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

Can open-source software crack into the lucrative but ultra-competitive business intelligence marketplace by offering packages that include more than a reporting tool?

The Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools initiative (BIRT), from BI vendor Actuate and open-source community The Eclipse Foundation, is one of the more ambitious open BI reporting applications. BIRT is cross-platform, Eclipse-based, XML-driven and dedicated to delivering standardized output. But fast on BIRT's heels, two new organizations are promising broader BI application frameworks.

The first of the upstarts, Pentaho, is adopting the BIRT reporting tool as part of a broader framework. The other, JasperSoft, is counting on building from the a bottom-up, starting with its existing reporting tool base. Here we'll examine the components of the two open-source BI offerings and see how they hope to enter a very competitive market.

Pentaho: A Complete BI Stack

The impressive thing about Pentaho is that these BI veterans from Cognos, Hyperion, IBM, Lawson, Oracle and SAS designed a complete BI stack with reporting, OLAP analysis, data mining, dashboards and workflow capabilities. The only thing missing is an ETL (extract, transform and load) framework. This system will be built on the Eclipse Integrated Development Environment (IDE) and use J2EE servers and XML-based web services. The software already has a number of key components available as open-source projects. However, the fly in the ointment is that the key Framework and integration from Pentaho software will gradually appear over the summer and fall of this year:

OLAP analysis: beta in August/September, release in November OLAP analysis, like reporting, starts with an existing open-source tool, Mondrian, which is written in Java and implements the Microsoft MDX language and XML for Analysis. It also uses a Java OLAP (JOLAP) interface for three development APIs and the JPivot, series of JavaServer Pages (JSP) tag libraries tied in with the Eclipse IDE. Pentaho adds enhanced Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) output, a dashboard widget and portlet template. The second phase of the project will add a whole series of "designers" including OLAP Model Designer, Analyzer Pivot Table Designer, and centralized content management with framework security.

Dashboard: beta in September, release in November Pentaho's dashboard component is tied closely to the development of the OLAP analysis tool. There will a dashboard component and integration of external content into the dashboard. The dashboard also will integrate the reporting tool and a broader JSP widget for dashboard operations. For November release, the dashboard will gain an Analysis Dashboard Designer along with a series of templates. This will be critical given the three APIs available for analysis, because each will require its own template.

Business Framework: beta in July/August, release in October The Business Framework will have two major parts - a business rules engine with JavaScript and SQL support, plus a document repository with metadata on components, rules, workflow, Web services and portlets. These will be combined in a Framework Solution Engine with security, Java messaging service (JMS), e-mail, and portlet manager. Interfacing to this will be the Pentaho Framework Workbench, which will provide a desktop application to both develop and monitor dashboard workflow and overall Pentaho operations.

Data mining: beta in September, release in December The Pentaho data mining component uses the Weka engine and adds connectivity to the OLAP analysis tool plus portlets and Web services through the Business Framework. Knowledge Explorer and KnowledgeFlow Environments set up and execute the mining workflow. The release phase will add a Data Mining Console and a component to the dashboard tool. The dashboard interface plus templates and how-to examples will complete the data mining tool.

Reporting: beta in July, release in October Pentaho's reporting capabilities will have print bursting which allows major reports to be divided up and automatically routed with necessary details plus summary to specific parties. This report bursting can be over a network to a designated directory or by email. In addition to e-mail, Pentaho supports HTML, and PDF output within a Reporting Workbench that itself includes reusable parts plus dashboard integration. The final release will add an editor for report activity plus templates and final dashboard integration.

Workflow: beta in July, release in October Workflow is the integrating control mechanism for the BI Framework. It will have a "Shark Tool Agent" for controlling workflow actions and a graphical editor. For the final release, there will be a console and tool agent editor which allows users to configure and manage workflows better. Look for Pentaho's workflow component to match up with the BI Framework's Solution Engine and document repository.

In sum, this is a very ambitious framework. Three of the key components are already available as Reporting tool, OLAP engine and data-mining tool. Pentaho still has real software to release during the course of the summer. By adopting the Eclipse, Java, XML, and Web Services approach, Pentaho potentially positions itself well in terms of open standards at every stage -- input, processing and output. Interestingly, Pentaho has adopted Microsoft's MDX language for doing OLAP queries. The OLAP Council agreed to adopt this as a standard.

However, Pentaho will find itself competing against free software from the top three database vendors. For example, Microsoft SQL Server 2005 will be debuting roughly in the same time frame with its own ETL, highly-regarded OLAP and data mining, Reporting Services and Maestro real-time connections. But because Pentaho links up with PostgreSQL, MySQL, Firebird and Apache Derby, Pentaho will be able to offer free and increasingly enterprise-caliber databases to level the playing field.

Pentaho plans to make money supplying support, training and consulting services. This open-source model is similar to what Red Hat and JBoss are doing fairly successfully in the OS and application server fields. In contrast, JasperSoft's approach to its offerings is partly open-source freeware and partly proprietary.

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