UI. Sometimes you hit the jackpot, where the UI is clean and easy. But more often than not, open-source software can be difficult to learn for people who aren’t as tech-savvy. If most of your potential users learn tech quickly, then this isn’t much of an issue. If most of your potential users don’t, however, you may find that the time needed to learn the system isn’t worth it. You don’t want people spending half their day finding out how to work the report generator.
Top Free Reporting Tools
We’ve compiled a list of a few of the best free reporting software vendors.
*Side Note: Excel is a commonly-used, basic and cheap solution for reporting. However, since it’s not technically free, we’ve excluded it from this list.
Free Editions of Industry Leaders
When looking at free BI reporting tools, it makes sense to take a look at the free editions of industry leaders. These reportings tools, as we touched on earlier, have the ease of use, support and financial backing of the paid editions.
Microsoft Power BI Desktop is a clean data visualization and reporting tool. With it, you can connect to hundreds of data sources and embed your reports in public websites. However, the system does not provide the capability to build dashboards or collaborate and share data.
As the name alludes, the data that gets analyzed and visualized in Tableau Public becomes free, public data. Featuring most of the capabilities from Tableau’s paid offerings, Public allows you to create custom reports and save, store and share the documents through social media or by embedding them on a webpage.
The free editions offered by Qlik are among the most robust of free reporting tools. These offerings include Qlikview Personal Edition, with which you can do almost everything the paid version can other than import an entire document, such as a spreadsheet. Also available for free are Qlik Sense Cloud Basic and Qlik Sense Desktop. All of these products allow for collaboration, albeit with up to five users. Automated data refreshes aren’t supported by Qlik free reporting software.
For businesses that value customization and software ownership, open-source business intelligence and reporting software may make the most sense.
Pentaho Reporting is a solution that’s widely used among small and large businesses alike. This reporting tool can make a variety of visualizations, exported to almost any format. Reports generated using Pentaho are shareable and sophisticated. However, the Report Designer tool is best used by experienced professionals. It’s self-described as “geared towards experienced and power users who are familiar with the concepts and data sources used.”
The name “Birt” is an acronym that stands for “Business Intelligence Reporting Tools.” Providing several methods of reporting, including lists, charts and other data visualizations, Birt is a surprisingly robust free reporting software. One of the platform’s main missions is to create reports that can easily embed anywhere, and that’s exactly what it does.
If your business is in need of a reporting tool, consider one from our list of the best free reporting tools. As discussed, these programs have the obvious benefit of saving money, along with many other plus sides — and negatives. Weigh these factors to find out if free reporting software is right for you; it may save your company some money.
Have any questions, advice or insight about free reporting tools? Let us know in the comments!