Best of Both Worlds: Actuate Touts Open Source-Commercial BI

Actuate 9 is a pivotal release for a company that continues to plot a best-of-breed course in a rapidly consolidating BI marketscape.

There have been a few changes of late at Actuate Corp., which last month announced a new version of its flagship enterprise reporting suite—Actuate 9—that officials are calling a Collaborative Reporting Architecture.

Actuate 9 productizes the fruits of Actuate’s involvement with the Eclipse Foundation’s open source Business Intelligence Reporting Tool (BIRT) project, via a new component, called Actuate BIRT. Actuate 9 now makes BIRT—or its commercial variant, anyway—a full-fledged member of Actuate’s reporting stack, and buttresses Actuate BIRT with several new deliverables—including BusinessReports, a new ad hoc Web-based reporting studio; Interactive Viewing, an AJaX-powered end user report viewing, authoring, and customization tool; and iPortal, the wrapper environment that actually hosts Actuate BIRT, BusinessReports, and Interactive Viewing.

Actuate 9 is a pivotal release for a company that continues to plot a best-of-breed course in a rapidly consolidating BI marketscape. Company officials are betting that Actuate’s traditional strength in high-volume enterprise reporting, coupled with its tight relationship with the Eclipse open source community and its—or BIRT’s—esteem among J2EE developers in particular, will help pave the way for future growth.

“If you look at Actuate’s success in its own install base, we’ve got 3,500 customers today, and we continue to win [new customers] over time,” says Vijay Ramakrishnan, senior director of strategic marketing with Actuate. “We start with the initial application that they buy, then we build out from there with additional projects, because of our enterprise reporting expertise. Now, with [Actuate] BIRT, we’re giving [customers] another option. We want to make sure that we can supply a technology platform that meets the requirements of 100 percent of the reporting applications that organizations use.”

Thanks to its new Actuate BIRT deliverable, Ramakrishnan says, Actuate now offers an “inexpensive” workgroup deployment option, which he says is ideal for small and medium-sized enterprises.

This has the effect of lowering the barrier for entry into BI reporting, says Jeff Morris, director of product marketing with Actuate, on a couple of levels—especially with respect to pricing and in-house technology expertise.

“The threshold to get in is certainly much lower when you consider that workgroup deployment option, which probably starts at around $1,000 …. ,” Morris comments, noting that the installation and configuration of BI reporting tools is a frequent show-stopper for many smaller organizations. “This lets them harness that J2EE expertise that they have [in-house] so they can deploy basic reporting, but grow the complexity [of their reporting] over time as they get up to speed on iServer [and other Actuate 9 technologies].”

Actuate BIRT isn’t just a re-branding of the seminal Eclipse BIRT technology, Morris claims. Instead, he says, Actuate’s productized version meaningfully extends BIRT with a business-oriented report design studio (BusinessReports), slick new interactivity (Interactive Viewing), and a wrapper portal (iPortal)—along with canned data access and report lifecycle management features, via Actuate iServer. The big takeaway, he stresses, is that Actuate is clearly shooting for a new kind of customer with Actuate 9 and its commercialized BIRT.

“The packaging of the design environment for creating a BIRT report or a BIRT template, that’s a very simple install. The iPortal rolls in the same way, and within about 10 minutes, you’re up and running, you’re able to create, be productive with those two products,” Morris comments.

Elsewhere, BusinessReports helps give the developer-oriented BIRT (which is first and foremost an Eclipse IDE plug-in) a business-friendly facelift. “The business reporting capability—that’s designed for people who have the context of the business, but don’t know SQL, technologically; they’re not very skilled, but they do have the desire to be creating their own report,” he explains.

Similarly, iPortal provides an easy way to expose not just BIRT reports, but Actuate’s new BusinessReports design tools and AJaX-powered Interactive Viewing capabilities, too. “That iPortal package, that should be enough to get us into the very, very small low-end types of situations where they might have been scared away in the past,” Morris concludes. “When you put it all together, you’re able to have one or two very skilled people maintain responsibility for the hard pieces, and then have the people using BusinessReports studio build the bulk of the reports, but the end users themselves can make suggestions as to how the reports evolve [via InteractiveViewing].”

Analysts say BIRT has given Actuate some much-needed (and almost universally positive) publicity, as well as, to a lesser extent, prestige, especially among J2EE developers. Actuate claims that its involvement with Eclipse BIRT has also helped generate additional revenues, via paid support from enterprise customers; uptake of its own e.Spreadsheet- and iServer-powered enterprise reporting stack; or—now—via the productized version of BIRT.

At the same time, notes Mike Schiff, a principal with data warehousing consultancy MAS Strategies and a member of TDWI’s extended research collaborative, Actuate’s income has been mostly flat—in spite of encouraging year-over-year revenue growth. For the first quarter of this year, Schiff notes, Actuate grew its revenues but posted a net loss, owing mostly to non-recurring charges. “They’re hanging in there, but their bread-and-butter market is becoming increasingly commoditized,” he points out.

“Their own value-add to open source seems to be generating them some revenues, and these might grow over time. But they’re also not the only game in town when it comes to” support for Eclipse and J2EE reporting, Schiff concludes. There’s a teeming ecosystem of Java, J2EE, and open-source reporting tools, for starters, and Actuate arch-competitor Business Objects SA—which develops and markets Crystal Reports and Crystal Enterprise—has announced both a freeware version of Crystal and an Eclipse plug-in effort, he points out.

About the Author

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