Everybody loves free stuff. Whether you’re a college kid clamoring for a free T-shirt or someone who just enjoys samples while shopping at Costco, there isn’t a person alive who dislikes free things.
Now believe it or not, you can even find free reporting software. Yes, that crucial, game-changing module of business intelligence software can be yours for a flat rate of $0. And no, we don’t mean free for a limited time, e.g. a free trial. We mean forever, never-have-to-open-your-wallet free.
Free reporting software can be great for any small business, especially when they’re just starting to get into reporting on data mining and data analytics. That said, there are certain limits to these reporting tools, in addition to their impressive benefits. As such, let’s review some of the biggest pros and cons of free reporting software.
Yes that’s right, we’re starting with the most obvious advantage: free reporting software can tremendously help your bottom line. Full-service BI tools can get pretty pricey, pretty quickly. Although there are vendors that make their platforms accessible for $10 per user per month, there are some that go higher than $250 per user per month, or $3,000 per user per year. And if you choose to deploy business intelligence software on-premise, implementation and management costs alone can skyrocket. For businesses that just need the ability to create reports and visualize data, there’s no understating how beneficial free reporting software can be.
Powerful Basic Functions
Many free reporting software solutions have the backing of a robust solution that you have to pay for. For example, Microsoft Power BI has its paid versions, but there’s also a powerful free edition. Although it doesn’t have all of the features of the paid versions, as a simple reporting tool, it’s more than sufficient. These tools all come with some kind of ETL (extract, transform and load) capabilities, some of which can pull from a SQL server. After all, these tools have to gather and report on all your data somehow.
Additionally, any reporting tool comes with visualization features (because reports without visualizations aren’t very good reports). Not all free reporting software have the most powerful data visualizations (although many free editions have the same or similar capabilities as the free versions), but they provide easy-to-understand charts, graphs and data clusters. And some free reporting software, such as Tableau Public, even offer dynamic report builders that you can use to make professional, presentation-ready visualizations.
Most, but not all, open source software is free and available to use. If you’re not familiar, open source software a unique solution that’s created and maintained by a developer community. In addition, everyone has access to the source code so they can customize it however they want. Software customization is one of the biggest benefits, as you can develop a feature for a specific kind of report your company needs.
Another benefit is that updates happen more frequently in open source analytics tools than a traditional BI reporting vendor. Because a whole community works on improving the software, updates, added features and bug fixes occur much more frequently. And if you have developers on staff, they can help in improving the software by adding their own features and bug fixes.
Although many free reporting tools have great and powerful features, they lack many of the more advanced features of their paid counterparts. For example, most aren’t available on a mobile device (that said, if it’s a browser-based application you can still access it, but it’s not as user-friendly). Solutions such as Qlikview Personal don’t allow sharing capabilities, so whoever makes the report is the only one who can access it without printing.
One of the more helpful features of data analysis and reporting is dashboards that provide real-time updates. They’re great for understanding data at-a-glance, which can help in putting a report together. In Power BI’s free version, real-time dashboards aren’t supported.
Even more detrimental is a lack of real-time data. While most BI and reporting tools collect real-time data that can be output into reports, the free versions require data to be input more manually. In other words, free reporting software is good for reporting on data that’s not time-sensitive, but they’re not as helpful for on-the-fly decision making.
Lack of Scalability
There’s a reason that almost exclusively SMBs use free reporting tools. Most of these solutions limit the number of users, in many cases to just a single user. Although a small business can survive with one person reporting on data, eventually you need more collaboration as you grow.
On the other hand, some of the tools that don’t limit the number of users make all the data that goes through the system public. If you’re a small company reporting on inconsequential data, that’s fine. But as you scale and you collect more sensitive data, such as people’s identifying information, you have to keep it private and secure.
Additionally, free reporting software providers often put caps on how much data it can process. This is usually put forth in daily, weekly or monthly allotments. When you’re first starting your foray into Big Data and data mining, you’ll probably stay well below those allotments. However, as you grow and collect a treasure trove of data, you’ll start to easily surpass those allotments. Once a business reaches a certain size, a free reporting tool just can’t cut it.
Yes, this makes both lists. Although open source software can be hugely beneficial, you have to factor in its potential pitfalls as well. Open source reporting tools — like all open source technology — is community based. Although this has its advantages, it also means that there’s little to no support available. If there’s an issue such as a system failure, you can’t just call up the customer service team and have them fix it for you. You have two options: 1) wait for the next update, or 2) have developers on hand to perform ongoing maintenance and fix the system when needed. Although this isn’t necessarily ideal, it is cheaper than implementing on-premise software.
The other drawback to an open source solution is that they aren’t always very user-friendly. Without a corporate budget funnelling money into the UI, open source systems have to make do with an easy-to-code UI. Sometimes you hit the jackpot, where the UI is clean and easy. But more often than not, open source software can be difficult to learn for people who aren’t as tech-savvy. If most of your potential users learn tech quickly, then this isn’t much of an issue. If most of your potential users don’t, however, you may find that the time needed to learn the system isn’t worth it. You don’t want people spending half their day finding out how to work the report generator.
Top Free Reporting Software
You didn’t think we’d give you information about free reporting software and then leave you high and dry, did you? We love to give recommendations, so we collected a few of our favorite free reporting software vendors for you.
*Side Note: Excel is a commonly-used, basic and cheap solution for BI reporting. However, since it’s not technically free, we’ve excluded it from this list.
Free Editions of Industry Leaders
When looking at free reporting tools, it makes sense to take a look at the free editions of industry leaders. These reportings tools, as we touched on earlier, are easy to use and have good support because they have the financial backing of the paid editions to ensure as much.
Microsoft Power BI Desktop is a clean data visualization and reporting tool. With it you can connect to “hundreds of data sources” and embed your reports in public websites. What you can’t do, however, is build dashboards or collaborate and share data.
As the name alludes, the data that gets analyzed and visualized in Tableau Public becomes free, public data. Featuring most of the capabilities from Tableau’s paid offerings, Public allows you to create custom reports; save and store your reports; and share your reports through social media or by embedding them on a webpage.
The free editions offered by Qlik are among the most robust of the free reporting software. These offerings include Qlikview Personal Edition, with which you can do almost everything the paid version can other than import an entire document, such as a spreadsheet. Also available for free are Qlik Sense Cloud Basic and Qlik Sense Desktop. All of these products allow for collaboration, albeit with up to five users, while automated data refreshes aren’t available.
Open Source Options
For businesses that value customization and software ownership, open source business intelligence and reporting software may make the most sense.
Pentaho Reporting is a solution that’s widely-used among small and large businesses alike. This reporting tools can make visualizations of any kind, exported to almost any format. Reports generated using Pentaho are shareable and sophisticated. However, the Report Designer tool is best used by experienced professionals, as it’s self-described as “geared towards experienced and power users, who are familiar with the concepts and data sources used.”
The name “Birt” is an acronym that stands for “Business Intelligence Reporting Tools.” In other words, Birt really wanted to make sure you know what it is the software does. Providing several methods of reporting, including lists, charts and other data visualizations, Birt is a surprisingly robust free reporting software. One of the platform’s main missions is to create reports that can easily embed anywhere, and that’s exactly what it does.