Making sense of a bunch of data is incredibly difficult, even for highly-trained data scientists. Unless it’s organized and visualized in an easy-to-understand manner, there isn’t much you can glean from a large data set. That’s why one of the most important aspects of business intelligence software is reporting. But not all software is created equal; is there a difference in quality between open source reporting tools and pricey solutions from an enterprise reporting tool vendor? This article aims to answer that question once and for all.
What Is Reporting Software?
Reports not only help you discover insights, but presents them in a way that anyone — not just a data scientist — can understand. The best reporting tools use data visualization by creating tables, charts and graphs that reveal trends and relationships within your data sets. These, in turn, help you understand your business’ strengths and weaknesses, in addition to exposing new growth opportunities.
Enterprise reporting software is a lean subcategory of business intelligence tools that focuses on creating a variety of report types. It cuts out some of the broader capabilities of BI software and passes the cost savings and ease-of-use on to the consumer.
What Makes a Reporting Tool Open Source?
When looking for a reporting tool, there’s no shortage of options to consider. But one option that’s becoming more common is open source tools. The term “open source” means that you receive the source code for a piece of software that you can use and make additions to as you see fit. This is different from closed source or proprietary software in that only the vendor can make changes to the basis of the system for those types of platforms.
Open Source vs. Free Software vs. Freeware
Many sites use open source and free interchangeably, but that’s not technically correct. Free software doesn’t refer to the price of the system, but the freedom one has to make changes to it. Free software is, according to the Free Software Foundation, any software that “grants the user the freedom to share, study and modify it.”
Open source software must, according to the Open Source Initiative, fit the following criteria:
- Be free to redistribute
- Have publically available source code
- Can be modified and distributed in different formats from the original software
- Should not restrict the usage of other software
Open source can basically be understood as a type of free software, typically applied in a business environment. Free software is more of a philosophical viewpoint of how software should be developed and used.
Freeware is the technical term for software that doesn’t cost the user money to implement. Some examples of this are Skye and Adobe Reader. These are available to use at no charge but are not open source or free in the sense stated above.
Benefits and Disadvantages of Open Source Reporting Tools
There are several advantages to using open source software for reporting, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few drawbacks as well. So let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of open source reporting tools:
Many businesses, especially those with unique reporting needs, love the customization that’s only available through open source reporting tools. When you decide on a regular reporting software vendor, you can’t add new features to the system yourself. Instead, you have to wait for them to customize it for you — if they even allow customization. More often than not, this takes several months to complete, so you have to wait a while before you can start using the system.
When it comes to reporting tools, open source code lets users create as much customization as you want. Want your logo to appear in the top left corner? You can make it happen. Want to use a special data visualization for certain reports? You can make it happen. Want interactive dashboards for your data analytics? Make as many as your heart desires. All you need are the developers who can write the code to make it happen.
One of the biggest reasons that businesses adopt open source reporting tools is the cost savings that they offer. Most of these systems provide free software licenses, or they provide them at a very reduced price compared to their vendor counterparts.
Reporting software vendors offer up a range of prices, but some, especially full business intelligence software, can cost as much as $250/user/month, or $3,000/user/year. Eliminating that cost, or getting the same reporting and data analysis functionality for a fraction of it, opens up a world of possibilities for spending that money elsewhere.
This is especially true for organizations that need extensive customization. While many software suppliers do perform customization to meet their customers’ needs, it usually comes with a price tag. Purchasing the base software and making those changes yourself can deliver some significant savings in the long run.
Although some offer a license for free, not all open source reporting software is free of cost. Many open source reporting tools have additional features that you need to pay for, such as support services or access to extra code that offers additional functionality. Even if you have to pay for these add-ons, however, you’re still likely to end up with considerable cost savings.
Have you been wondering why many open source reporting tools are provided for free? It’s because they don’t have in-house developers managing it for you. Instead, the burden falls on you and your IT team.
Some tools may offer some support, including a forum-style coding community, but you still need your own developers and IT specialists to run, manage and add features to the system. Support is also frequently an add-on that comes with an additional fee.
For many businesses, this means dedicating at least a few developers, if not an entire team, to working on the system full time (depending on how large the company is, how many users there are, etc.).
Open source projects aren’t something you should take lightly. You can’t complete one in an easy afternoon of half-hearted coding. It takes a lot of time and dedication to add whatever data mining, analysis tools and reporting features you need. Not to mention, you need someone to perform continual management of the system to make sure it’s always running smoothly.
Competition for Resources
Another thing to keep in mind with the extensive need for development is the drain on your organization’s resources. The competition for talent is fierce in the modern era, especially for good software developers. If your organization can afford to maintain a team of developers, then open source software is an excellent option.
If, however, you’re not, you may find yourself competing with established software vendors for these developers, something most SMBs aren’t equipped to handle. This may result in high turnover or the need to hire lower quality employees, neither of which reflects well on your business and result in a loss of revenue over time.
Lack of Intuitive UI
Another disadvantage of open source reporting tools is that they’re rarely as user-friendly as those offered by reporting and analytics vendors. Navigating the interface shouldn’t feel like data science; that’s what your reporting tool should be doing for you.
This is an even bigger problem if you have users that aren’t particularly tech-savvy. If most of your users are adept at using web applications, this isn’t as much of an issue (although it can still slow them down). But if most of your users have difficulty using non-intuitive software, you may want to look at a more typical reporting platform. Otherwise, you’ll have to take some time (potentially a lot of time) to train your users on how to use the tool, which is counterproductive to its goal of making you more efficient.
Do the Pros Outweigh the Cons?
It differs for every business whether or not open source reporting tools are worth the investment. Some thrive when using them, while others struggle. Make sure you carefully consider the pros and cons before adopting a solution.
If you want to do more in-depth research on the open source options from established software vendors, take a look at Birt, Pentaho Reporting (the open source/free edition of their BI platform), JasperReport and ReportServer.
These four systems are among the top choices for open source reporting tools, and looking at what each offers can help you get a clearer picture of whether you should opt for one of them or a regular reporting software vendor.
How to Choose an Open Source Reporting Tool
While many sites tout a list of the best open source reporting tools, that isn’t always the best way to approach the software search. Every organization has vastly different needs and requirements, so it’s vital to take those into account when beginning your journey. We recommend following these steps to make your software procurement process as smooth as possible:
This step is arguably the most important to do correctly. Most vendors price their software based on which features you need to use, so identifying the modules and functions you want to utilize is the crucial first step. This interactive enterprise reporting requirements template can help you choose from and understand the offerings to make an informed choice.
Once you’ve identified your key features, you can compare vendors based on how well their products deliver those key features. This comprehensive enterprise reporting comparison tool will help you compare products side by side, feature by feature to ensure you only choose from among the best options for your organization. You should create a shortlist of the top five to seven vendors using this method.
Now you can send an RFP to the vendors on your shortlist requesting pricing, demos, trials and more information about how their product. This will help you get a better feeling for how the platforms operate, how user-friendly they are, and whether they can adequately perform the tasks you need them to. A hands-on trial is always the best option, so be sure to ask if it’s possible!
Open source reporting tools have pros and cons, but whether or not they’re right for you depends on your business needs. You should have a better understanding of what makes a reporting tool open source, what the benefits and drawbacks are, as well as how to go about finding one. Make sure to leave any additional questions or notes in the comment section!