Business Intelligence teams recognized as “best-in-class” have often spent hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars on software to garner such praise. Such investments are near impossible for budget conscious / smaller scale companies, especially in times of economic downturns.The good news for companies seeking to reap the benefits from tapping into business intelligence without spending exorbitant amounts? It only takes 99 cents to get a scalable Business Intelligence practice up and running effectively.
You can download PDF version of this whitepaper here.
In light of the current economic downturn and the clampdown on spending, few companies are able or even willing to invest significantly into obtaining software licenses. Making it all the harder is the incorrect perception CFOs and other decision-makers have that spending on business intelligence software is the equivalent of spending on non-operational technology components.
In actuality, with the current environment the downturn has created,, ,companies need to be more agile than ever – meaning an increased need for faster access to information. Does it sound like yet another management dilemma? Not necessarily… don’t hold back from business intelligence if only you think it is costly. You can run your business intelligence on a $0.99 software budget…
How many times have you heard about a company that has invested millions into reporting infrastructure, yet where almost all reports are still developed manually using spreadsheets? What about those that have invested hundreds of thousands into data mining software, yet still don’t possess a solid customer segmentation model?
It’s not rare at all. A recent NCC survey in the UK found that 87% of business intelligence projects do not live up to expectations when compared to the investments. You can’t simply blame it on the technology, since these technologies create wonders elsewhere. These are cases of overinvestment in technology, where simpler and cheaper solutions could be sufficient for the needs and capabilities of the companies.
The right way of investment into BI software, like any other technology, should start with a well defined strategy, as well as an implementation roadmap, which includes the portfolio of reports and data mining models answering key business needs. Software investment should only then follow, evaluating alternatives based on the actual complexity of needs. During this evaluation, companies should keep an open mind about the free open-source alternatives to maximize their ROI from BI investments. And don’t think that these alternatives are only for SME-sized companies, as the references of some of these tools include names such as IBM, Ford, HP, Cisco, Nokia and Miele.
If you have recently established your business intelligence unit or started structuring one, consider first using free open-source business intelligence alternatives, test the concept with them to make sure that it adds value to your business, and then move to commercial solutions to scale up later. More importantly, if you think that business intelligence is expensive, think again…
Using common office software and free open-source solutions, companies can build their back-end data systems, process it effectively and present it with a user friendly front-end. In this section, we provide the list of common functions within business intelligence scope of operations and some alternative solutions which would not cost a dime in terms of software licenses. Please note that many other free viable alternatives exist and the software listed here are provided as examples only.
Reporting: A number of features are critical in development of business dashboards, scorecards and reports for any reporting front-end:
• Ability to automatically retrieve data from a database server
• Ability to work with reporting cubes
• Ability to design reports with a developer-friendly interface
• Ability to customize reports by end-users
• Ability to develop graphs in various types and formats
• Ability to copy and print reports
• Ability to work online and offline
Aside from comprehensive and relatively expensive reporting solutions such as Business Objects, Cognos or Microstrategy, there is a tool which possesses all these functions, and has much higher user adoption: Microsoft Excel. It is possible to link Excel charts and tables to database servers through SQL queries over ODBC connections or OLAP servers using pivot tables, making it a user-friendly reporting interface, at no additional cost. The upsides include savings generated from foregoing costly end-user training / adoption programs to gaining integration capabilities into all your spreadsheet activities. Further, if there are numerous power users, it can provide great flexibility using VBA coding. Many companies already use Excel for some of their reporting needs. All you need to do is to establish live connections with your data warehouse and you have your reporting interface ready to go.
Data Mining: When it comes to data mining, many companies evaluate solutions such as SAS versus SPSS and KXEN, but very few actually ask whether a viable free alternative exists. The truth is; such free alternatives do exist (like Rapid-I), and are similarly effective when it comes to traditional data mining algorithms. These algorithms (e.g. K-means clustering, C4.5, logistic regression) are implemented in quite similar fashion in most solutions since they are based on publicly available academic publications. And many companies stick to them even when they have more options available. The commercial solutions are commonly superior in terms of performance and scalability, and provide a wider range of algorithms for advanced users; however, unless your intention is to mine data of millions of customers with highly sophisticated techniques, you may not be in dire need of them.
ETL Suite: Extraction, transformation and loading…the three letters which commonly make up the most time consuming part of any business intelligence initiative. As business applications move from legacy file formats to accessible database structures for data management, the ETL process becomes more of a database development capability. In line with this trend, even a simple SQL editor can be used as an ETL environment, decreasing the need for high-cost ETL studios (though a reduction in efficiency is likely). Yet, companies looking for free alternatives to ETL platforms can do even better than SQL editors, as free open-source options such as Talend Open Studio are available, providing comparable functionality to commercial applications. Free alternatives are feasible options especially for companies which do not transform terabytes of data every day or extract data from tens of different systems that each have different legacy interfaces or file formats (which being the case, may not necessarily be supported by free solutions). Similar to data mining, scalability, performance and variety are not to be expected from freeware, yet, not necessarily all companies have the need for them.
Scheduling: Scheduling is an integral part of business intelligence automation, where ETL processes need to be run in a certain order and at specific times of the day, with data mining models following, scoring customer segments and risks. So, if you don’t own a commercial data mining server license or a commercial ETL studio with scheduling functionality, how do you automate your activities? Luckily, you don’t have to work overnight to run your programs in order, as most operational systems today have the task scheduling functionality, enabling the automation regardless of the software you utilize. Such functionality can even be configured to e-mail freshly updated reports to selected recipients after all your month-end business intelligence activities are executed automatically.
Database Server: A free database server is nothing new, with alternatives such as MySQL being around for many years. However, a new trend has emerged in recent years, with big commercial players offering free database servers, such as ORACLE, Microsoft and more recently IBM with DB2 Express-C. For small to medium-sized databases and data warehouses these alternatives are workable options, on top of which one can deploy business intelligence applications. You do not necessarily get the more advanced functionalities such as performance tuning, load balancing, etc., but if your data size is not calling for them, you could as well be better off without them.
OLAP Server: An OLAP server is technically a dispensable part of a business intelligence ecosystem if your reporting needs are rather straight forward, limited, and static. However, it is always a good practice to have a flexible reporting environment, allowing your end-users to filter, slice and dice their data across various business dimensions, thus driving the need foran OLAP server. The good news is you can get a fairly effective one for free. There exist various free and open-source OLAP server alternatives in the market, such as Palo OLAP server, which can even integrate with Excel – your free reporting software – through OLE DB.
So how are these solutions available at no cost? There’s a catch: these solutions do not necessarily provide warranties or support functions for free, which means that you are basically dependent on your self-service skills when it comes to problem resolution. Additionally, as mentioned before, scalability and performance might be limited when compared to some commercial solutions. For some companies, it clearly could be more expensive to go the “cheap” route. But, if your needs are relatively less complicated, less performance dependent, and you are eager to experiment on your own, they could well be worth a shot.
By the way, you might still be wondering what would cost you the 99 cents, when everything listed is for free… It’s the cost of coffee you maybe drank while reading this article, or, the cost of accessing the internet, or…
We recommend that companies who are holding back their business intelligence operations because of software costs assess the free alternatives for their needs. Others looking for some cost savings should also evaluate the benefits they get out of their current software providers and assess the viability of the free solutions in their environment. Some of the large scale organizations which already have invested in commercial solutions would realize that the cost savings in migration to free solutions would not necessarily be justified for them considering their complexity of needs and attached human resource training and adaptation costs. Others might realize a sizable opportunity out of this exercise…
Forte Consultancy is a technology vendor-neutral consultancy company and does not promote the use of any specific software unless best fit for its clients’ needs. All software names provided in this article are stated as examples and are not to be taken as recommendations by Forte Consultancy.