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We were recently asked by the editor of one of our few remaining computer technology weeklies, whether we thought that Open Source BI (Business Intelligence) tools such as Jaspersoft and the Eclipse BIRT (Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools) project were a viable and robust alternative to “proper” (expensive) BI tools from the likes of Cognos and Business Objects. Well, we’ve recently looked at Jaspersoft as just one example of the breed; and the answer is “very probably yes; but it’s a bit more complicated than that”.
When you consider that many BI problems are probably fairly undemanding and that Jaspersoft, for example, is putting a lot of effort into scalability etc., then that easily justifies this answer. The Jaspersoft toolset supports production and operational reporting, both ad-hoc and dashboard-driven end-user interaction, data analysis and integration with “legacy” stand-alone or embedded BI applications. It is available in French, German and Spanish (Jaspersoft says that its community edition is downloaded more often in Europe than in any other region of the world) and delivered through a “Web 2.0” interface. EnergySys embeds Jaspersoft in the SaaS hydrocarbon allocation and production reporting software it sells to the gas and oil industry. AirVersent embeds Jaspersoft in its mobile management solutions. And Jaspersoft is part of a bigger community; it partners with Talend, for example, for the delivery of information from data integrations; according to Bertrand Diard, Talend’s CEO and co-founder, “One of the strengths of open source software is the partner network that exists to provide customers with customised packages that address their most fundamental requirements. The work we do with Jaspersoft is a perfect example of how open source collaboration can reach every level of the customer experience.”
So, Jaspersoft is being used successfully for serious enterprise BI already. But, addressing the question posed in the title, it isn’t free. Even if you download the software without having to pay for it, there is an Open Source licence with terms that could, conceivably, be enforced. If you you are using it for serious business applications, you need to know where it is deployed and what for. It should be deployed under configuration management. You need to train its users, not only in how to use Jaspersoft but also in how to do BI professionally, so that they can have confidence in the results they get. You may need professional support from Jaspersoft. There is a cost of ownership, even for free software, and although this might well be less than for commercial offerings, you can’t just assume this.
Which is part of why the answer to the question posed by this Editor is a bit more complicated than you might expect. Are there especially demanding applications which the established BI players can cope with and Jaspersoft can’t? Quite possibly, we really don’t know either way (it’s hard to prove a negative), but even supposing that Jaspersoft can completely match proprietary BI tools in terms of scalability and performance, there might still be reasons to go with the proprietary tools. They’ve been around a long time so have a good provenance—their features and issues are well known and understood and there are probably workarounds for any problems. People have confidence in established players—there’s a comfort from knowing that if it goes wrong, people will probably blame the tool vendor, not you. Going for an Open Source solution might make you feel vulnerable (for political rather than technical reasons), especially if your company isn’t mature enough to manage Open Source software effectively. And you might find a wider choice of high quality consultants are available in the proprietary space (or, you might not—we’d have thought that the real need for consultancy is in question formulation and statistical QA of the results, which ought to be largely product independent).
However, we are confident that Jaspersoft, to be specific, is worthy of consideration for BI applications in general. You shouldn’t be making a choice between “Open Source” and “Proprietary” software in your selection process. You should be determining your business-focussed requirements—the business needs/opportunities—and matching the various products against them. Jaspersoft (or anything else) certainly shouldn’t be eliminated just because it is Open Source—and if you haven’t seriously considered Open Source solutions before, you might be agreeably surprised at what they can do.
More than that, though, there is a particular opportunity for Open Source solutions like Jaspersoft and that is in integrating BI capabilities into an application design from the first, in organisations which have traditionally thought of BI as a “bolt on” afterthought. If we are going to be delivering “holistic business services” and measuring “business outcomes” (and we do think that this is where things are going) then the implication is that a service should provide management-level feedback on its operation as routine. This involves developers in building in more functionality—for, it is presumed, a real business stakeholder—that may not have been envisaged originally. Building a specialised BI functionality from scratch would not be cost-effective (besides, most general developers couldn’t build it very well); and the overheads of acquiring a new, proprietary, BI platform with an API and an SDK is, in many organisations, a huge barrier to innovation.
But Jaspersoft is widely used in embedded form already and could be embedded in a “proof of concept” without committing the organisation to managing another expensive relationship with a proprietary software vendor. Jaspersoft puts a BI capability into the developers toolkit with very little overhead. And after you’ve built the proof of concept, you could always “go proprietary” later if you’ve found any “implementation issues” with Jaspersoft scaling up. Although we see no reason to think that you will.