Actuate’s Open Source Gambit

New open-source reporting tool tempts Java developers by giving them a way to incorporate reporting functionality into their applications at no cost

Actuate Corp. last week joined the open-source Eclipse Foundation as a Strategic Developer, where it will rub elbows with the likes of IBM Corp. and Intel Corp as board members for the Eclipse Community.

At the same time, Actuate outlined plans for an open-source end-user reporting environment—called the business intelligence and reporting tool (BIRT)—that will be developed by company technologists in tandem with the Eclipse community. Like all Eclipse software, BIRT will be distributed free of charge. Actuate says BIRT will be the first top-level Eclipse project for the development of applications that have BI and enterprise reporting requirements.

Eclipse, of course, was launched nearly three years ago by IBM, which donated more than $40 million of code to kick start the effort. Big Blue’s goal was to spur the development of a one-size-fits-all integrated development environment (IDE) on which it could base its own WebSphere Studio IDE. Today, IBM takes the base Eclipse IDE, customizes it, and resells it as WebSphere Studio.

It’s likely that Actuate has a similar strategy in mind—although company officials are fuzzy on the details. “BIRT will be available as a download from the Eclipse Web site at no charge,” said Mark Coggins, senior vice-president of engineering with Actuate, in a conference call last week. “We also want to make a commercial offering on top of the BIRT technology,” Coggins confirmed, adding that Actuate is “putting together a product that will be appropriate for embedded Java reporting” that will be similar to its current Formula One offering.

In this respect, then, Actuate is taking a page from the playbooks of both the former Crystal Decisions Inc.—which a decade ago notched a deal to bundle Crystal Reports with Microsoft’s Visual Studio IDE—and Microsoft’s own SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services. The strategy is clear: Many applications have reporting requirements, and in order to address them, developers will tap solutions that are both widely available and easy to use.

In the long term, Actuate will include BIRT in its Actuate iServer reporting and BI platform, which, Coggins said, “will give BIRT access to the services that iServer provides for enterprise reporting,” such as “controlling reports, scheduling reports, [and] having access to a richer set of data sources."

The Eclipse membership roll reads like a Who’s Who of information technology vendors, from IBM and Intel to Oracle and SAP. Eclipse members have expressed varying levels of commitment to the effort, however. Big Blue, for example, markets an Eclipse-based product and has donated both code and hands-on technologists, while Oracle has produced no Eclipse-based products of its own. Instead, the database giant says it joined Eclipse to ensure that applications written in the Eclipse IDE work properly when deployed in Oracle environments. "We want to help anyone, in any environment, build to the Oracle runtime, even if it's not our tools. So for other IDEs, like Borland's JBuilder and Eclipse, we want to make sure that users who have chosen those runtimes and not ours still have a good experience building to the Oracle Application Server and Oracle database,” said Ted Farrell, chief architect for JDeveloper with Oracle, in an interview last December.

Actuate, for its part, has pledged to donate at least seven technologists to the BIRT project. That’s a sizeable commitment from a company that doesn’t have nearly the manpower or cash-on-hand reserves of an IBM, Intel, or Oracle. So what’s in it for Actuate?

"We’re able to attract lots more people into the reporting space," said Mike Thoma, vice-president of product marketing with Actuate, during the same call. Thoma predicts that as many as three million developers could be enticed to download and play around with BIRT. “If Actuate had to bring those three million people to its Web site, at $10 a head, that would be worth $30 million in advertising. … Just by joining Eclipse, we get an immediate bottom-line impact."

According to Thoma, Java developers will benefit most immediately from Actuate’s largesse. “The people that are developing applications have an opportunity to improve the user experience with a lot fewer calories by having embedded Java reporting available to them. The overall process benefits absolutely everyone,” he said. “We end up delivering a solution that was really designed for developers rather than taking a product that was designed by Actuate and putting it in their hands and having them figure it out.”

Thoma also waxed optimistically about the productized enhancements Actuate plans to deliver on top of the open source BIRT code base: “[A]s a result of developing those commercial products, we are going to be a force for a long period of time, and therefore continue to develop and expand the BIRT product."

Wayne Eckerson, director of The Data Warehousing Institute, says that Actuate has done much over the last 24 months to plug holes in its existing product line-up. “The only gap left is an end-user query [and] reporting tool, a la [Business Objects’] WebIntelligence, Hyperion Intelligence, etc.,” he notes. “It's probably a smart move to support an open-source BI tool directed at this target market. It takes on its top BI competitors by attacking their soft underbelly: the high license and maintenance fees they charge. So perhaps the strategy here is to hurt the leading BI competitors rather than to compete directly against them, while also plugging a gap in their lineup.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.