Analyst's Take: Actuate Targets Developer Interest in Open Source BI

Business application developers seek inexpensive, embeddable BI and reporting.
Open source software continues to gain momentum in various areas of business computing. As open source software becomes more trusted for applications, this will be reflected in the business intelligence (BI) tools market as developers add reporting, data access and analysis to their applications.

Open Source BI projects such as the Eclipse Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools (BIRT) Project, JasperForge and the Pentaho BI Project, are maturing. A Ventana Research benchmark study shows that companies have strong interest in open source BI software. Expressions of interest include large deployments of more than 1,000 users, suggesting that organizations will be developing, testing and deploying the software for operational BI settings in which front-line workers use information for daily decision-making. Such deployments can be expensive; thus, not surprisingly, the research found that cost is a primary factor driving interest in open source BI. Actuate, the primary supporter of BIRT, is trying to use its experience and reputation in traditional BI and enterprise reporting to establish a leadership position in open source BI.

Riding the Open Source Wave

Organizations are testing open source BI technology as a way to cut the cost of operational BI deployments. Their experiences will have far-reaching effects on how BI vendors approach this market. In 2004, Actuate proposed the BIRT Project to the Eclipse Foundation and offered to sponsor it. Eclipse, a Java-based integrated development environment (IDE), was put into the open source arena by IBM and now has a strong following in the software development community. Actuate's strategy has been to ride the popularity of Eclipse by supplying BIRT-based Web reporting and analytics products to developers. At its user conference in August, Actuate announced the general availability of Actuate 9 Service Pack 2, which supports BIRT and advances the company's larger goal of basing its Collaborative Reporting Architecture on this open source of BI.

Actuate also announced the launch of BIRT Exchange, a developers' resource and storefront for open source BI and spreadsheet components including its BIRT-based collaborative reporting server, which supports Ajax for Web-based development. Ventana's research finds that organizations use open source BI, which generally offers fewer features, for different purposes than commercial BI. Actuate hopes that when developers find that they must produce applications to support more users and large numbers of interactive, Web-based reports, they will adopt Actuate's commercial software rather than build their own or turn to another supplier that also supports BIRT and Eclipse.

Recognizing the Developer

Users in operational lines of business and employees and partners in small and midsize companies need to share reports and perform queries as part of their daily decision-making processes. Thus, IT developers increasingly find that embedding BI and reporting tools into applications is an effective way to meet the information needs of users and customers. Yet developers have not generally been a target market for traditional BI vendors, with notable exceptions being suppliers like Actuate, Information Builders and Jinfonet. Compared to IT management or business users of these tools, developers often lack influence in the purchase of enterprise BI software licenses. But as open source software deployment grows, developers of these applications are becoming more important — and they may not fit the conventional description of a developer. While some developers are primarily technologists, others simply want to meet business needs by composing applications quickly from readily available, integrated parts.

Actuate and like-minded vendors have recognized this change in the market. The challenge is providing software that is "hot deployable" into applications — that is, designed with interfaces that enable both experienced developers and nontechnical business users to supply BI features without extensive customization and integration work. This requirement applies not only to open source offerings but to commercial products based on open source technology as well. Actuate has been retooling its product strategy to support rapid development.

Embedding BI in Operational Apps

Ventana Research believes organizations should evaluate not only the suitability of open source BI software but also the strength of the developer community that will contribute to each tool or application's improvement and growth. Open Source BI products have matured significantly in the last two years, to the point where they now challenge commercial products. Actuate's product strategy supports not only open source BI through BIRT but also the distinct needs of developers as well as BI tool users. Since operational BI users are generally nontechnical, they prefer complete BI applications that include easy-to-use dashboards and querying features. Ventana advises open source developers looking to embed such BI and reporting capabilities into Web-based applications to evaluate Actuate's open source and commercial software products.

David Stodder is vice president and research director - information management and IT performance management at Ventana Research. He was previously editor-in-chief and editorial director of Intelligent Enterprise.