March 6, 2007

University finds freedom, flexibility in open source business intelligence

Author: Tina Gasperson

The University of Nebraska was always a Microsoft shop. U of N Data and Internet Specialist Amy Stephen remembers when Windows NT was new, with 27 installation disks. "We went with that because we had every network protocol that had ever been created, and every desktop applications that had ever been invented, right here. MS was the only ones you could have that diversity with." But when all of Microsoft's "natural predators" began to die off, and Microsoft no longer made the university's needs a priority, Stephen found open source solutions a lot more attractive.

Like most universities, Nebraska operates under a diversified leadership model, which means there's a tendency toward a hodgepodge of technologies. Twelve years ago, Microsoft handed Stephen free copies of SQL Server and NT to help her create a useful data warehouse to integrate information from all the disparate operational systems. "Because we didn't have to make people change, it was very easy to achieve success," Stephen says.

Gradually, Stephen's relationship with Microsoft changed, as the company took over more and more of the commercial operating system and business application space. "Lotus 1-2-3 went away, and WordPerfect isn't what it was," she says. "Quattro Pro started falling off the edge of the world." But Stephen was able to overlook the winds of change because "everybody moved to Office products and it made support easier. We didn't think much of it."

A forced move to Active Directory Structure was the wakeup call for Stephen. "The high-end tools [in SQL Server], like reporting and analysis services, and data warehousing tools, they started embedding the Active Directory into the security model and you were forced to use that structure for your domains to access those tools," she says. "In a university setting, there are a lot of domains [accessing the data warehouse] that are not 'trusted' domains. Essentially, [Microsoft] cut themselves out of our technology base.

"Microsoft always has nicely suited people coming in to see your CEOs, to encourage them to go with the sitewide licenses to avoid audits," Stephen says. "We would sit with them and say, 'Hey, we need you to [help us] integrate with SQL Server.' The impression I got was that the Microsoft people were snickering as they drove off. We didn't get a serious response."

So Stephen decided to cut SQL Server loose, and began looking at a couple of open source business intelligence suites. "We looked at Pentaho and were kind of leaning toward that product for a long time, but we went with JasperSoft because we were able to talk with people -- that helped us a lot." She launched a partial-scale migration to Jasper in the University's institutional research and planning department -- the heaviest users of business intelligence tools at the school. The research department is responsible for researching and reporting facts and statistics about the university, maintaining informational databases, and discerning overall trends in higher education.

The biggest challenge in rolling out the research department's system has been working around the end users' daily schedules and getting them familiar with new methods, Stephen says. "They are the ones who understand the reporting, and they need to be trained on the different model. We used to take their report requests and configure the ASP Web pages, build a report with drill-downs, and put it out on the Web site for everyone. Now we're using Joomla! as a framework. The users sit down with [Jasper's] iReport, connect to the data warehouse, and design a report. An XML file is sent to JasperServer and published, and then the report is available within the Joomla! framework for end users. They're very happy to be in control."

Stephen is happy too. "I can finally put an interactive Web site out to our customer base. We've been able to overcome the issue of the Active Directory problem."

Other university IT directors who are considering using open source should understand how the business model works, Stephen says. "Understand if the product is well-used and well-supported. When I introduced this idea to management, there was the question, 'Well, if open source is free, how can they afford to do this?' [They needed] to see that there's some revenue there, a way for the company to sustain itself, they're not going to be gone tomorrow."

Beyond examining the company behind the product, Stephen says understanding community support is vital too. "If there's good leadership, you can see results coming out of the group. Look at the community to see how active it is. Is progress driven by the community, or is it being dictated to? Try the software. Download it, talk to other people using it, find user groups.

"Open source is pretty amazing. It's a very different way of thinking about software."

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