Wednesday, April 16, 2008

OpenBI Finds Success with Open Source BI Software

I had an interesting conversation last week with Steve Miller and Rich Romanik of OpenBI a consultancy specializing in using open source products for business intelligence. It was particularly relevant because I’ve also been watching an IT Toolbox discussion of BI platform selection degenerate into a debate about whose software is cheaper. The connection, of course, is that nothing’s cheaper than open source, which is usually free (or, as the joke goes, very reasonable*) .

Indeed, if software cost were the only issue, then open source should already have taken over the world. One reason it hasn’t is that early versions of open source projects are often not as powerful or easy to use as commercial software. But this evolves over time, with each project obviously on its own schedule. Open source databases like MySQL, Ingres and PostgreSQL are now at or near parity with the major commercial products, except for some specialized applications. According to Miller, open source business intelligence tools including Pentaho and JasperSoft are now highly competitive as well. In fact, he said that they are actually more integrated than commercial products, which use separate systems for data extraction, transformation and loading (ETL), reporting, dashboards, rules, and so on. The open source BI tools offer these as services within a single platform.

My own assumption has been that the primary resistance to open source is based on the costs of retraining. Staff who are already familiar with existing solutions are reluctant to devalue their experience by bringing in something new, and managers are reluctant to pay the costs in training and lost productivity. Miller said that half the IT people he sees today are consultants, not employees, whom a company would simply replace with other consultants if it switched tools. It’s a good point, but I’m guessing the remaining employees are the ones making most of the selection decisions. Retraining them, not to mention end-users, is still an issue.

In other words, there still must be a compelling reason for a company will switch from commercial to open source products—or, indeed, from an incumbent to any other vendor. Since the majority of project costs come from labor, not software, the most likely advantage would be increased productivity. But Miller said productivity with open source BI tools is about the same as with commercial products: not any worse, now that the products have matured sufficiently, but also not significantly better. He said he has seen major productivity improvements recently, but these have come through “agile” development methods that change how people work, not the tools they use. (I don’t recall whether he used the term "agile".)

I did point out that certain products—QlikView being exhibit A—can offer meaningful productivity improvements over existing standard technologies. But I’m not sure he believed me.

Of course, agile methods can be applied with any tool, so the benefits from open source still come down to savings on software licenses. These can be substantial for a large company: a couple hundred dollars per seat becomes real money when thousands of users are involved. Still, even those costs can easily be outweighed by small changes in productivity: add a database administrator here and an extra cube designer there, and in no time you’ve spent more than you saved on software.

This circles right back to the quality issue. Miller argued that open source products improve faster than commercial systems, so eventually any productivity gaps will be eliminated or even reversed in open source’s favor. Since open source allows day-to-day users to work directly on the problems that are bothering them, it may in fact do better at making incremental productivity improvements than a top-down corporate development process. I'm less sure this applies to major as well as incremental innovations, but suppose examples of radical open source innovation could be found.

Whatever. At the moment, it seems the case for open source BI is strong but not overwhelming. In other words, a certain leap of faith is still required. Miller said most of OpenBI’s business has come from companies where other types of open source systems have already been adopted successfully. These firms have gotten over their initial resistance and found that the quality is acceptable. The price is certainly right.

* (Guy to girl: “Are you free on Saturday night?” Girl to guy: “No, but I’m reasonable”. Extra points to whoever lists the most ways that is politically incorrect.)

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