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Business intelligence—Changing to a new solution

Many well established business intelligence (BI) solutions are available and new ones are emerging. For a variety of reasons, the best match for a customer at one time may not be the same at a later time. Cost considerations and performance are two of the primary reasons why an organization that is using BI may make a change.

Open source products are garnering more attention in a variety of technologies in the knowledge management arena, including business intelligence. They compete well on cost and flexibility, but support is not generally as robust as with commercial products. In some cases, open source software companies provide a free “community” version and an enterprise version that offers more functionality as well as professional services for maintenance and support.

A shift to open source

ZipRealty is a full-service residential real estate company that uses an Internet-centric business model to provide its services. Customers register online with the company, and can then search for properties that match their criteria as well as obtain a wide range of information about the housing market. An agent based in the area contacts customers to find out more about their needs. The agent performs the services typical of residential realtors, including taking listings, showing properties and assisting with sales. ZipRealty has about 3,000 real estate agents and operates in 35 major markets in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Clients can view more than 1 million listed properties in those areas.

Because of the large number of transactions that ZipRealty carries out and information it collects and distributes, the company needed a data warehouse for information management and reporting. Initially, ZipRealty used an application developed in house for extraction, transformation and load (ETL), and one of the leading proprietary BI solutions for reporting. However, costs and maintenance were an issue. “When we wanted to expand the use of our BI tool from headquarters out to the field offices, the licensing fees became substantial,” says Salvatore Scalisi, director of BI at ZipRealty. In addition, the ETL application ZipRealty had developed required Java programming resources that were not readily available.

To move to a more cost-effective method of meeting ZipRealty’s reporting and analytical requirements, Scalisi shifted to the enterprise version of an open source solution from Pentaho. The first component the company used was Pentaho Data Integration, an enterprise version ETL tool based on the open source community “Kettle” project. “Although a major reason for the change was to reduce costs,” Scalisi says, “we found that the load process was reduced from 12 hours to four with Pentaho’s product.”

ZipRealty also now is transitioning to Pentaho Reporting for its predefined reports of sales trends, housing market trends and other reports that are used by sales and marketing staff to measure operational performance. “This product is also more cost-effective for us, although sometimes documentation is hard to come by,” Scalisi says. However, he is pleased with the ease of use, the responsiveness of Pentaho in fixing software issues that arise and the substantial savings over previous products.

“The nature of BI has changed,” maintains Joe Nicholson, VP of product marketing at Pentaho. “Organizations don’t have two years to build a data warehouse, reports and dashboards. During that time, the business is likely to have changed and the application may no longer address their needs. And they can’t afford the expense either. For today’s purposes, BI needs to be less expensive and more agile.”

Nicholson also touts the drag-and-drop development tools that allow business users to work with their IT partners to easily visualize the application, while the IT staff handles the development and underlying infrastructure. “The short time between business users saying what they need and seeing it on a dashboard is key,” Nicholson says.

Annual subscription

Pentaho has gradually incorporated a number of different open source tools to produce a complete BI suite that ranges from ETL to reporting, analysis and data mining. “The components are already integrated,” continues Nicholson, “so that as customers want to add functionality, they can do it more easily than if they had to create a suite based on a proprietary solution for reporting and add other components through partnerships.”

The pricing model for Pentaho is an annual subscription fee rather than a perpetual licensing fee. The software does not have to be purchased upfront, reducing initial capital outlays.

A newly introduced on-demand version provides greater flexibility, with monthly rates that are adjusted as needs increase or decrease.

One trend that Nicholson sees is for BI to be incorporated more into applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) and to appear less as a standalone application. “Everyone needs BI, but it is often more meaningful within the window of another application, so users can see the information in context.” A significant portion of Pentaho’s business is through independent software vendors (ISVs) embedding the software in applications they develop.

More BI horsepower

Another reason that customers may move to a different BI solution is performance. With burgeoning volumes of information, companies find that a software product that worked well a decade ago may not be the right solution today. This was the case for HealthTrans, a large and rapidly growing pharmacy benefits administrator. Every component of the system that was in place, from the ETL to the front end, was performing below the level needed for HealthTrans to meet its own and customers’ expectations.

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