Evaluating BI Options for Software developers

Evaluating Business Intelligence Options for Software developers

Increasingly application developers are required to include flexible and extensible reporting options within their core product sets. This is not only being driven by CIO’s, who rank Business Intelligence in the top 3 of priorities, but also their end users – the business users who are becoming more BI savvy, and whose expectations are growing. The essential BI elements sought after by end users in any integrated BI solution include:

  1. Dashboards
  2. Ad Hoc Reporting Functionality
  3. Ease of use

And all of this needs to be web based too!

For the software vendor Business intelligence as a business function continues to evolve from being primarily a downstream, after the fact application silo, into a value-added, integrated component of packaged and custom applications. This in conjunction with greater awareness of BI is driving software vendors to deliver a comprehensive BI solution as a module of their solutions. For the vendor this means that they can either develop a solution from scratch in-house or integrate a 3rd party BI package into their product suite.

In the past application developers have traditionally gone the in-house development route to meet their BI needs. The benefits of In-house BI development is a reporting solution 100% integrated into the core product, hence the usability, look/feel and navigation will be consistent with the core application.

The in-house option is fraught with difficulty however. For the vendor, with a speciality in a functional space, they do not have the time, expertise, resources, budget to build an enterprise quality reporting solution, In house design/builds also risk lengthy delays, design and construction complications and final product results that miss the expectation of the design phase – not to mention the sales / marketing teams. The engineering time associated with these delays and cancellations are very expensive and lead to opportunity costs of missed sales and revenue potential of a rapid go to market model. The trend for developers is now to reduce coding time and where code effort is needed to dedicate that time/effort to the core functionality. To do this developers must fill the gaps in function with other vendors products, be that commercial or open source options.

Speed to market and leading BI capability are the prime drivers for the selection of an embeddable BI solution. With embeddable being the key point here. In delivering a BI module to their clients the software vendors needs to search out a solution that can be highly integrated into their existing solution and sold as a seamlessly integrated module. After-all in the customers eyes they are purchasing an additional module from their vendor and do not want to deal with the complexity of a 3rd party.

The 3rd party integration option, faces the difficulty of searching out other vendors products that achieve the required functionality, yet also integrate into the core products. Developers can try to pursue a tight integration or failing that they must bridge the two applications suites in a manner that does not confuse the end user. Bridged software can work well, but the end user will need to deal with two sets of navigation and differences in look/feel. For Business intelligence, most solutions are designed for stand alone usage, such that any attempts to embed them can be cludgy. For example BI products such as Crystal and Microsoft Reporting services which are easier to embed, still suffer the legacy of the GUI world – they require client side software to be distributed to enable access.

Time and budget are always the constraining factors in the develop and go to market cycle, so the business and architectural decisions in choosing any 3rd party business intelligence tool must include:

  1. Its ability to be integrated quickly to save develop time,
  2. Its high level of stability and functionality to minimize on going product support ; and
  3. a cost sensible solution to allow customers to make easy buy decisions. If your core solution is currently selling for $100.00 per seat, it will not make sense to choose a BI add on that will drive that cost to $500.00 per seat. The BI module has to be inline with your pricing model..

In choosing a solution based on commercial aspects a "total cost of development" evaluation framework is required by which a vendor can anticipate their design results and minimize financial risk. This framework embodies a cost-based analysis of factors that include:

  • The total time to market,
  • the cost of development,
  • development tool cost,
  • maintenance and support costs; and
  • the cost of runtime licenses.

This is essential in making any solution choice be it open source or commercial.

One of the main choices in choosing a 3rd party BI solution is whether to go open source or a commercially supported solution. The commercial solution (or paid for open source) has dedicated professional development/releases and a commercially focussed company backing it or alternately one could look to an open source product, that is free to use, with a potentially inconsistent code base, uncertain development timelines, limited documentation, possible integration issues, but again at the end of the day is free. In Business Intelligence, open source projects like BIRT, Jasper or Pentaho offer developers products developed and maintained by strong communities. However, if integration and ongoing support costs are too great or not definable, then the developer may well be better off going with a commercial option.

Commercial options for software vendors include Crystal Reports, Pentaho (Enterprise), Jasper (Enterprise), Microsoft Reporting Services, and Yellowfin. Tier 1 products such as Cognos and Business Objects have been excluded since their highly priced commercial models and minimal integration options exclude them for the majority of software vendors as viable options.

Most software developers want to develop applications that are:

  1. Platform independent to enhance their market potential. This means they are transportable across database technologies and OPSYS platforms. If this is the goal then BI platforms that lock a vendor into a platform must be excluded – for example Microsoft Reporting services which is to restrictive with DB options.
  2. Browser based – so their BI solution must deploy with zero client footprint.
  3. Integrated Security – so a highly flexible security framework is required. Many solutions only provide role based security and not data level security – which tends to be the core of most transactional application.

Crystal Reports was once the embedded reporting solution of choice. However, changes in ownership, and licensing, and the lack of reasonably priced ad hoc have had a huge impact on the embedded Crystal Market with Vendors looking elsewhere.

In terms of a product with a unique licensing model and functionality that is suited to the software vendor on solution stands out – Yellowfin. Yellowfin offers a pure browser based solution built on Java for n’platform support. Not only does it include its own drag and drop report writer but also supports BIRT and Jasper for added flexibility. The most interesting aspect though is the pricing model. Unlike traditional licensing schemes Yellowfin works with each of its partners to set and share the revenue generated by the end customer. This approach is different and its main benefit appears to be simplicity and profitability for both Yellowfin and the software developer. Yellowfin also has arguably the best dashboard concept and usability for business end users.
As a browser based solution designed from the ground up to be integrated into 3rd party applications it is unique. It offers dashboards, ad hoc ROLAP and MOLAP reporting, analytical functionality and a comprehensive meta-data layer.

JasperSoft and Pentaho both claim to be the most downloaded open source business intelligence software, and have very similar BI stacks. Their Suites are comprised of an interactive reporting server, graphical and ad hoc report design interfaces, OLAP, analysis, an ETL tool for data integration. Both offer an Enterprise version, which we would assume is commercially packaged, installable, supported and documented. However, the licensing cost for the enterprise variant brings the cost of either option on par with tier 1 competitors such as Business Objects leaving little in terms of value added differentiation..

The choice for software vendors in embedded BI solutions is not an easy one. There are a multitude of options available to them. However, the main considerations need to be one that has the right level of functionality, is affordable; is easy to embed and most of all easy to use by their end users. The BI component of any application needs to be considered a core marketing tool – after all the sizzle created by a dashboard can be the difference between a sale or not.

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