Pentaho Touts All-in-One Value of Open-Source Suite

If open-source BI is a suite proposition, Pentaho is a sort of meta-suite

Open-source business intelligence (BI) has come a long way. Just half a decade ago, it consisted largely of fledgling reporting tools and an assortment of still-incubating OLAP and ETL projects.

These days, open-source BI is full of suites, with offerings from JasperSoft -- the commercialized, productized version of the former JasperReports -- and rising star Pentaho, among others. Indeed, if open-source BI is a suite proposition, Pentaho, for its part, is a meta-suite, comprising once-separate open-source OLAP (Mondrian) and ETL (Kettle) projects.

It's different from rival commercial or even open-source software (OSS) competitors, officials say. With a major new release of the Pentaho platform last year, the general availability of Pentaho Data Integration 3.1, and -- a feather in the company's cap -- a citation in Gartner's Magic Quadrant for BI suites, Pentaho is starting 2009 on a roll.

Gartner singled out Pentaho for the quality of its customer service, which the market watcher says compares favorably to -- and can, in many cases, be said to outstrip -- the customer service marks of closed-source competitors.

This isn't an accident, Pentaho officials maintain. Lance Walter, an industry veteran of both Business Objects and Siebel Systems who heads up Pentaho's BI marketing efforts, says it's a reflection of customer dissatisfaction with the BI megavendors.

"We certainly hear some frustration [and] a lot of concern around some of the megavendors based on the consolidation that happened over the last few years in the BI market," Walter comments, citing Gartner's BI Magic Quadrant report. "The industry is really starting to wake up to this. Pentaho scores really high on customer service and well ahead of all of the megavendors. That's based on a survey; that's not based on an extrapolation."

If Pentaho beats out the megavendors on customer support, it does even better on pricing, Walter maintains. "We absolutely hear frustration with pricing. What customers like about us [is that] … they can actually get their hands on our software without having to go through a sales cycle. They just grab it, prove that it works, and then push to go ahead with deployment," he says. "Our price list only has five or six items on it -- compare that with [closed-source vendors]. We don't charge per user. We don't charge per admin. We're just a really clean and simple model that lets organizations scale business intelligence to thousands of users."

In a troubled economic climate, there's been a lot of talk about a potential upsurge in interest in OSS offerings. That's caused established vendors to push back in different ways, citing a perceived lack of support with OSS -- a canard that Gartner's BI Magic Quadrant survey contradicts -- along with customer concerns about the viability of OSS vendors in the current climate.

Walter acknowledges the latter concern. Vendor maturity and viability are an issue, he says, but with four years of operation under its belt, Pentaho now fields a mature BI product, complete with what he describes as "scalable" OLAP and DI components. Combine that with vaunted customer support, Walter says, and you have a good presecription for longevity -- even in the worst of times.

"[A]t a very high level, I would agree with those concerns [about maturity and viability], especially as you work with larger and larger organizations, they see IT investments as multiyear, tactical investments. When they're spending money, the large organizations look a little bit further out. I think that Pentaho -- with more than three years [of experience] and what we've invested on our marketing side -- is proving that we're built to last. We're taking large customers that we have across every industry vertical and telling their stories so that we can get their proof points out there."

One of Pentaho's key growth drivers has been displacement -- chiefly of ad-hoc or from-the-hip practices inside small to mid-size shops or in enterprise departments or business units. In most cases, Walter indicates, Pentaho is replacing largely manual, Excel-based practices.

"In a lot of cases, it's people who are ill-served by existing solutions. More than that, it's just surprising how many large and mature organizations, even ones that have one or more pockets of significant success with data warehousing or business intelligence, are still areas that have not really taken advantage of that," he comments.

In spite of speculation about saturation -- about most potential enterprise BI customers having already deployed BI -- Walter talks up a still-untapped base of "greenfield" opportunities: pockets inside of enterprise IT organizations (whether inside individual business units or at the department-level) that either haven't yet deployed BI or aren't yet getting systematic value out of their data warehouse investments.

"We are talking about getting to people who have not had traditional mature business intelligence deployments. They certainly are areas where traditional business intelligence tools are being considered, but owing to different factors -- like cost -- they just aren't being used."

Thanks to its lower price point and ease of deployment -- Walter again cites the benefits of Pentaho's download-it-for-free, take-it-for-a-test-drive, and win-backing-by-demonstrating-potential-value approach -- Pentaho has had luck in cracking such greenfield environments. That's especially true in the data integration (DI) segment, he asserts, where best-of-breed tools (complete with specialty connectors) can pose enormous cost problems.

"We benefit on the ETL front from our community model. Every single release, [our community] comes up with new connectors -- [for example,] how to pull information out of an LDAP directory, or [how to get data out of] the Remedy request system, things like that," Walter comments. "There is significant pricing pain around data integration and significant interest in lower-cost alternatives."

In this latter respect, Pentaho has been invited to participate in a discussion on low-cost ETL at the upcoming TDWI World conference in Las Vegas.

The shift toward pervasive BI also plays to Pentaho's strengths, Walter concludes: especially in a time of economic shock, shops are going to be struggling to do more with less. A tool like Pentaho -- which boasts drag-and-drop usability on the front-end (along with support for Excel and other mainstays of the end-user analytic trade) and DI plumbing in the back-end -- gives them a nice way to have their cake and eat it too, he maintains.

"We're seeing a continuing trend toward more recognition of the importance of adopting BI. One of the things that we think goes hand in hand with this is the expectation of more value and more and more simplicity from BI. If people want to push things out to lots and lots of different users, at different levels of an organizations … Pentaho is very well suited to support that."