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Actuate: Commercial Open Source, Commercial Community

I'm grateful to Actuate for giving me an preview look at BIRT Exchange, a new community site set to launch September 24. Like the sponsoring company, the new site straddles the commercial open and closed source worlds. It will surely benefit BIRT Java programmers whether they use the open-source Eclipse version of BIRT or the closed source Actuate version. But make no mistake: Actuate's motives remain staunchly commercial and the company will retain tight control over BIRT development.
I'm grateful to Actuate for giving me an preview look at BIRT Exchange, a new community site set to launch next Monday, September 24. Like the sponsoring company, the new site straddles the commercial open and closed source worlds. It will surely benefit BIRT Java programmers whether they use the open-source Eclipse version of BIRT or the closed source Actuate version. But make no mistake: Actuate's motives remain staunchly commercial and the company will retain tight control over BIRT development.BIRT is a set of Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools, simultaneously an Actuate commercial product and "an Eclipse-based open source reporting system for web applications, especially those based on Java and J2EE." Eclipse participation has paid off for Actuate. According to Vijay Ramakrishnan, Actuate director of marketing for Java reporting, "Eclipse is such a diverse ecosystem of projects, and reporting is a pretty horizontal technology. There will be lots of cases where developers come to BIRT through other technologies."

Note that open-source BI rivals including Pentaho and JasperSoft and non-OS powerhouses such as Business Objects offer Eclipse plug-ins that are similar to Actuate's and allow comparable interoperability with non-BI Eclipse projects. Their technologies do not, however, share BIRT's status as a top-level Eclipse project.

Ramakrishnan continues, "BIRT Exchange is a new commercial site for developers" - Java programmers who use BIRT, that is, not for the people who develop BIRT itself. Those latter folks (on the open source, Eclipse side) will continue to use an Eclipse hosted community site. Actuate dominates the Project Management Committee and employs all project leaders, welcoming contributions from only a small set of trusted partners.

By contrast, other commercial open source BI providers welcome community project participation. Pentaho and JasperSoft, for instance, welcome outside developers. JasperSoft CTO Barry Klawans says that his company tends to get "a constant trickle of small contributions and 2-4 major ones a year." And Pentaho Marketing VP Lance Walter estimates that while 80-85% of contributors work for Pentaho, a spectrum of outside developers submit code with no single company contributing more than 2%.

Personally, I think that a broader base of user-contributors is a healthy thing, a lesson I learned from Eric Raymond.

Actuate's Vijay Ramakrishnan says that "BIRT Exchange is a new commercial site for developers," but that's not all it is. The site blurs the boundaries between what is free, open source and what is closed and not free. You can exchange code, tips, and tutorials in the DevX section, and you can as easily jump to downloads of trial versions of Actuate commercial products. The site is an "almost no cost sales and marketing" opportunity, quoting Actuate briefing materials.

The site is an almost no cost sales and marketing opportunity... for Actuate. It is not an open marketplace like SugarExchange, where third-party providers can sell their SugarCRM-related wares, or Red Hat Exchange, a similar marketplace for applications validated to run on the Red Hat Enterprise Linux platform. Actuate will insist that non-Actuate BIRT developers -- and BIRT trainers and consultants -- look elsewhere than the BIRT Exchange to sell their tools and services, regardless of the boost an open marketplace could bring to BIRT users and Actuate itself.

Well, at least any registered user, regardless of affiliation, will be able to contribute to the BIRT Exchange Wiki.

There is no question that the BIRT Exchange will benefit BIRT users, promoting collaboration and building community. And there is no question that Actuate, as BIRT's effective owner, has the right to build out the BIRT community in whatever fashion the company sees fit. It has been three years since Eclipse BIRT's launch. Perhaps in another three years, Actuate will understand that openness is a matter of liberty and not (just) of price.


Seth Grimes is an analytics strategist with Washington DC based Alta Plana Corporation. He uses and consults on open source data warehousing and analytics.I'm grateful to Actuate for giving me an preview look at BIRT Exchange, a new community site set to launch September 24. Like the sponsoring company, the new site straddles the commercial open and closed source worlds. It will surely benefit BIRT Java programmers whether they use the open-source Eclipse version of BIRT or the closed source Actuate version. But make no mistake: Actuate's motives remain staunchly commercial and the company will retain tight control over BIRT development.