Making sense of a bunch of data is incredibly difficult. Unless it’s organized and visualized in an easy-to-understand manner, there isn’t much you can glean from a large data set. That’s why one of the most important aspects of business intelligence software is reporting.
Reports not only help you discover insights, but outputs them in a way that anyone — not just a data scientist — can understand. The best reporting tools use data visualization by creating tables, charts and graphs that reveal trends and relationships within your data sets. These, in turn, help you understand your business’ strengths and weaknesses, in addition to exposing new growth opportunities.
When looking for a reporting tool, there’s no shortage of options to consider. But one option that’s becoming more common is open source reporting tools. The term “open source” means that you receive the source code for a piece of software that you can use and make additions to as you see fit. There are several advantages to using open source software for reporting, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few drawbacks as well. So let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of open source reporting tools:
Many businesses, especially those with unique reporting needs, love the customization that’s only available through open source reporting tools. When you decide on a regular reporting software vendor, you can’t add new features to the system yourself. Instead, you have to wait for them to customize it for you — if they even allow customization. More often than not, this takes several months to complete, so you have to wait a while before you can start using the system.
With open source reporting tools, however, you can create as much customization as you want. Want your logo to appear in the top left corner? You can make it happen. Want to use a special data visualization for certain reports? You can make it happen. Want interactive dashboards for your data analytics? Make as many as your heart desires. All you need are the developers who can write the code to make it happen.
One of the biggest reasons that businesses adopt open source reporting tools is the cost savings that they offer. Most of these systems provide free software licenses, or they provide them at a very reduced price compared to their vendor counterparts. Reporting software vendors offer up a range of prices, but some, especially full business intelligence software, can cost as much as $250/user/month, or $3,000/user/year. Eliminating that cost, or getting the same reporting and data analysis functionality for a fraction of it, opens up a world of possibilities for spending that money elsewhere.
Although the license is free, many open source reporting tools have other features that you need to pay for, such as support services or access to extra code that offers additional functionality. Even if you have to pay for these, however, you’ll still more than likely find considerable cost savings.
Have you been wondering why most open source reporting tools are provided for free? It’s because they don’t have in-house developers managing it for you. Instead, the burden falls on you. Some tools may offer some support, including a forum-style coding community, but you still need your own developers and IT specialists to run, manage and add features to the system.
For many businesses, this means dedicating at least a few developers, if not an entire team, to working on the system full time (depending on how large the company is, how many users there are, etc.). Open source projects aren’t something you should take lightly. You can’t complete one in an easy afternoon of half-hearted coding. It takes a lot of time and dedication to add whatever data mining, analysis tools and reporting features you need. Not to mention, you need someone to perform continual management of the system to make sure it’s always running smoothly.
Lack of Intuitive UI
Another disadvantage of open source reporting tools is that they’re rarely as user-friendly as reporting and analytics vendors. Navigating the interface shouldn’t feel like data science; that’s what your reporting tool should be doing for you.
This is especially a problem if you have users that aren’t particularly tech-savvy. If most of your users are adept at using web applications, this isn’t as much of an issue (although it can still slow them down). But if most of your users have difficulty using non-intuitive software, you may want to look at a regular reporting vendor. Otherwise, you’ll have to take some time (potentially a lot of time) to train your users on how to use the tool, which is counterproductive to its goal of making you more efficient.
Do the Pros Outweigh the Cons?
It differs for every business whether or not open source reporting tools are worth the investment. Some thrive when using them, while others struggle. Make sure you carefully consider the pros and cons before adopting a solution. If you want to do more in-depth research on these tools, take a look at Birt, Pentaho Reporting (the open source/free edition of their BI platform), JasperReport and ReportServer.
These four systems are among the top choices for open source reporting tools, and looking at what each offers can help you get a clearer picture of whether you should opt for one of them or a regular reporting software vendor.