BIRTs of a Feather: Actuate and Eclipse

Actuate, an enterprise reporting software vendor, is joining the Eclipse Foundation’s board of directors and will spearhead a new project to develop an open source reporting tool, officials announced Tuesday.

The proposal known as the Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools (BIRT) Project was publicly released on the site for comments and Eclipse members will have 30 days to comment on the proposed project. It’s getting high-level support from Eclipse directors, who have recommended BIRT as a top-level open source projects on the site.

There are only five other top-level projects with Eclipse, they are: Eclipse Project, Eclipse Tools Project, Eclipse Technology Project, Eclipse Web Tools Platform Project and the newly-formed Eclipse Test and Performance Tools Platform Project.

Mike Milinkovich, the Eclipse Foundation’s first executive director, in a press conference Tuesday morning with reporters, said open source got its big start in the infrastructure, with operating systems like Linux, Web servers like Apache and databases like MySQL. Moving into the application space is the next logical place to go with open source.

“We really view the extension of Eclipse into the BI [Business Intelligence] and reporting tools areas as a logical extension of the open source community today and a logical extension of the Eclipse open source community in particular,” he said. “It’s a natural extension, a natural growth as we expand the open source platform towards better and more productive reporting tools for developers and better, more productive business intelligence and reporting tools for end users.”

Actuate said it would donate a corps of engineers to work full-time on the project, if BIRT’s accepted by the foundation’s board of directors next month. Once that happens, the company said it would take up project management duties also to ensure it’s moving along smoothly.

San Francisco-based Actuate’s joining the Eclipse Foundation as a strategic developer is a class of membership that automatically puts them on the board of directors, as well as paying yearly membership dues.

The reason for Actuate’s move into shepherding an open source project is two-fold: a lack of automated reporting tools for Java developers and the project’s obvious link with the company’s own Enterprise Reporting Application Platform.

According to Actuate officials, the majority of today’s Java programmers are hand-coding Java Server Pages (JSP) to create reports, a process that can be readily automated. Once automated, BIRT will provoke increased innovation from among the world’s existing commercial reporting tools vendors.

“What BIRT offers them is the opportunity to have access to some technology that will allow them to create reports much more quickly and efficiently,” said Mark Coggins, Actuate senior vice president of engineering.

The project will be focused on four areas: Eclipse- and Web-based report designers, report engine and charting engine

  • Designer is the authoring environment for BIRT and, depending on the scope of the reporting application used, allows either developers or non-programming end users to create the report. Users will be able to use either the Eclipse-based or Web-based designers or third-party vendors who integrate their product with BIRT.
  • The report engine is the workhorse of BIRT, connecting to the data source needed for the report, retrieving that information and either sending it on to be rendered in HTML, printed or converted into a PDF file.
  • The chart engine runs underneath the report engine, converting raw numbers into, well, charts.

“The Java developer would be working within the Eclipse environment to create the Java application, they could switch to the BIRT design mode to create their actual design for the reports,” Coggins said of the process. “They would write out the XML design information and move it over to the application server, where they would embed the application with the BIRT engine.”

The project also allows Actuate to wraps its own commercial product line with BIRT. Officials already plan on providing paid professional open source services to customers through its program, Formula One, which provides support and training on the project. BIRT will also be rolled into its Actuate iServer, a tool that provides authentication, administration, scalability and presentation capabilities to enterprise reports.

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