Eclipse Foundation Releases BI Reporting Tool for Java

BIRT is enabled in part by technology expertise from reporting stalwart Actuate, which released a branded version of the tool

Last year, Actuate Corp. joined the open-source Eclipse Foundation as a Strategic Developer, bringing some collateral along with it: namely, plans to develop a native Java reporting tool, along with the reporting expertise (and a team of dedicated technologists) that were required to make it happen.

This week, Eclipse announced the first version of its Business Intelligence Reporting Tool (BIRT) for Java—or BIRT release status 1. Like all Eclipse software, BIRT is available free of charge.

BIRT is Eclipse’s first top-level BI and enterprise reporting project. Some J2EE programmers say it addresses a critical need, especially in the Eclipse environment: Microsoft Corp.’s Visual Studio IDE has long shipped with a bundled version of Crystal Reports; before BIRT, Eclipse was bereft of an equivalent capability – although several open source reporting solutions, including Jasper, JReport, and JFree, are available.

As a result, says Mike Thoma, vice-president of product marketing with Actuate and Eclipse BIRT project leader, an overwhelming majority of J2EE developers opt to build their own reporting solutions.

“Basically, 85 percent of them are doing roll-your-own [solutions],” he explains. “They’re using Java and J2SE, and basically they have two recourses—their default now is to code [a custom reporting tool] in Java. The second recourse is to buy commercial products, and there’s two kinds of those, the 100 percent pure Java ones and those that aren’t [100 percent Java-based].”

BIRT 1.0 gives them another option, Thoma says. It lets developers incorporate (transparent, open source) reporting capabilities into their applications, regardless of whether they’re building bona-fide BI apps or they simply need a base-level reporting engine for use with custom applications.

BIRT works on several levels. First, it offers a drag-and-drop report designer plug-in for the Eclipse IDE. Second, it consists of XML code, which is itself the product of the Report Designer.

The idea is that developers use the Report Designer to lay out the look and feel of their reports, specify data-source connectivity, and so on. The third element is the BIRT reporting engine itself, which facilitates connectivity to back-end data sources and does the actual rendering of the report.

Thanks to BIRT, programmers can build Java applications in Eclipse and switch to the Report Designer if (or when) they need to incorporate reporting features into their apps—all without leaving the Eclipse environment. Like Crystal Reports and Microsoft’s own SQL Server Reporting Services, the BIRT engine can also be embedded in Java applications.

Of course, BIRT is only nine months old. It’s not necessarily based on a pre-existing code base, either, like the original Eclipse IDE effort was (in 2001, IBM Corp. donated more than $40 million in code to kick start Eclipse). So how does Thoma—who knows something about enterprise reporting tools—think it stacks up to Actuate’s own offerings or those from other vendors? Not surprisingly, he demurs when asked to compare BIRT to Actuate’s own reporting tool, but—switching gears—suggests that release 1.0 does at least approximate the capabilities of a well-known tool such as Crystal.

“I think it’s about 80 percent of what Crystal does, although one big difference between BIRT and Crystal is that BIRT has no server,” he observes. “There’s also at least one feature in Crystal that’s not in BIRT: matrix support. But one thing Java developers like about BIRT is that it’s open source and is written in Java. Because it’s 100 percent pure Java, it can interoperate with all of the other technical parts of their environment.”

When Big Blue kicked off Eclipse four years ago, its 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. IBM trails only Borland among pay-for-use Java tool vendors—and Eclipse, itself, is the Java IDE of choice for the mast majority of code-jockeys.

What, then, does Actuate hope to get out of its involvement with BIRT? Pretty much the same thing, says Thoma—albeit on a smaller scale. “IBM was able to ride the disruptive potential of open-source [software], with Eclipse going from 0 to 65 percent over a three-plus-year vantage point. But also IBM itself is now a leader in the Java IDE space,” he says. “You have to be the first in so you don’t get commoditized out of the world, and with the first top-level business intelligence reporting tool for Eclipse, we’re in there first.”

To that end, Actuate plans to offer a branded, pay-for-use version of the Eclipse-based tool, called Actuate BIRT, which Thoma says will be fully supported and indemnified by his company. “Actuate BIRT — is really just intended to make sure that BIRT gets wide adoption, it’s kind of a recognition that customers want one throat to choke [i.e., a software vendor] if something goes wrong."

About the Author

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