How to Choose the Right Open Source Dashboard Software

By Joe Weller | June 27, 2017

All companies and organizations need tools to analyze and organize their massive amounts of internal data. While data analysts can perform much of the work, and even given the heightened functionality of today’s spreadsheet apps, employees often need a quick, visual way to surface and interpret important data points. To quickly view data, many companies create dashboards: a data visualization tool that provides high-level insight into current performance. 

However, dashboard software can be expensive. Enter open source dashboard software, a free, customizable alternative. This article is your complete guide to open source dashboard software including everything from key terms and definitions, preferred functionality, to the different types of dashboards. Then, we’ll walk you through choosing the right open source dashboard software for your organization, and provide an overview of some of the most popular solutions.

What Is Open Source Dashboard Software?

To understand open source dashboard software, we have to break down the term. Open source refers to computer programs whose source code is available for free online. Open source software can be freely downloaded, distributed, and edited by any party. This type of functionality makes it a desirable choice for many organizations, especially those who want to save money, have unique customization needs, or who simply want to experiment with different programs before investing in a particular solution. 

A dashboard is a data visualization hub that surfaces key performance indicators (KPIs) and other critical information about a project, product, process, or anything else that can benefit from a high-level view. Dashboards typically pull data from a number of disparate sources and include multiple visual information-types such as charts, graphs, and even interactive visuals or animations. These visual representations help make data accessible and digestible to stakeholders of all different influence and participation levels - both an on-the-ground engineer and executive-level individual can gain equal insight into status and metrics. In essence, dashboards provide a high-level visual overview of progress for quick, at-a-glance insight into overall performance, which helps make better-informed business decisions.

Given the operational definitions of open source and dashboards, then, we can understand the term open source dashboard software: a comprehensive dashboarding platform whose source code is available online for free download, distribution, and customization by any user. 

Several open source software programs provide a framework into which you can add data to create a fully-functional dashboard. Think of a framework as a pre-built or pre-set layout that simplifies the dashboard creation process - rather than spending hours designing the perfect layout and user interface (UI) for your dashboard, you can cut to the chase and simply surface the important data and visuals you want. Building a dashboard from scratch (with no framework) is time-consuming, and usually requires both programming experience and continuous upkeep. By contrast, using an open source dashboard framework significantly reduces (and can potentially eliminates) time spent on the frustrating backend work.

Pros and Cons of Open Source Software

Open source software might seem like an obvious choice for one reason: it’s free. However, before you decide to choose this convenient option, it’s important to understand both the benefits and risks involved in open source software.

The main benefits of open source software include:

  • Cost: Open source software is free, however, in some cases you can purchase more robust versions of the solution. This is a perk for two reasons: first, there is no overhead cost, and second, you aren’t locked into a particular solution for any monetary reasons.
  • Customization: You won’t be constrained by a program’s pre-built functionality.
  • Continuous Improvement: Because teams will build on the existing source code as necessary, open source software encourages continuous improvement and flexibility, which can be especially useful for teams transitioning to Agile development.

Also consider the potential risks and downsides of open source software:

  • Security Risks: Remember that having open access to source code means that everybody else does, too. Make sure to keep the dashboards you create internal so you don’t breach any of your organization’s data privacy rules. 
  • Hidden Costs: Although open source solutions are free to download, there are often hidden time and resource costs in deployment, implementation, and learning curve. 
  • Lack of Support: Unlike paid platforms, open source options do not include a technical support team to troubleshoot issues or offer advice. However, the community of peer downloaders often forms its own support network, so there is extensive crowd-sourced help online.

Of course, no single pro or con should fully inform your decision whether or not to pursue open source software. Rather, weigh your own company’s bandwidth in multiple areas: budget, time, resources, security, and support needs. Furthermore, include the functionality of the available programs in your decision-making process (we outline key features later on). Ultimately, a holistic view will help you make the best choice for your organization.

Dashboard Software Terms and Definitions

Before getting into the specifics of how to choose a specific open source dashboard software for your organization, you should understand some of the vernacular used to describe its features. Among all dashboarding software options, there are many common terms that either relates to the software type or the integral program functions themselves. Know the following before you start researching specific software:

  • Real-Time Data: Instead of manual updates, data in open source software solutions will automatically update. This process saves time and also solves version-control issues; with live updates, you can ensure that the data surfaced in your dashboard is up to date and accurate.
  • Collaboration: This term refers to the ability to communicate with team members and stakeholders in the program itself. Many programs offer in-app functions that support collaboration (like comments or discussion threads). 
  • Sharing: Unless you are a solo freelancer, a dashboard’s utility relies on multiple people seeing it. Sharing options allow you to give stakeholders access to your dashboard.
  • Widgets: A widget is a single component on an application interface that performs a specific function. Common widget functions in dashboards include metrics, text boxes, graphs, or any other singular data visualization. Often, they are interactive. 
  • Application Program Interface (API): A set of clearly defined tools, definitions, and protocols, used as building blocks for software applications, that communicate how the various software components should interact. An open API means that users also have access to the API and can make changes on the backend to fit their needs. 
  • Programming Languages: Even if you don’t know the syntax, you should be familiar with the benefits and constraints of the programming language of the software you choose (HTML, JavaScript, Python, and CSS are the most common, and occasionally R and Matlab). One of the most important considerations when choosing open source software is whether or not you have the staffed resources to edit the source code. 
  • Hosting Options: In this article, we are concerned with open source software (defined earlier). Remember that this is in contrast to on-premises software, which is physically installed and runs on computers on site, rather than on an external server or in the cloud.

Types of Dashboards: Business Intelligence vs. Analytics

You can use a dashboard for any number of industry- or project-specific situations. However, two of the most common types of dashboards are business intelligence (BI) dashboards and analytics dashboards. In this section, we’ll explain the difference between the two and when to use them. You can learn more about the various types of dashboards a company might use by reading Dashboarding 101: A Complete Masterclass.

The term business intelligence includes all the technical tools, applications, data, and strategies an enterprise uses to improve their business performance. Therefore, BI dashboards are data visualizations that consolidate all business data to measure and track performance. The overall benefit for companies is that BI dashboards provide instant visibility not only into status or KPIs, but also deep insights into strategic and operational performance. 

By contrast, analytics dashboards are used to comb through large volumes of data and surface important, nuanced analytics about that data: investigating trends, predicting outcomes, and discovering unprecedented insights. Analytics capabilities are a standard feature within sophisticated BI dashboarding tools. However, as a standalone tool, an analytics dashboard is used to purely analyze data (rather that highlight overarching, strategic business information). Because of the powerful data analysis that analytics dashboards can perform, professional data analysts often build them, rather than user experience (UX) or front-end engineers.

Since BI dashboards have such comprehensive functionality, you may not need the full suite to fit your specific use case. BI dashboards work well for companies that want to gain insight into multiple aspects of their performance and need a framework that can organize the masses of disparate information. Analytics dashboards are useful for companies that simply need a sophisticated tool to parse and highlight large volumes of data.

Adopting Open Source Dashboard Software

While dashboarding software can be extremely beneficial to companies, it is not always the answer. Even when considering a free, open-source dashboard option, you should look at the current problems you want to address before deciding that dashboarding software is necessarily the remedy. 

You can assess your readiness to adopt open source dashboard software by identifying your goals. Many organizations choose to adopt dashboarding software when:

  • Manually combining and analyzing data becomes too time-consuming
  • You want to surface information from multiple sources or devices
  • You want a simple, visual way to digest data
  • You want assistance on making data-driven business decisions
  • You want to share KPIs and other metrics with external stakeholders, or stakeholders of varying influence and participation levels

The above points are indicators that dashboarding software might be a good option to help you make sense of your data. You do not have to meet every single one of these positions for dashboard software to be applicable to your business. In fact, there are no monetary costs to implementing open source dashboard software, even if you simply want to test the supposed benefits. That said, you are investing time in a new program - particularly an open source option which you will likely customize - so it’s not a good idea to adopt a software without considering the strains on employee time and learning. If you don’t have a large volume of data, or if you’re not being slowed down by the current way you analyze data, there is likely no need to search for, implement, and customize the source code to create a dashboard.

If you decide you do want to adopt open source dashboard software, there are several factors to consider. While there are some general similarities among the most popular options, each program will differ. Make sure to think about the following when choosing the type of solution that will work for your organization: 

  • Program Installation: Although open source software is free, there are often substantial resource costs when you consider how long it takes to install it, and the difficulty of the learning curve.
  • Volume of Data: How much data do you need to process and surface? Choose a tool that can handle not only the amount of information your organization generates, but from the same external programs, as well. (For example, if you store all your data in Excel spreadsheets, you’ll want a program that can pull data from Excel.)
  • Number of Full-Time Analysts: Ask yourself how much of the heavy-lifting your resources can provide, versus how much you want the program to do for you. Some tools offer comprehensive data analytics components, while others simply display the KPIs in a visually-appealing dashboard.
  • Templating Tools: All open source dashboarding options will provide some sort of template, but the degree and complexity will vary. For example, do you want several options of built-in layouts and themes, or do you want to build your own to reflect your brand?
  • Coding Language Base and Staffed Programmers: Open source dashboarding options are written in a range of coding languages, the most popular being HTML, Python, CSS, and Javascript, and sometimes R and Matlab. Make sure the knowledge of your staff matches the source code, so that you don’t have to outsource or delay customization.

When considering the above factors, think about your organization’s structure, type of work, and the resources you have on hand to handle new software adoption.

Functionality to Consider When Choosing Open Source Dashboard Software

Now that you’ve decided that open source dashboard software is right for you, think about the specific functionality you want the program to provide. Here is a list of important criteria:

  • Ease of Use: Ultimately, your employees won’t benefit from the dashboard if it’s difficult to use. Choose an option with a simple user interface (UI) or a shallow learning curve. Most popular programs have drag-and-drop widget functionality, which is very intuitive.
  • Customization: While all open source programs will be customizable, think about what specific ways you want to edit the source code. More important, consider whether or not you have the staff and they have the availability to perform these customizations.
  • Scalability: Take into account your organization’s projected growth (as well as individual project or department growth) and select an option that can accommodate this growth.
  • Integrations: Choose an option that integrates with the other programs you already use to store your data. Additionally, if you don’t store your data in a single tool, choose a program that can pull from multiple data sources. 
  • Plugins: Plugins are software components that you add to improve or build upon certain functionality in an existing product. They aren’t necessary, but can save you time when it comes to customizing your dashboard.
  • Security Management: We already discussed the security risks of open source software. If your organization is particularly susceptible to privacy breaches, or if your data is especially sensitive, you can look for external security tools to employ on top of your dashboard software.
  • Filtering: Filtering data is one of the most useful functions. Rather than surfacing all (or large amounts of) data, look for options where you can apply filters to pull only the relevant data into your dashboard.
  • Export Options: With open source software, there’s no concern over sharing your dashboard. However, the opposite problem arises: not all programs allow you to make dashboards private, or even to save directly to your computer. Be careful investing time in a particular solution if these are important to you.

Popular Open Source Dashboarding Tools

Now that we’ve discussed the pros and cons of open source software, types of dashboarding tools, and specific functionality for choosing an option, it’s time to start investigating specific solutions. Here’s a list of popular open source dashboard software. 

  • Freeboard: An enterprise-class cloud system that boasts ease-of-use (drag-and-drop widgets) and seamless integration with any web-based API. The free version allows you to create unlimited public dashboards, widgets, and data and devices; you’ll have to upgrade to a paid version if you want to build private dashboards. 
  • Grafana: An analytics dashboards with several plugins that allow you to connect your dashboard with other applications that provide functions such as high-level graphs, charts, and visibility programs. Grafana also offers training to ease implementation.
  • Dashing: While Dashing requires a little more hard-coding than other options, it still comes with many intuitive, beautifully-designed premade widgets. Dashing is no longer being maintained, but it is still possible to download and use.
  • BIRT: An initiative by Eclipse, BIRT is a data visualizations and reporting software. It includes two components: visualization and runtime environment (for Java environments). Options for personalization include data customization, conditional formatting, scripting, and styles. 
  • Pentaho: When moving from another data-processing engine to Pentaho, you’ll only need to build your logic once - afterwards, you can utilize support of the Pentaho community. There are several different situation-specific downloads, from business analytics to big data to report designers.
  • Mozaik: This program comes with multiple dashboards, a scalable layout, multiple themes, and even backend support. In Mozaik, the widgets are separate “modules” that you can add, and the layout has an underlying grid that standardizes widget and element positioning.

Although not open source, Tableau Public is the free version of Tableau (one of biggest names in self-service enterprise-level BI platforms) and may be the right fit for your dashboarding needs. Tableau Public is suitable for bloggers, journalists, and other self-employed or freelance workers who want a way to gain insight into their performance metrics. There are several templated elements such as Gantt charts and treemaps. The program only pulls from Excel spreadsheets or .CSV files, however, and you can’t save dashboards directly to your computer (only to your Tableau Public account).

Additionally, all of these options boast the built-in community that comes along with downloading open source software. Peers can help each other in online forums and support communities, share code and customizations, ask questions, etc., which can serve as a built-in support community since open source software don’t come with an actual IT support team.

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