Yellowfin CEO discusses BI and the role of Open Source
The nature of the Business Intelligence industry is changing. Major acquisitions of the past few years have seen most of the traditional players rolled into the mega vendors, and now we are staring to see the emergence of alternative solutions. One of these is Open Source. In this Q&A we talk to Yellowfin CEO Glen Rabie about the business Intelligence industry and his take on the open source players.
Q. What is your attitude towards open source?
A. Yellowfin is philosophically very supportive of the open source movement and we have engineered our tools so they live inside an open source sandwich. They run on Linux and other open source systems. We have some significant components of our solution that are open source such as JFreeChart and Tomcat.
Q. Do you face much competition from open source?
A. I don’t think we do. It’s a political movement as well as a technical effort. People who buy our products don’t typically want to buy open source because they want to acquire a total solution – which includes a high level of technical support as well as an integrated end-to-end presentation layer. Do you want a mission critical customer facing reporting portal that’s not as well supported? Arguably a commercial product can bring about better support these days, maybe that won’t be the case in the future. But at this point our general philosophy is that we like the open source movement, we are not challenging it, or challenged by it, and we welcome it into the Business Intelligence community because it’s a hotbed of open research that we benefit from and like to contribute to.
Q. Where do you see most of the use of open source BI?
A. We generally see open source BI within other software applications, rather than within the enterprise. I think this is because the open source products and their high requirement for developer customisation are more suited to a development environment. Having said that though, we are also seeing a trend whereby Software vendors are looking to embed greater levels of BI functionality into their apps. They are looking for functionality such as self service reporting, which is not exactly the open source forte. If offered then the issue with open source BI tools is that they are a loosely coupled set of applications which have been developed and continue to be developed in isolation. Yellowfin is a single integrated solution which is making it easy for vendors to integrate and deploy analytical applications to their customers.
Q. What do you think of the open source trend in BI – where is it heading?
A. This is an interesting one. If I am going to be a bit controversial on this, I would have to say that there is actually no true ‘open source’ BI platform. The model in use by the likes of BIRT and Pentaho is a hybrid and more of a marketing position than a true commitment to open source.
To test this position I would say let’s take a step back and look at the goals of open source and then see if these principles are being applied to the Business intelligence open source vendors. Does the hybrid model of commercial open source actually deliver on the principles of transparency, openness and availability of source code. Taking a big deep breath one would have to say not.
I think that open source as far as it has been applied to the BI market is really about a small sub segment of product– Reporting not analytics. Any valued added component such as dashboards, scheduling and security are shipped under a commercial model. A Recent comment to me by a software vendor underpins this, “BIRT is what it is… but if you want end user ad hoc reporting you may as well evaluate all commercial options.” In my view the open source play is about baiting the customer and using core products as part of an up sell strategy. What we are seeing in the market is a continued march towards this paradigm – a greater focus on the commercial side of the business rather than the open source one.
Q. Is the recent purchase by Pentaho of Lucidera’s front end a case in point?
A. That is exactly what it is. Pentaho have more than bent the open source model with this purchase, and in all likelihood have lost their way. They have bought a great interface but you can just imagine the management team sitting around and saying – hey this is to good to be open source – lets keep it closed. Compare this behaviour with the likes of Redhat who have open sourced their recent acquisition of Metamatrix. The Lucidera acquisition is destined to remain closed source and a pure commercial play. Simply their actions indicate a very low level of commitment to the open source philosophy. So now as a customer of Pentaho you have this interesting scenario where you have to manage the different contractual obligations you have with them based on the product set you wish to use, this adds an enormous amount of complexity to the deal.
Q. How do you reconcile this view with Yellowfin’s use of open source?
A. As I mention earlier, there is a role for open source products and some components do make sense for us. However, what we do is manage the support and complexity for our end customer. We provide a wrapper for these products and deliver them as an integrated product. In some cases such as JFree Chart they are core to the product. In others, such as BIRT or Jasper renderers these are provided as a mechanism to provide the client with the choice of authoring tool that suits their particular needs. Again we recognise that customers who use these open source tools are not getting a ‘total solution’ and Yellowfin basically offers to fill the gaps. Not unlike the open source guys. We are just transparent about our business model.
Q. Well if that is the case how would you say that Yellowfin differs from open source providers?
A. On a business level, I would say that we have a lot in common with open source philosophy. We are incredibly focussed on developing a community around Yellowfin and increasing, the level of our community’s engagement with product development. Where we fundamentally differ though is on our approach to product development. Generally the rule of thumb of BI deployments is that about 80% of the cost is implementation related. Yellowfin has a huge focus on usability and we continue to develop and refine the interface accordingly. Our goal is to lower the level of implementation effort required and it is this philosophy that is at odds with the open source service revenue model. The major benefit of Yellowfin over Open Source is the cost of implementation and time to market. So whilst at a high level yes you can have the similar functionality with open source and their associated commercial products it is incumbent upon the consumers to build a BI development competency within their company to hook all the pieces together, and that is not the way we do business.