The Promise of Free Business Intelligence

Originally published January 13, 2010

With recent economic uncertainties and promises of recovery, organizations are taking a more conservative approach to overall software adoption. Consequently, the business intelligence (BI) market has had to adapt itself to help organizations take advantage of what business intelligence has to offer while moving beyond perceptions of high costs and minimal short-term returns. With trends involving the mainstream adoption of open source solutions, increasing use of SaaS, and smaller players pushing solutions with quick implementation times and lower price points, the next logical step involves the availability of free business intelligence or best of breed solutions. These solutions provide organizations with an easy entry point to BI analytics and more data visibility, while giving vendors the advantage of a potential increase in market share.

This article identifies why free BI offerings are on the rise, the types of free solutions available, and how companies can benefit from deploying these types of solutions. In addition, this article explores the considerations and real costs associated with free software installation and use.

The Rise of Free Software Offerings

In the last several months, some business intelligence vendors have announced the availability of free access to their software. In some cases, this is on a personal level, in others, access is organization-wide with user limitations, or alternatively SaaS-based. In addition to these free offerings, the availability of many trial versions of software exists. The key implication is the ability for companies to install and use software in-house without the need to invest in initial software costs.

The traditional process of software evaluation includes interaction with vendors, creation of POCs, comparisons of those POCs and the ability to identify what customizations are required to develop a final solution that meets the requirements of the organization. The ability to access trial versions of software or actual free versions allows companies to move past the phase of interacting with several vendors toward an independent evaluation of what is available. Software comparisons become developer- or business-driven, and organizations can compare solutions based on their terms, while evaluating potential downfalls in comparison with like products.

When looking at free business intelligence, this can be taken to the next level because end users are able to continue using the solution without additional changes or support from solution providers. This highlights the benefits for solution providers in offering free BI solutions or trial versions of their offerings. They are able to expand access to potential customers, which in turn, may increase their customer base. With the case of free business intelligence, this is even more true because vendors hope that organizations see advantages in deploying their free solution and that they will eventually expand their use to include additional services, user licenses, software use, etc. And even if this is the case, by looking at free software, organizations at the minimum exclude the cost of software from the amount budgeted to implement or update a BI solution.

What Options are Available?

With the ability to evaluate free software, organizations require the added knowledge of what types of solutions are available. Overall, different types of solutions exist depending on the organization’s structure, goals, and use of business intelligence. The following options are the most recent to become available:

  1. Open Source – Open source business intelligence provides developers with the source code required to customize their own business intelligence applications within their companies. Despite the move toward commercial open source, the solutions available within the scope of open source can allow businesses to develop and to deploy a full business intelligence suite. Although free of costs, open source does require developer expertise to get a solution up and running.
  2. Personal Version – Some solutions offer personalized BI versions of their software for free. This means that decision makers and analysts can download a free version of software to use on their desktop. This type of free solution may have limited use within an organization but within companies where Excel reigns free, the use of these solutions may provide end users with more robust analyses.
  3. Large-Scale – Solutions are also available that extend beyond personal BI use towards departmental or organization-wide deployment. These solutions also require developers to develop customized solutions.

No matter which choice is considered or selected, organizations should realize that challenges may offset the benefits associated with free business intelligence. Organizations should take into account all of the costs associated with free software and balance that against the costs and effort associated with traditional BI offerings.

Overall Challenges, Considerations, and Costs Associated with “Free”

The reality of free business intelligence solutions is that the cost of the software is free. Unfortunately, that is where it stops. Organizations are still required to consider hardware requirements, developer resources, customization, licensing fees, etc. How free solutions compare against their traditional BI counterparts will depend upon the goals of the organization. For instance, personal BI options do not require the additional development that larger deployments will, thereby lessening the extent of additional costs associated with the free solution. In addition, free on-demand BI offerings may require less customization but might not accommodate larger or multiple data sources.

Overall, when organizations are looking at a BI solution, being free should be a secondary consideration. Except for when organizations are using free offerings and trials to evaluate solutions, the reality is that even though software is provided for free, there may be other trade-offs that do not justify implementing free software. Organizations should identify whether they want personal BI use that is individualized or whether they want to develop a department-wide or organization- wide solution for their employees.

Internal expertise becomes important when looking at free offerings as on-site developers are required to customize solutions to develop targeted business applications that meet individual or departmental requirements. For organizations without internal resources, the ability to take advantage of free BI offerings will be limited to those within a personal or SaaS framework. This may also limit the functionality or options available.

When evaluating free BI offerings, the main aspect to remember is that choosing a software provider based on their free BI application does not guarantee that it will be the right solution for the organization. To ensure business value out of business intelligence, businesses need to align overall goals with the way in which the solution will be used. Although a free offering can help organizations save software costs, software costs alone do not mean that a solution will provide increased business agility or value.

SOURCE: The Promise of Free Business Intelligence

  • Lyndsay WiseLyndsay Wise

    Lyndsay is the President and Founder of WiseAnalytics, an independent analyst firm specializing in business intelligence, master data management and unstructured data. For more than seven years, she has assisted clients in business systems analysis, software selection and implementation of enterprise applications. Lyndsay conducts regular research studies, consults, writes articles and speaks about improving the value of business intelligence within organizations. She can be reached at

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Lyndsay's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!



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