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Six limitations of free business intelligence software

(Image credit: Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens)

We have been using charts to help us understand information for decades but with so much data to process in today’s digital world, the way we view and consume it is changing. We expect everything to be bright, interactive and, above all, delivered to us in the format we want, wherever and whenever. As a result, more organisations are using Business Intelligence (BI) software to help them make sense of their data but many SMEs opt for free or open source solutions.

The decision to take this route will likely have been based on the cost, or lack of it, compared to other custom BI options. However, this can often prove to be a false economy as much of the open source software available fails to meet expectations. So if you’re thinking of choosing an open source solution in favour of a custom dashboard BI system, consider these six limitations first:

1. It’s not as user-friendly – which could affect adoption

User adoption is one of the biggest challenges facing BI. To be properly effective, it requires a level of commitment from the top of the organisation downwards. If intelligence results are hard to access and the reports difficult to interpret, users won’t make effective use of the system and its value to the business will be reduced. Many open source software applications depend on the whims of the developers and they are often not developed with the end user in mind. As user expectations regarding usability, more self-service and greater data discovery increase, layering an application with extra tool kits and libraries adds additional complexity and cost.

For people to use them, it’s important that dashboards are visually appealing. Free BI software is unlikely to allow you customise your dashboard in a way that makes sense to you. As a result, open source BI systems can sometimes be overwhelming and complicated for end users, meaning there is a high likelihood that the platform won’t get used. Look for custom dashboard software that is able to combine graphs and charts with powerful, intelligent business analytics so you can not only quickly and clearly how your organisation is doing in real-time, but take corrective actions earlier to prevent small issues becoming bigger problems.

2. It’s unlikely to meet - and continue to meet – your requirements

BI is about turning raw data into useful information to aid the decision-making process. The technology behind it therefore needs to be able to handle large volumes of structured and unstructured data, turning it into reports that are easily understood and deliver insights that can provide businesses with a competitive advantage and help their long-term stability. Useful BI needs to be a collaborative project between the IT department and the rest of the organisation to find out what capabilities are important, thus leaning towards a custom solution.  

3. You’ll sacrifice functionality

Today’s data users have high and continuously expanding demands. They expect to be able to access BI via a mobile device, customise the interface and information to their specific needs and swiftly target relevant data. By using custom software, BI is easily accessible via desktop, laptop, mobile or tablet so you can see how your organisation or department is performing whenever and wherever you choose. Free dashboard software on the other hand may not integrate with your databases or data sources, which is critical for any connected business. 

While many companies think that free software is a good way to test BI’s usefulness before making a big investment, you’re not comparing it like for like. Free options do not have as many features, such as real-time reporting, drag-and-drop user interfaces, scorecards, visualisations or collaboration tools, and there can be limits imposed on the types of reports you can run and how often you can refresh the data. Depending on the type of open source software selected, there could also be a limit to how many users can access it and how many can view a dashboard simultaneously, plus there could be a cost to add more users – all of which will affect deployment and maintenance costs. In addition, while custom dashboards enable users to get a more detailed view of data, some open source software limit the number of drill downs you can perform. 

4. It could leave you in a vulnerable position

Tools that were developed independently and not designed to integrate with other business applications can expose an organisation to security and compliance issues. Self-service functionality provides additional challenges as the management of roles and access rights across multiple tools can be complex. There is also the risk that developers and end users who are unfamiliar with how to meet regulatory requirements on handling data may raise non-compliance issues. Also, once you decide to use open source software, you’re on your own. You have to independently figure out how to install and use applications without sabotaging your data and hardware. Another problem is that open source software often lacks the infrastructure to support growing a user base.

5. You’re putting your business at a disadvantage

Many open source business intelligence tools aren’t regularly updated, however custom software companies not only develop their software, but also commit to staying on top of new trends and advances that can benefit their users. Find a provider that works with organisations across different sectors, as it means they have the necessary experience to help you discover the insights you need.

6. It could cost you far more than you think

Free software can be costly when you add up the downtime in user departments as they get to grips with it. There is also the potential cost of lost opportunities due to lack of functionality. A further problem is that most of the open source applications are incompatible with many operating systems. 

The bottom line? While an open source BI system may seem to meet your requirements for now, ask yourself at what cost. Chances are that, without custom business intelligence dashboard software, you are missing out on the advanced functionality that could boost your business operations, employee productivity and profitability. With that in mind, can you really afford not to choose a customised approach?

Robert Dagge, Managing Director, Dynistics
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens

Robert Dagge
Robert Dagge is Managing Director at Dynistics – an independently owned, award-winning UK company specialising in dashboard software for commercial and public sector organisations of all sizes.