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8/31/2005
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Review: Open-Source BI Stretches Beyond Reporting

Can open-source software crack into ultra-competitive business intelligence marketplace by offering packages that include more than a reporting tool? Our reviewer takes you on a tour of two that try.

Commercial Open-Source BI

JasperSoft is delivering what it calls Commercial Open Source with its Jasper Reports and Jasper Decisions products. JasperSoft describes Commercial Open Source as follows: "A commercial open-source company will go a step further and offer added value product modules that can be purchased for a reasonable price. These modules are not mandatory for gaining benefits from the open-source product -- but rather they can be added if and when needed by an application based on its evolving requirements." Actuate appears to be taking a similar approach with the BIRT open-source reporting tool. And unlike open-source purists, this reviewer sees potential advantages in Commercial Open Source for both developers and users.

Here are the concerns that open-source purists might have. First, there's the possibility that the process of commercial open-source development is just a loss leader, a variation on shareware or freeware. Critics charge that such "freeware" is designed to get users committed to a system. Then, as more and more future developments and modules get charged for, a new proprietary system emerges. But if that happens, there must be some happy customers -- otherwise, why would they pay for the improvements? In effect, they got to try out a system for low initial cost and risk -- and as it evolved they literally "bought into it". Moreover, open source competitors may well provide some of the proprietary components -- as is now happening with some new open source tools for JasperSoft's proprietary extensions.

Customers not satisfied with new developments or their future direction have three courses of action. First, they can band together with like-minded users and try financially inducing commercial open-source developers to produce the modules they want and need. Second, they can do it themselves or make the same proposition to other open-source developers. Third, if the users have chosen well, they should have many standards-based inputs, outputs and even processing options (MDX, JOLAP, CSS, SVG, XML-configuration, for example) so that moving to another open-source or commercial BI stack should be relatively painless.

Finally, open-source purists will insist that having a mix of open-source and commercial software from the same developer is just inimical. Don't tell BEA, Borland, HP, IBM, Oracle, Sun and maybe even Microsoft the same, because they all have big open source components as part of their total software product mix. But again, the solution is immediately at hand: take the fork in the road -- the code is at the users' disposal.

JasperSoft BI

JasperSoft does not cover the BI stack as comprehensively as Pentaho plans to. Rather, JasperSoft specializes in reporting, some OLAP analytics and workflow. But it has completed and usable products today. We look at those now in more detail:

JasperReports: delivers reports to the screen, printer or into PDF, HTML, XLS, CSV and XML files. JasperReports can stand alone or be embedded directly into a user's application to give it advanced reporting capabilities. Included among the report types available is parameterized reporting for simple "what-if" or drill-down analysis/reporting.

JasperDecisions: offers repository, scheduling, dashboard and security modules as well as a full graphical report designer in a server-based system. The Jasper Scope Creation Suite provides a GUI-based Query Designer for the creation of secure, parameterized queries. These in turn can be used in JasperSoft's Scope Designer to create Web or portal applications with tables, cross tabs and charts. Underlying JasperDecisions and JasperReports is an XML-based Report Definition Language (RDL) that allows the added flexibility for user or programmatic control of reports.

One of the strengths of the Jasper system is the RDL file. The RDL file can contain HTML tags and JavaScript for further client-side refinement or added dynamic responsiveness. The RDL file has five XML-based header sections:

Content - specifies the content of the report in multi-data blocks for each data source Parameters - contains the variables that control the report for content, order, filters, etc. Pagination - determines the page segments for each data block in the report Sorting - determines the index and data sort criteria Layout - determines the visual structure and appearance of the data segments in reports

JasperSoft actively supports the ability to dynamically update reports through RDL changes.

In sum, JasperSoft has taken the server side of reporting and commercialized it. The basic runtime engine is free, and other third party Open Source providers have written their own Designers and tools to drive JasperSoft's reporting engine. However, JasperSoft, as creators of Report Definition Language, have created a complete BI reporting tool that includes dashboard creation and report scheduling, plus security and management of reporting that's available for testing and deployment now.

Just as is the case in databases and application servers, it appears that BI is evolving into mixed markets -- pure proprietary (Business Objects or Microsoft), mixed open source and proprietary (JasperSoft) and nearly pure open source (Pentaho). It's very safe to say the jury is still out on which model will work best in the BI marketplace.

Jacques Surveyer is a writer and consultant, see his work at the OpenSourcery.

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