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The Wailing Wall of Open Source BI

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation

Henry David Thoreau once wrote: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation". Much the same can be said of the multitude of users struggling with open source reporting and analysis tools like Mondrian or Jaspersoft. The difference, of course, if that those folks happen to be pretty vocal. And nowhere more so than on those vendors' own "support" forums.

I double-quote the term purposely. Because what you witness on these forums falls far (very far) short of what I consider to be minimally acceptable customer support levels. Now, it's a fact that many people find solace in these communities - after all, given the massive amounts of questions posed there, some are bound to get answered quickly and (hopefully) correctly. And it's a fact that many people achieve success (or some level of it) with open source BI solutions. At what cost, we can only surmise, but clearly, resilient, persistent and courageous people are getting some work done on these platforms.

But more often than not, the levels of post abandonment (ignored questions) and the arrogant responses are high enough to be shocking. I am stunned at the number of times where posting users are treated like it's their fault. The implication is that they are stupid or negligent. As a matter of fact, if you spend the time analyzing the language semantics, what you see are fearful, timid, often desperate users mustering the courage to post questions in the hope that somehow, someday, they will be answered by the Grand Wizards of [fill in the OSS BI vendor name]. This is not unlike the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where masses of people stick written prayers between the stones.

I find that these forum "masters" are too often condescending and consequently, they generate a "master-pupil" environment I find somewhat repulsive. It reminds me a lot of the old school systems in Europe, where Professors would stand on an elevated stage above the class to seal their social superiority. There's nothing wrong with respect but in my opinion, it has to be earned. When you berate, ignore or insult those who seek to learn from you, you are far from deserving respect, Grasshopper.

I do realize that these vendors provide some level of "enterprise" support for those wishing to license the software but given what you see in the public forums, it's hard to imagine it can be any better on the paid side because, quite honestly, Open Source companies simply don't "get" service. They are too often blinded by the magnificence of their code or product and forget that without users and healthy bi-directional communities, there wouln't be a company, Open Source or not.

My experience navigating through several Open Source forums was similar. At the time I figured, it's just me. I'm an impatient SOB and it's my problem. But when you start analyzing these forums (and I spent hours doing so), you quickly realize the disease is wide-spread.  All of a sudden, it's not just you anymore - almost everyone has the darn infection! I often wonder why people put up with this nonsense. Deep inside, I know the answer of course: because they don't have a choice. Either they can't find an easier product to use, or they are compelled to use it for organizational reasons (as in, my boss told me to check this out <sigh>). I do believe the advent of SaaS BI analytical tools spell the end of an era for the multitudes who must suffer through Open Source to get even the simplest of reports and dashboard out in less than three months!

But don't take my word for it. After all, I work on the SaaS side of BI and am likely biased. Even worse, I actually blogged a while ago about the merits of using Mondrian for OLAP. Indeed, after many months of putzing with it, I was able to accomplish something useful but I have twenty years of experience in IT. Read that again: two decades of messing around with difficult stuff and figuring out how to make it work. So sure, for someone like me (and if forced into it) you bet open source can work. But what about the poor guys who don't have that kind of experience? What about the people tasked with just getting reports or analytics done? I feel bad for those folks who invest time and considerable effort in open source solutions only to be left at the altar of success. And if you don't believe me when I say they're out there en masse, then feast your eyes on the following selected quotes and links from Pentaho and Jaspersoft OSS BI forums (they are reproduced verbatim, grammar, spelling and emotional content intact).

"It seems I first have to dive in pentaho source code to figure how the printing function in pentaho is working"

"I am new user to Pentaho. I downloaded mondrian- Now please advise me the steps I need to follow to configure modrian in my system."

"Although I'm no expert, I think Spreadsheet services has been discontinued, well I've never seen a Pentaho Employee mention otherwise"

"I've been trying to use IIF all morning but I'm getting nowhere."

"I have two questions, which I barely dare to ask, but I am sitting here and can't get over my problem:"

"I tryed all combinations. The only combination that works is fact table,dimension tables and aggregates tables in the same Mysql schema, and a datasource that point to that schema."

"Hi everybody. Though I've run the demo applications and read almost every thread about this, still I can't get an exact understanding of the relation existing between Pentaho Server and Mondrian."

"I think that the preconfigured examples of JSPs, catalogs etc. are confusing at best - bad practice at worst."

"I am fairly new to Mondrian, and I am stuck at ths point"

"This might be very trivial for some of you but I'm really having a hard time figuring this out. So any help is greatly appreciated. Thanks so much."

"I've goggle this one down to my knuckles. I suspect my chopsticks are tangled on the Mondrian/Pentaho side? I would appreciate any thoughts the community might have."

"Nobody can help? If so, does anyone know where else I can go to find the answer ... I've pretty much exhausted Google's list of MDX links, and am getting a little desperate now. Don't want to tell my client "it can't be done" without good cause..."

"Desperate for assistance. Last big issue to overcome and deliver my pentaho bi solution."

"Need some Help again.. I told my Boss that I will get the prototype ready by tommorow. Any help would be appreciated"

"I'm quite desperate.... ... please... help...."

"Helloo...???? Anyone there?? My question may be silly, still any of your ideas would be much helpfull..Am really desperate to find the logic.. Am not good in java and am in verge of my project and solving this issue resolves half of my task...Please respond..!!!"

"We are pretty desperate by now. We tried to manually re-insert the UNC server part into the file name, but this is getting dirtier and dirtier as we build new jobs."

"Sorry bothering you again, but I'm in a desperate situationn. We are trying to run the new Pentaho GA, but we have a lot of problems when we try to run this with Oracle."

"I'm really fed up now trying to make charts working over couple of days. I have created a database connection and given the field names correctly. Can someone please help me? I'm really desperate to get this working.."

"I know this has been logged by both myself and others before, however I am desperate for an answer here."

"I  checkd out all the sample dashboards of cdf.. but am clueless to create a dashboard of my own.. is there a dashboard builder for cdf??"

"I dont consider myself a fool when it comes to working with technology, and I have found myself frustrated and confused beyond belief at what should be a seemingly simple task..."

"And...regarding the timestamp....how in the heck to I tell that to not show up if I have no idea where it's coming from? Sorry if I seem frustrated, but I am."

"I've just recently begun working with Pentaho, so forgive me if this is a known issue or feature...I did a search on these forums and couldn't find an answer...a frustrated contractor in DC."

"I got frustrated that i cannot get a decent quality, well formatted pdf output."

"However, I do have to say I really had to grind through the first 10 days or so in order to get this thing down to a point of not hitting hurdles every step of the way. In fact, I've got a colleague who is really pretty frustrated and trying to jump ship"

"A few weeks ago I was very frustrated that I was completely lost withing thePentaho suite. I cannot afford training (I'm broke, plus I live too far away from the traing venues) so my only means at this stage is all of the above"

"I'm not trying to start a ruckus or anything I just wanted to state when I am coming from and what I would like to see from Pentaho. Judging from the many unanswered post on this subject I think there are many more like me out there."

"Sorry about the begginer question. But i'm getting frustrated"

"I am getting increasingly more frustrated it is quite hard to get started. The documentation seems only to touch the very basics. "

"I am a bit frustrated right now as I haven't been able to solve any of my problems."

"...first, *I* don't think i'm an idiot. what frustrated me was the lack of TASK-ORIENTED information i found. i had a fairly simple, fairly small TASK i needed to GET DONE... i dont care about kettle or apis or what great problems Kettle could solve... I had a TASK and an IRATE BOSS."

"I'm pretty frustrated at this point: I mean seriously how much more simple could a transformation be!?!?!?!?!?!"

"If I am posting about that, it is because I ve been frustrated much!"

"I was very excited to find Pentaho and eagerly wanted to create my first Dashboard. Now I'm just completely frustrated. And as I search these posts, I see thousands of people are looking for the same basic answer with little to no response from Pentaho: How do you create/deploy a non-sample dashboard; i.e. how do you actually use this thing?"

"Maybe a non-IT guy doesn't want to deal with SQL queries at all...

Now let's look at a couple of "answers" to many of these posts (unfortunately, questions outnumber answers significantly):

"You use the search button. Version 2/3/3.5 brings in lots of changes to the way Pentaho does things, please mention which version of the BI server you are running.
Join the Unofficial Pentaho IRC channel on freenode. Server: chat.freenode.net Channel: ##pentaho - Please try and make an effort and search the wiki and forums before posting!"

"If all that is true then it is clearly a bug in mondrian and you should report it in jira."
Here, the moderator seems to question whatever the premise of the question was (as if people bothered posting lies...)

"The procedure is exactly as I have told you. You must have done something wrong somewhere. Just check through carefully;"
Typical "you must have screwed up something" response. How encouraging and a little condescending if you ask me.

"If not, please post the error. We're not clairvoyant."

"There might be a simpler way... search the doc."

In this post, a user actually bothers pasting a novel sized exception asking for help. Specifically, he asks: "Any help or even pointers to documentation more than Spring/Acegi provides would be greatly appreciated".

What does the Jasper guy reply with?

"JAAS authentication can certainly be done. Have a look at the Acegi documentation...The forum is also a great resource. - Is he kidding? Did he even read the post?

Here's another classic: a user is complaining about the advanced search in the Jasper forums. The moderator's suggestion is terse: "it is what it is". Then he suggests using Google! Are these people serious?

How about this comment: "I am desperate to use JasperReports , however I am having hard time understainding it".  Or this one: "Still can't compile - getting desparate...I am getting nowhere trying to get my reports to compile."

What can we conclude from this mass of desperation, frustration and confusion? Why would these vendor create and maintain such an environment to begin with? Because quite honestly, if I were looking for a BI platform for a critical project or client, and came upon these forums in the process, I'd run so fast the other way it's not even funny.

As I mentioned above, if you have some serious software development and IT background, the luxury of time, (the right hardware and software) and a propensity for hacking complex nebulous systems, or the courage to read a 600 page book on working with Pentaho, for example, these open source solutions might just do the trick. If your organization or client is insisting on going the Open Source route, and you have no say in the tooling selection, then clearly you have to deal with the pain, hope for the best, and pray for a check (or a job) at the end of the ordeal.

But if you're just a normal analyst or consultant tasked with a BI implementation on a tight deadline with an impatient boss breathing down your neck, there is an alternative. And if you're just a guy (or gal) who needs to get the job done now (as in, this week) without the drama and headaches of open source theatrics, you'll likely be looking at a SaaS BI solution.  Now, SaaS BI may not turn out to be your bag, but you owe it to yourself to at least give it a whirl and here's why (putting my pitching hat on):

It takes very little time, effort and money to try it out. In many cases, it's free. There's nothing to install or configure. It takes hours or days, not weeks or months, to build and showcase prototypes. Most of the time (as in 80%) the functionality is sufficient to do the job. And features/functionality increases dramatically with each release. Oh, and there's updated documentation. But here's the kicker: you'll actually get just-in-time support from people who actually care about your success.  As a matter of fact, they're invested in it. They will welcome your questions and use them to improve the offering. They won't ignore you and they won't treat you like an inferior species.

I know this is sounding a lot like "Miracle on 34th Street". Must be the season. Truth be told, SaaS BI is not for everyone, and your mileage may vary. But it's worth an honest shot. Because the alternative is an endless Wailing Wall of pain, misery and isolation that no one in BI should have to put up with anymore.

More Stories By Jerome Pineau

Twenty years of extensive hands-on software development, application engineering, customer interaction, management and consulting experience spanning a diverse array of industries and business models.

Now a "full-service" sales engineer, solutions architect, evangelist, technical ambassador (or whatever you want to call it) in the business intelligence space, specializing in high-performance analytical database management systems (ADBMS).

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