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Open Source BI Broadens Out in Myriad Directions

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With business intelligence (BI) heading more widely into Linux these days, vendors are adding more open source componentry in a variety of places, much to the glee of users ranging from financial services firm Tradewinds to health care IT specialist Nequalsone.

Traditional BI vendors such as Business Objects and Microstrategies are joining specialized start-ups such as JasperSoft, Pentaho, Greenplum, and Kinetic Networks in open sourcing their componentry.

Meanwhile, IT giants such as Oracle, Microsoft, SAP, and Siebel are also expanding more broadly into BI.

Nequalsone, for example, is now using Oracle’s 10g database and Web portal, running on Linux, as the basis for a series of applications aimed at building patient loyalty for hospitals by tracking patients’ impressions of health care experiences.

“We’re also looking at adding realtime reporting capabilities [from Oracle] to provide BI reports for clients,” said Harry Slaughter, the company’s CTO, in an interview with LinuxPlanet.

A slew of recent vendor announcements from Oracle, Business Objects, JasperSoft and others has delivered mainstream attention to the broadening availability of BI products for Linux.

Actually, though, BI for Linux is not exactly entirely new, points out Dan Everett, an analyst at Ventana Research, during another interview.

Companies like Hyperion began adding offering software for Linux a number of years ago. JasperSoft, Pentaho, Actuate, and other open source start-ups came into the mix later.

Many of the first open source BI products, however, were aimed at report-writing, and for the most part, these tools have been used by developers, Everett said.

“What’s newer is for [traditional] BI vendors to [incorporate] open source componentry at the middle of the stack,” the analyst told LinuxPlanet.

Some long-time BI vendors are offering open source databases as embedded BI repositories, while at the same time allowing customers with existing commercial databases to keep using SQL Server or DB2 instead, for instance.

Business Objects, for example, is now using MySQL as a repository, said James Thomas, the company’s director of marketing, in another interview.

One big intent behind the use of open source componentry is to lower prices for users, according to Everett. “BI vendors know that their traditional pricing models make it difficult for companies in the midmarket to use BI [among all their employees]. It’d cost way too much money,” the analyst elaborated.

At pricing of $1,000 per user seat, for example, a company with 16,000 employees would need to pay $160,000 for a full-fledged BI deployment, Everett hypothesized.

“Among midmarket companies, there’s been a real push toward TCO,” concurred Business Objects’ Thomas.

At the same time, open source BI start-ups are spreading out into new directions.

Pentaho, for example, recently acquired the Weka open source project in a bid to add data mining capabilities to its BI suite.

Pentaho is also teaming with vendors such as IBM, Actuate, Scapa Technologies, and Zend in support of the Eclipse Foundation’s BIRT (Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools) 2.0 project.

For its part, JasperSoft has announced a Jboss reporting portal.

But the industry convergence upon BI doesn’t stop there. For instance, Oracle’s emerging BI suite brings together products created at both Oracle and PeopleSoft for data warehousing, data mining, reporting, management, and information delivery.

Not to be outdone, long-time BI specialists are taking new steps into open source.

Business Objects recently announced a version of its Crystal Reports report-writer for the Eclipse crossplatform development environment.

“We understand that customers are using Linux and open source componentry within their organizations,” said James Thomas, Business Objects’ director of marketing, also in an interview

Crystal Reports, a product originated by Cognos, has supported Linux ever since version 9. Business Objects has been in charge of Crystal Reports since the acquistion of Cognos.

“Linux is certainly not the most popular platform we’ve seen, but it’s starting to hit more of a mainstream deal,” according to Thomas.

As Thomas sees it, some Linux customers are moving to the platform from Windows, yet more of them are migrating from Unix platforms from Sun, HP, and IBM.

“One of the big areas where we’re seeing a lot of Linux is in financial centers. And in Europe, there’s been a push toward non-Microsoft environments,” he observed.

“We’ve had really solid partnerships with Red Hat and Novell. We do a lot of joint selling and joint engagements.”

Business Objects customer Tradewinds is just one example of a financial service firm that’s adopted Linux.

“Linux is our strategic platform,” affirmed Tradewinds CTO David Meredith, also in an interview.

Within the midmarket, many customers are now runing Crystal Reports Server on Linux, according to Thomas.

But although open source componentry seems to be widening the market for business intelligence, it’s also bringing new competitive challenges to traditional BI players.

“They are tending to wish that the JasperSofts and Pentahos of the world would just go away,” said Ventana’s Everett.

“But they’re also dealing with reality, and looking at [what kinds of opportunities] open source can bring.”

As a result, veteran players in this market are starting to change their business models, the analyst observed.

Emerging approaches include BI appliances, embedding BI reporting tools into applications, and the “software as a service” business model.

“And some companies are building hosted [BI] solutions,” Everett added.

Systems integrators and other partners are becoming increasingly important, the Ventana analyst suggested.

Business Objects is one of the companies that is already modifying its business model. “We recognize that developers are accustomed to getting [report-writers] for free,” said Business Objects’ Thomas.

“Our philosophy is that you can download Crystal Reports [for Eclipse] for free. But for things like higher-end support and greater scalability, customers need to pay,” Thomas told LinuxPlanet.

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