Is Free Business Intelligence Software Right for Your Business?


Once used only by large corporations to process big data, today’s business intelligence (BI) solutions are increasingly employed by small and medium-sized companies looking to gain greater insight into operations. These tools turn massive quantities of data into easily understandable visualizations, charts and dashboards that can be presented and shared to help leaders make more informed business decisions.

There are many robust paid BI tools on the market for companies to choose from—but the costs can add up, especially if you’re a smaller organization. Several vendors, however, offer free solutions. This article will provide an overview of the free options available, who these solutions are best suited for and how their functionality stacks up to paid solutions.

What Features Do You Need?

Defining exactly what features you’ll require from a BI solution is the first step to deciding if free software can adequately meet your organization’s needs. According to a 2013 report from Dresner Advisory Services, the features, functions and modules most important to businesses investigating BI software are:

  • Integration with operational processes;
  • Data warehousing;
  • Advanced visualization;
  • End-user self service; and
  • Dashboards.

Self-service reports, or the ability to access the reports you need without constantly turning to your IT department for help, are particularly important for smaller organizations who don’t have the resources at their disposal that larger firms do. Ideally, the solution you choose should allow you to create custom reports and perform analytical queries with just a few clicks.

Another commonly sought feature of BI software is the ability to present these self-service reports graphically. Called visual data discovery, this feature allows users to create interactive data visualizations that can be extremely helpful in presenting key findings to CEOs, board members and/or other executives who don’t work with data every day.

What Free BI Solutions Are Available?

MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop
A popular free BI option for visual data discovery, MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop lets you connect to personal spreadsheets, databases, cloud applications and massive external data sources. You can build interactive, shareable dashboards, and installation is simple and quick, taking just a couple of minutes.

What features does it offer? On the left side of the Microstrategy Analytics Desktop interface (shown below), users can choose from objects available for data exploration, such as price range, customer or city.

You can also create new metrics or add data from new sources. Joining data from multiple sources prompts MicroStrategy to suggest the best visualization to represent this data.
MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop

MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop allows you to filter data based on any attribute or metricDesktop users can seamlessly migrate to MicroStrategy’s Express (free for one year) or Enterprise solutions.

“We let you design a dashboard that is completely branded for your business, with multimedia presentation capabilities, to guide users through the decision-making process—it’s all very purpose-built,” says Kevin Spurway, senior vice president of marketing for MicroStrategy.

Who is it for? Spurway says businesses of all sizes, across all industries start with the free version, which lets them pull from any kind of database they have and output reports as spreadsheets, images and PDFs. The free model also offers support in the form of an online knowledgebase and forums.

What are the limitations? While users can share information in MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop by sending files to others users who have the software installed, the software itself isn’t a collaborative web-based tool. “That’s really the big gap between our free desktop product and our paid Enterprise and Express products,” Spurway says.

This, he says, is why MicroStrategy is able to offer Desktop for free: businesses are attracted by the self-service reporting tools the Desktop version offers, but as their BI needs evolve, their demand for deeper analytics grows.

When this happens, they seek out MicroStrategy’s more robust platforms, which feature cloud-based collaboration capabilities, unlimited users, secure user authentication, premium support and dedicated support representatives.

“Visual data discovery is an important part of the market, but we believe it’s an entry point,” Spurway explains. “There’s also a need for more sophisticated applications that can be delivered, for example, to 30,000 retail locations, and that’s where we’ve had our bread and butter business for 20 years.”

Tableau Public
Another major player in the free BI software arena is Tableau Public. Like MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop, Tableau Public is a free desktop download that lets you create and share interactive charts and graphs, maps, live dashboards and applications, then publish them online.

What features does it offer? Tableau Public features visual data discovery, where data in a source Excel, Access or text file can be used to create visualizations such as histograms, line charts and pie charts. Data can be viewed by percentile, and the platform’s “Forecast Options” feature can predict future trends based upon the current data you’ve loaded into the system.

Additionally, Tableau Public’s customizable formatting gives you control over the way titles and other dashboard features appear. “Presentation mode,” for example, allows you to toggle between tabs at the bottom to view different dashboards.

Tableau Public allows you to build views by dragging dashboard elements to the canvas

Who is it for? Tableau spokesperson Doreen Jarman says Tableau Public was initially created for journalists and bloggers who were seeking a way to make publicly available data easier to understand.

“We believe in democratizing data and in the ability to share data,” she explains. The platform is also meant for organizations, “but only if they are happy with sharing their data.”

What are the limitations? One drawback of the platform is that you also can’t save or export works locally; all your work is saved to the Tableau Public gallery. “The idea is that the data you share will become public, so other people can then interact with your data,” Jarman says. Data is also limited to one gigabyte of storage space, and the platform doesn’t currently support OS X (though it is on the way).

For companies seeking greater functionality, Jarman says the company does offer a two-week free trial of its Tableau Desktop editions. “With these editions, you can play around with workbooks without making your information available,” she says. According to Jarman, the paid versions also offer more in terms of true business analytics capability, rather than simply making data easily understandable and visually appealing.

JasperReports Server
Other offerings on the free BI software spectrum include community-developed, open-source BI solutions. One such example is JasperReports Server, which is a standalone, embeddable server offering analytics and reporting capabilities. It can deployed on-premises or in the Cloud.

What features does it offer? With JasperReports, you can manage views via a reporting tool that can feed data from relational and non-relational data sources into the system on a real-time or scheduled basis, in a variety of file formats.

You can modify the code to suit your needs, or download Jaspersoft OLAP (online analytical processing), another freebie, for additional visualization and reporting features, including the ability to pivot, filter and drill deeper into data. Reports can be output in a variety of formats, including HTML, PDF, CSV and XLS.

If you want to distribute JasperReports Server or OLAP or need to keep your source code private, you’ll need a commercial subscription, which includes support, training and extended features.

Who is it for? Mike Boyarski, director of product marketing, says that JasperReports Server is great for managed reporting requirements, whether you want to distribute reports for a workgroup of 40-50 people or an entire company of thousands.

“You can get a lot of done with our powerful dashboard report designer,” he says. “On the import side, there are really no limits. We have pre-built connectors for relational databases and non-relational database sources, such as Excel files.”

JasperReports Server features self-service reports and exports to formats such as PDF, XLS and CSVAs more users engage with the product, Jaspersoft offers additional interactive tools in their commercial edition product that give end users the flexibility to do their own self-service report building or data analysis.

What are the limitations? Despite its capabilities, an open-source solution like JasperReports isn’t an out-of-box answer for users who aren’t familiar with data modeling. According to Spurway, open-source BI solutions “don’t have the visual data discovery options many businesses need.”

“You have to model the data in the OLAP way, which requires preparing the data,” Boyarski says. “But then you can slice, dice, chart, do calculations, etc.” JasperReports’ commercial offerings, he says, provide a much more intuitive user interface that offer more advanced features, with a set-up that is more “digestible” for users who aren’t especially IT-savvy.

JasperReports is tailored to work with all operating systems and mobile platforms, and there’s a wealth of readily available support online for free. “Even if you have no intention to buy our product, you can still get most of our training materials online for free,” Boyarski says.

Other Free BI Options

While the three solutions listed above are perhaps the most well-known free BI tools available, they’re certainly not the only ones. Here’s a quick snapshot of the other offerings on the market:

BI ToolDescription
BIRTThe BIRT Project (which stands for Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools) is an open-source software system that integrates with Java applications. BIRT has a report designer and a built-in engine that lets you add charts to your applications.
SpagoBISpagoBI bills itself as having "the only 100 percent open-source business intelligence suite." Its core BI software comes with other professional applications that offer standalone analytical and operational tools. It goes beyond the typical free BI offerings to encompass data mining and office automation (which lets business users create, store, change and share information needed for all business functions).
Pentaho Community EditionPentaho Community Edition is another suite of open-source BI apps for data integration, reporting, analysis, dashboards and data mining. Pentaho supports multiple data sources and can generate reports online or in PDF or Microsoft Office formats. The visual data discovery tool can be used to create PDF, Excel, HTML, rich-text-file, XML and CSV formats.
QlikView Personal EditionQlikView Personal Edition is a fully functional desktop version of QlikView's paid product, except it is restricted to a single computer. It features self-service BI reporting, and importable data sources include Excel, CSV, and ODBC-compliant data sources such as SQL and Access. From the user interface (UI), users can export data to Excel and create PDF reports.
Palo SuitePalo Suite combines its core open-source applications—OLAP Server, Palo Web, Palo ETL Server and Palo for Excel—into a single BI platform. Palo OLAP Server is a multi-use data server that allows multiple users to access, change and collaborate BI reports. Palo Web has an online interface for administering and creating reports. Excel-based applications can be migrated and entered via Palo for Excel, and Palo ETL Server is a Web-based data acquisition tool that extracts, transforms and loads data from external sources, such as transactional systems and data warehouses.
TIBCO Spotfire (trial)TIBCO offers free 30-day trials of Spotfire Mobile Metrics and Spotfire Analytics, but no longer offers its free Silver Spotfire Personal version.

As you can see, there are many different free business intelligence software options available, each of which takes a slightly different approach to integration with data sources, data visualization, self-service reporting, and so forth.

Depending on the scale of your operations, the amount of data you’re looking to process and the complexity of the analysis and reporting you wish to conduct, a free BI solution may be robust enough to meet your needs. But, as with implementing any new solution, you should carefully evaluate the options available before making a decision.

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Marshall Jones

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Marshall Jones is a contributor to Software Advice.

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