This article is an excerpt from an upcoming feature, the full version of which will appear this fall in Public CIO magazine and Web site.

For the last few years, business intelligence -- commonly referred to as BI -- has consistently ranked as a top priority for government CIOs. Through collecting and analyzing data, BI creates detailed reports that provide invaluable system analysis. The benefits of these analyses are prolific; they can help determine better management of an organization, improve performance and lower cost of service delivery, among other things.

However, commercial BI products are often too expensive, and contain more features than CIOs know what to do with. A recent alternative is open source BI, which utilizes open source software to provide a less expensive, viable product. Below is a list of some of the benefits of this new product, as well as some concerns being voiced by leaders in the public sector.

Advantage: Lower Cost

Unlike traditional BI vendors, open source BI vendors provide a free initial download of their product. Clients then pay subscription services for support and services like updates, patches, future releases and help with code customization. However, the subscription price is still less expensive than commercial BI solutions.

Advantage: Use Just What You Need

Many public-sector leaders complain that commercial BI products are far too large. "BI vendors have thrown in so many features and modules that they are completely over-serving core needs," says Mark Madsen, CEO of the research and consulting company Third Nature. Open source BI is less overwhelming, allowing organizations to tailor a solution specific to their needs.

Advantage: Flexibility

The free initial download of open source BI products allows organizations to test out a variety of BI software before paying for subscription services. This way, government leaders are not locked in with a specific vendor.

Disadvantage: Less Comprehensive

While open source BI is less expensive, commercial vendors offer comprehensive business intelligence offerings that are tailored to an organization's needs. Businesses are unlikely to get such service from open source software.

Disadvantage: Financial Stability Concerns

Because open source BI is relatively new, some leaders question vendors' financial stability. Vendors Pentaho and Jaspersoft are still receiving venture funding, which raises concerns about the longevity of future upgrades and next-generation releases. As vice president for government consulting at Gartner, Rishi Sood, stated, "Governments are interested in working with vendors they know are going to be there 15 years later."

Disadvantage: Lack of Domain Expertise

Open source BI is being used in both the public and private sectors, yet many government leaders would prefer vendors who are established in the public sector, with solutions that are unique to the public sector.

The Bottom Line

Open source BI is still considered a new alternative to traditional BI, and therefore concerns are inevitably raised. Sood, for example, does not recommend relying on open source BI vendors for large-scale organizations such as state departments or the CIA. However, low-cost, manageable size and flexibility make open source BI a valuable alternative that should continue to be studied and deployed.

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer