Open source business intelligence

Low-cost alternatives to costly reporting tools will arrive soon

Customers and ISVs face steep fees when licensing existing BI software, so it's only logical that work on BI within the open source community is heating up. First out of the gate was the Eclipse Foundation, which has made BI one of its seven top-level projects. The Foundation released Version 1.0 of its BIRT (Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools) in June, under its own, Open Source Initiative (OSI)-approved Eclipse License.

BIRT is designed primarily as a reporting system for Java-based Web applications. It consists of two parts. One is a JAR (Java Archive) file containing run-time components to be deployed on an application server. The other is a report designer that ships as an Eclipse plug-in, offering easy WYSIWYG editing and a palette of standard report items. The package is based on a framework called Open Data Access, which allows great flexibility when selecting data sources.

For those requiring professional support, maintenance, and training, a company called Actuate offers all of the above for BIRT technologies. In addition, Actuate packages its own version of BIRT under a commercial license that includes intellectual property indemnification.

Another organization worth watching is Pentaho, a startup dedicated to developing a complete open source BI platform, including reporting, analysis, dashboards, data mining, and workflow tools. The company's development team claims it has members with past experience working on BI applications at companies such as Cognos, Oracle, and SAS. The project's main server architecture will be built on J2EE, with an accompanying client environment that, similar to BIRT, will be based on Eclipse. The developers have taken pains to incorporate modern technologies into their platform, such as XML definitions for all content and Web services interfaces for the analytical components, with a mind toward maximum flexibility.

No downloads were available from Pentaho as of this writing, but the company says it plans to ship versions of all its projects by year's end under the LGPL (Lesser General Public License) and what it calls "LGPL-type" licenses, including Apache, BSD, and Eclipse. A detailed road map is available on the project site.

Although it may be vaporware for the time being, Pentaho has all the makings of a serious contender in the BI marketplace. The project's developers say: "We don't expect you to adopt it simply because it's open; we expect that you will choose it because it's better." We'll check back in a few months to see how well they've delivered.

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