Why does open source BI disappoint?

  • A software solution doesn’t matter if no one uses it, regardless of how little it costs
  • Just because there is no upfront licence fee does not mean there are no direct costs

Why does open source BI disappoint?FOR companies in Asia Pacific, the sluggish, slow-recovering economy means a familiar dilemma: An organisation’s willingness to invest in new ways to innovate is often reined in by justification to raise a flat IT budget, even as the region’s business intelligence (BI) market is expected to surpass US$1.6 billion by 2017, according to Gartner.
In searching for ways to save money on enterprise business intelligence projects, IT departments may consider using open source software. The appeal is that no new software licence costs are incurred.
Unfortunately, the assumption that abandoning commercial business intelligence platforms for open source versions will somehow lead to lower costs and increased use of business intelligence is precisely that – an assumption.
Here are four reasons why these expectations seldom come to fruition:
1) Major hurdles to business user adoption
Nothing about a software solution matters if no one uses it, regardless of how little it costs.
It is not uncommon to hear of organisations having used open source BI solutions only to realise that a very small number of business people adopt them.
One factor is that IT cannot possibly think of every report variation business users might want. Reality is messy – people change their minds within seconds, new needs pop up at random, and information changes constantly.
Since open source approaches to BI are fundamentally developer-driven -- not user-driven -- when IT writes a report for end-users, it typically goes through several revisions to get it ‘just right.’
The process is obviously cumbersome and stricken with delays. Both IT and business users would be better off if the latter could access simple user interfaces that let them ask their own questions without needing IT assistance.
Second is that dashboards and reports produced by open source BI systems can be difficult for end-users to locate and navigate.
If end-users have to go through rigorous training before they can use a BI tool, many may choose to drop it altogether, and make do with more accessible options like MS Excel or other spreadsheets.
2) True TCO is rarely recognised
Open source BI software applications are intended to be programmed by specialists, so there are considerable development and implementation costs to installation and maintenance.
Even if a company has staff programmers or developers, there are other opportunity costs – what is your IT talent doing other than spending most of their time churning out business intelligence reports?
It is a mistake to think that the total cost of a BI solution is only in software licensing. When cash flow is a concern, it is critical to calculate TCO (total cost of ownership) regardless of the initial capital outlay.
Just because a vendor does not charge for licences upfront does not mean there are no direct costs.
In addition, indirect costs such as lost productivity and system downtime also make a significant difference in TCO, especially when calculated over the life of the application’s use.
Why does open source BI disappoint?3) Time to value is slow
The time it takes to get any value out of a system or project cannot be overlooked.
In today’s competitive economy, people need immediate answers. If an open source project requires an average of six months of development time, what is the opportunity cost of not having insights into your business, market or competition available to your users during those six months?
Related to this is the value your users put on a solution they can get to quickly. When an IT department gathers requirements and then goes dark for months while the solution is developed, two things happen:
One, business needs have changed and the solution no longer meets users’ needs.
Two, because IT went dark for so long, business users have lost interest, thinking the solution is no longer relevant and are therefore less likely to use it.
4) Ongoing report writing and feature improvements
The initial application development of an open source solution is interesting for the development team. But after the deployment of version one, reality soon sets in: Hard-to-use applications built for traditional IT buyers forces them into years of custom report-writing, change requests and ongoing feature improvements.
Most developers hate writing reports. They feel their skills are better used elsewhere – and they are right.
Even users dislike having to specify reports and then make change requests when the report is not exactly what they thought it would be. Enabling business users to easily produce their own reports and dashboards will result in a more flexible and lower cost solution.
Open source solutions may initially seem more economical or more likely to deliver rapid business intelligence results, but deploying these solutions will often require significantly greater budget and resources than expected.
Ultimately, the open source system must be evaluated based on how well it can meet users’ needs. While reports, charts and dashboards are useful, what is missing in most open source BI applications is the freedom to ask your own questions.
In open source BI platforms, business users cannot use a report or chart to ask questions and think further. The thinking has taken place already and the resulting reports are little more than a show.
Business users need to be able to ask a question, get an answer, and ask follow-up questions – all using easy visual interfaces.
In other words, rapid-fire business intelligence is one that takes up a fraction of the TCO and deployment time of open source solutions, as well as allows users to go in any direction – and speed – with their thoughts.
Now that is the revolutionary answer for business intelligence.
JY Pook is Asia Pacific vice president at Tableau Software.
Related Stories:
Open source IT vs commercial IT: What’s your call?
Business intelligence, analytics not magic bullets: Tetra Pak
BI software market to grow 9% in Malaysia, 7% globally: Gartner
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