Open source business intelligence tools: Are UK companies ready? tools?

UK businesses have been slow to embrace open source business intelligence software, but that may be starting to change as open source BI becomes a more mainstream technology.

Businesses and other organisations in the UK have been slow to consider open source technologies for business intelligence (BI), but that may be starting to change.

In December, consulting and research firm Gartner predicted that production deployments of open source business intelligence (BI) software would grow five-fold worldwide over the next two years, with open source BI becoming a mainstream deployment option.

UK government leading the open source BI software charge
Gartner analyst Andreas Bitterer said he already has seen increased interest in open source BI in the UK, with government agencies among the major adopters.

“The UK government sector is doing quite a bit [with open source BI],” Bitterer said. Cost issues are a key factor, he noted: Many government agencies don’t have big enough IT budgets to enable them to buy all the  business intelligence tools they need from commercial BI software vendors.

The NHS Islington primary care trust (PCT) in London is one of the government bodies embracing open source business intelligence. Ian Tritschler, head of business development at the National Health Service unit, said the PCT plans to use open source technology from Pentaho to give users BI tools for identifying at-risk patients who would benefit from medical interventions.

“With the other commercial solutions that we found, we wouldn’t have had full control over the data or the future development of the product, and we very much wanted to keep that in-house,” Tritschler said.

He added that it would be less expensive for NHS Islington to use the open source BI tools and build up the skills needed to modify them internally, “rather than having to go out to an external organisation every time you wanted something tweaked.”

Some researchers have found the UK lagging behind other countries in wider open source adoption. For example, the 2009 Actuate Annual Open Source Survey conducted by London-based research consultancy Survey Interactive found that 67% of respondents in France said their organisations already used open source software, while in Germany the proportion of open source users had increased to 60.6%.

That contrasts with 42.1% adoption in the UK, a figure showing little change since the 2008 survey. Nearly one-quarter of the UK-based respondents to the online survey, which was open to business and IT professionals in the financial services, government and manufacturing industries, said their organisations were monitoring open source developments but not yet evaluating any technologies.

Measuring open source BI usage isn’t straightforward, as open source adoption statistics are often based simply on download rates for free software. Bitterer said Gartner is tracking companies that “are putting the things to work, and that number is a lot smaller than all these millions of downloads that [open source vendors] claim.”

Functionality gap remains between commercial, open source BI tools
Despite the increasing uptake of open source BI tools in the UK and elsewhere, Bitterer doesn’t think open source technologies are ready to compete head-to-head with commercial products. He still sees a “significant gap” in functionality in areas such as scalability, data visualisation and metadata management.

“I don’t want to say it is night and day, because there is some not-bad [open source BI] technology,” Bitterer said.

“It’s just that if you wanted to deploy this in an enterprise fashion to a couple of thousand users with a highly customised dashboard, there are some limitations on the open source side.”

Davy Nys, head of European sales at Pentaho, reckons that the UK doesn’t get all of the open source BI credit it should.

“There are two parts of [open source] adoption cycles,” he said. “One is downloading free software, and in that way the UK may be a little more traditional [than other countries]. But in going into a commercial relationship with vendors, we see that the UK is one of the leading markets in Europe.”

Nys doesn’t dispute Bitterer’s contention that the functionality of open source BI software isn’t on a par with that of some commercial offerings. But, he added: “It’s not about the feature functions that vendors make available but the features that customers require.”

In July 2008 The Bank of East Asia’s UK branch replaced a proprietary set of reporting tools with Actuate’s version of the BIRT open source BI and reporting software along with a MySQL database.

Open source BI’s big selling point: reduced costs
“Cost was the major catalyst for change,” said Leslie Jarrett, an applications analyst at the London-based bank. He noted that the vendor of the existing tools “wanted an increase in revenue from the bank” to help facilitate product upgrades.

But functionality was also an issue: The older business intelligence tools were developed to meet specific regulatory reporting requirements “and did not provide much information back to the bank,” Jarrett said. He added that BIRT and MySQL offer “scope for the future”, including the ability to deliver different sets of results from the same data to different groups of users.

Jarrett cited increased flexibility and improvements in the speed at which new reports can be built as the main operational benefits of the open source system. Thanks to BIRT’s graphical capabilities, he said, business users can now quickly be shown how to design their own reports.

“The traditional method of writing out a report specification and then waiting for development [staff] to code and compile it and then show the results are things of the past,” Jarrett said.

Personal financial services firm Virgin Money, which has used open source technologies for business-critical applications for several years, recently launched a not-for-profit charitable fundraising portal called Virgin Money Giving (VMG). VMG uses open source BI software from Jaspersoft to offer reporting capabilities to charities, enabling them to assess how effective their fundraising campaigns are.

Jeremy Walters, VMG’s head of systems development, was faced with the challenge of integrating the new portal with Virgin Money’s core systems while at the same time providing segregated access to multiple users. With open source software, Walters said: “We can get under the covers of the system and make it do exactly what we want it to do without having to compromise our own system design and architecture.”

Keeping costs to a minimum was a key requirement for the launch of VMG, but Walters said cost-reduction wasn’t the only consideration for going with the open source BI technology. “Instead of paying for licences upfront,” he said, “we were able to take some of that budget and invest it into professional services support from Jaspersoft to ensure we built and implemented the system in the best possible way.”

Tracey Caldwell is a freelance writer based in the UK.

Read more on Business intelligence and analytics