BI on a $0.99 Budget
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.
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
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
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…
About Forte Consultancy Group
Forte Consultancy Group delivers fact-based solutions, balancing short and long term
impact as well as benefits for stakeholders. Forte Consultancy Group provides a variety
of service offerings for numerous sectors, approached in three general phases -
intelligence, design, and implementation.
For more information, please contact
Forte Consultancy Group | Istanbul Office