Interview: Bill Seyler of Pentaho on Business Intelligence

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 11, 2008

Are you familiar with Pentaho? The Florida-based company was founded by a team of Business Intelligence (BI) industry veterans from commercial BI companies including Cognos, Hyperion, IBM, Oracle, and more. Pentaho offers a suite of open source BI applications, and, akin to how Red Hat works, gets its revenues from support and management services for its enterprise customers. (It also offers a commercial Enterprise Edition.) We recently checked in with Bill Seyler, a Senior Software Engineer at Pentaho. Among other thoughts, he points out that open source is in need of better monetization models.

OStatic: Can you give the readers an idea of your specific role and involvement on Pentaho?

I am a Senior Software Engineer at Pentaho.  I was lucky enough to be employee number two, so I have a unique perspective on the evolution of Pentaho.  I'm a jack of all trades when it comes to the Pentaho BI Platform.  I've worked extensively on the Pentaho datasources, charting engine, RDBMS repository, runtime engine, scheduler, metadata editor, and many of the action sequence components.

OStatic: Are there other projects you're involved in?

I am the Project Manager (and contributer) to the Halogen project.  Halogen is an incubation project spun off by Pentaho to both validate the Olap4J library and to test the feasibility of using GWT as a front end to an OLAP slicer/dicer.  The proof of concept went together so well that it was decided we would try to use it to spawn a replacement for the JPivot that is currently being used in the Pentaho BI Platform and bundled with Mondrian.  I'm also a contributor to Olap4J.

OStatic: A lot has been said about the reason people contribute to open source.  What are your reasons for getting involved?  What motivates you to participate, and then freely give your work away?

Being an employee of a commercial open source company makes giving away software my day job.  However, I'm hooked on the movement.  Writing code and then seeing others use it in totally unforeseen ways is one of the greatest feelings I've had as a developer.  I've worked in the proprietary BI world before Pentaho and the only feedback we got from users were bug reports and the only code we wrote was PM directed.  Being able to discuss the direction of a project with users and other contributors gives a level of input I never had in the proprietary world.

OStatic: Pentaho is a commercial entity with investors, professional management and  a team of dedicated contributors.  Given this, how important is it to remain open source and what are some of the challenges you've faced as a result of this?

Pentaho is primarily an open source company, and 95 percent of our code is in open source.  Having said that, we do have a commercial project call the Pentaho Enterprise Edition.  Our commitment to the open source movement is that there is no feature in the Enterprise Edition that doesn't exist in the open source (and it's even documented).

  The Enterprise Edition builds on the open source platform and includes ease-of-use and tool enhancements that allows easier administration of the Pentaho Enterprise Edition.  We don't believe in a "bait and switch," where you put out a teaser project to get the user to pay big bucks for the "real" code.  We're just as happy selling you services as we are selling you the Pentaho Enterprise Edition.

     That being said, we put some very high quality and universally useable code into the open source domain.  Much of our code is being used directly or indirectly by our competitors.  Richard Daly (our CEO) calls this the "price of commercial open source."

OStatic: What are some of your closest (open source, closed source) competitors?  What advantages/disadvantages does Pentaho have over these?

We're going after all the big traditional propriety BI vendors.  These by name would be Cognos, Oracle BI Service, Business Objects, etc.  We have very extensive domain experience in the same areas these companies play in (many of our employes used to work for one or more of these companies).  
     I view the proprietary model of creating, marking, selling, and supporting BI as a dinosaur.  They're going to be extinct at some point in the future and like the dinosaurs, they won't see it coming until it has already passed.

    How many BI projects have you heard of that came in over budget or didn't come in at all?  Big companies charge big license fees for their software and then charge big consulting fees to get the project set up and working in the way the customer wanted.  With Pentaho you don't pay the big licensing fee.  You can devote the allocated budget to making your solution work.

    In addition, you can use the platform at no cost, develop in-house solutions and pay for support and consulting only if and when you need it.  It makes evaluations, POCs, and feasibility studies much less costly and increases the likeliness that you can bring the project to fruition.

    In the open source domain we have only one big competitor on our radar, and that is Jaspersoft (see our interview).  Calling Jaspersoft a true BI Platform is stretching the definition.  I would call it a reporting platform.  In that sense it does a very good job and is a worthy competitor to Pentaho.  It does have its drawbacks: a true runtime engine,  ETL, metadata, ad-hoc reports, and external tool integration are all areas that are weak or non-existent in Jaspersoft.  Interestingly, it uses Pentaho Analysis Services (Mondrian) for its OLAP analytics.

    The area that Jaspersoft really shines is in its ease of use.  It's very easy to use and has a sexy user interface.  This is a challenge that we've taken to heart at Pentaho and are currently engaged in putting a more user friendly face on our products.  Lastly, Jaspersoft pulls you in with it's open source product to try and sell it proprietary version.  Right now it comes down to substance vs looks.  Soon looks won't be an issue.

OStatic: What types of people/companies adopt your product?  Are there any anecdotal comments you can make about any interesting or unusual users/uses of your product?

Adopters of Pentaho range from mom and pop businesses to Fortune 500 companies.  Since we offer a suite of interoperable products, many customers don't use the entire platform.  Some only have ETL requirements, others only reporting.  I think it's comforting knowing that the others services exist if they need them.  You can check out a list of reference customer successes online.

OStatic: What, in your opinion, are the biggest challenges facing the open source movement in the coming years?

Monetization is the number one problem with open source.  It's nice to write code that everyone uses but you still have to feed your family.  Walking that edge where open source can make money but still not constrict people from using it is the challenge to overcome.  Commercial open source companies have been refining this model for the last 5 years or so.  To that end, I'm not sure there is one good answer that will work for every project.

OStatic: Will you name for us your five favorite FOSS projects?

1. Pentaho BI  (You gotta go with the home team)

2. Mondrian

3. Kettle

4. JFreeChart

5. Halogen

OStatic: Thanks, Bill.