Open Source Decision Time for Pentaho BI

Posted by Seth Grimes
Monday, October 12, 2009
5:21 PM

Companies adapt their business models to changing business conditions and emerging opportunities. For BI software publisher Pentaho, the demise of as-a-service BI provider LucidEra created an opportunity that was too good to pass up. LucidEra’s Clearview interface, acquired and rebranded Pentaho Analyzer, fills a product-line gap by providing pivot analysis for non-technical business users. That this centerpiece Enterprise Edition component was not and is not open source invites a question. Is Pentaho, founded as a “commercial open source” BI vendor, still defined by open source? Pentaho itself seems unsure.

Pentaho’s brand of commercial open source involves devoting professional resources to shepherd community developed of core BI components: the Mondrian OLAP server, the JPivot JSP (Java Server Page) tag library, JFreeReports, Kettle ETL, etc. The company has built a number of open source elements such as a workflow engine and infrastructure services that bind these components into a suite, available as an open source Community Edition, and has supplemented these tools with additional, closed source components in a commercially licensed Enterprise Edition.

Analyst Merv Adrian characterizes Pentaho as “open core,” which seems like a very apt description. The Pentaho BI Suite’s basic components are open source, and non-open source elements are based on open standards. Neither reliance on an open core nor past exclusive use of open source components, however, is not sufficient for Pentaho to continue to call itself, at this juncture, a “commercial open source” company.

Pentaho, the company, seems itself of two minds about its status.

The main page of Pentaho’s Web site contains only two uses of the words “open source.” The first, “open source business intelligence,” is in the company logo. The other is in a bullet point, “Find out why commercial open source BI from Pentaho is changing the IT landscape.” This limited usage is justified. Pentaho does, after all, commercially develop and support open-source BI, which is indeed changing the IT landscape by lowering the cost of BI, even if the company is apparently increasingly making money from closed source technology to the point where its product pages are careful in how they use the term “open source.”

Further, Julian Hyde’s Pentaho Analyzer blog article — Julian founded the Mondrian project and works part-time for Pentaho — seems to acknowledge the evolution of Pentaho’s self conception: “Releasing ClearView as part of Enterprise Edition is perfectly in sync with Pentaho’s business model.” The Pentaho BI Suite used to be all-open source; today, software that “puts Pentaho at the top of the heap, in competition with best-of-breed” is not.

By contrast, I found Pentaho’s Clearview-acquisition announcement to be confused even though deception certainly wasn’t the company’s intent. The press release is titled “Open Source BI Leader Expands SaaS-Ready Product Portfolio, Adds Best-in-Class Business User Analytics.” It couples “open source BI” with the new tool, which is inappropriate in this instance. Similarly, the release’s first sentence describes the company as “the commercial open source alternative for business intelligence (BI),” which is not false but is again contextually inappropriate.

You have to understand code words: “enterprise edition” means a closed-source (and also supported) extension of core open-source tools. I do, but does Joann Reader of any of the many articles spun out of the press release? It’s not until the fifth PR paragraph — the second from last sentence of the PR — that we learn that Analyzer will be available for “existing and new subscription customers,” and the one example I have looked at shows that not every trade-press reporter notes details that appear that far down in the text.

Doesn’t this instance of the “commercial open source” formulation confuse rather than inform?

The body of the Pentaho press release uses “open source” four times. It even includes an analyst quotation from the estimable Claudia Imhoff, “Attractive, intuitive business user interfaces are as mandatory in open source BI as they are in other forms of BI.” Yet this quotation isn’t apt, is it, given that this particular “intuitive business user interface” isn’t open source BI?

The boilerplate About Pentaho Corporation PR footer, in a release about a “strategic,” closed source component, uses “open source” three more times.

I believe that this confusion doesn’t help the market understand Pentaho and also that it is not necessary. Last March, I wrote that “OS-BI capabilities, reliability, and support have matured. Commercial OS-BI vendors now compete with BI market leaders.” This statement is just as true for Pentaho as an “open core” vendor that offers customers both lower baseline costs due to reliance on free, open-source components and also high-value, strategic, enterprise software tools such as Analyzer.

EnterpriseDB made the jump early last year and now calls itself “the leading provider of enterprise-class products and services.” The company clearly believes that product and service quality matter more to customers than the open-source status of the PostgreSQL DBMS that the company builds on. EnterpriseDB was on the same confusing path that Pentaho is now on but has clarified its messaging and appears to be thriving.

Pentaho thrived as a commercial open source BI vendor and will do well as a core-open BI vendor, even more when the company unifies its messaging to reinforce, rather than the company’s product origins, today’s enterprise-ready capabilities.

I plan to post more on this topic in a subsequent blog article.

Modification, October 13, 8:14 AM: I modified “still an open source company” to “still defined by open source?,” which is closer to what I intended to ask. The word “defined” isn’t perfect here. The word I really want is a combination of (best) “defined,” “constrained,” “distinguished,” “described,” maybe like the French “cerner.”

2 thoughts on “Open Source Decision Time for Pentaho BI”

  1. Hello Guru, what entice you to post an article. This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject since last Thursday.

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