BIRT Takes Shape - InformationWeek

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9/17/2004
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BIRT Takes Shape

An expert suggests ways to strengthen the Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools (BIRT) project, and examines how BI vendors are reacting to the unfolding open-source reporting program.

The Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools (BIRT) project was spawned in August by BI vendor Actuate and the Eclipse Foundation, an open-source tools group spun off from IBM earlier this year. What BIRT intends to deliver is significant: nothing less than an open source reporting tool for the Java-based Eclipse integrated development environment (IDE).

Examining the BIRT project proposal at the Eclipse site, one can see the charter is not short on ambition. BIRT will deliver a Visual Report Designer plug-in for the Eclipse IDE that's designed to:

  • produce classic banded reports from a wide set of data sources
  • incorporate charts and graphics into those reports
  • supply matrix or cross-tab views of data sources
  • allow for subreports or related report regions
  • print output to printer, Web, Excel file, and PDF targets
  • allow for Web output to support navigation toolbars and text searching

Together, these would make up formidable out-of-the-box capabilities. So what could make the BIRT proposal stronger? And how are the existing reporting vendors reacting to the project?

Currently there are two leading open source Java-based reporting tools: the free, open-source JasperReports provides fairly sophisticated reporting using XML-templates. iReports, also open-source, is a visual report designer built on the Crystal Reports mold that produces Jasper reports as output. This combination is fairly sophisticated in its functionality, but it doesn't match some of the high-end features of the BIRT proposal.

But of course, BIRT has yet to deliver. Like Jasper, BIRT is to be based on XML templates. BIRT and Eclipse are currently in a 30-day review cycle that ends Sept. 24, gathering commentary on the proposal. One would expect a lot of commentary on a set of XML-based reporting templates. What follows are some of my own.

XML Report Templates

First, there is the JasperReports XML template. It's reasonably robust in producing a broad set of the BIRT-proposed reports. At the very least, BIRT could provide an XML StyLsheet and Transformation (XSLT) routine to transform Jasper XML templates to BIRT templates. XSLT allows an XML file to be styled and printed, or transformed and copied into another XML file.

Microsoft has its own proposed reporting standard, called Report Definition Language (RDL), whose stated goal is also ambitious: "The goal of Report Definition Language … is to promote the interoperability of commercial reporting products by defining a common schema that allows interchange of report definitions," Microsoft says. RDL uses XML, following the XML Schema Definition (XSD) standard very closely. RDL allows vendors to choose levels of compliance and to extend the standard for specific reporting requirements.

As it stands, RDL supports banded report regions -- embedded images, sub-reports, tables, charts and pivot tables; control elements for annotations, trigger buttons, and drilldowns. It also supports connectivity links to queries, views, and requests from a variety of data sources. On first examination, RDL appears to meet all the goals of the BIRT specs.

But there are some Redmond "gotchas." The RDL standard allows for SQL Server, Oracle, ODBC, and OLEDB data sources. Other data sources may be defined, but are not incumbent on RDL providers to implement. The OLAP pivot table elements use Microsoft's MDX -- the OLAP querying and coding scheme used by Microsoft for its SQL Server OLAP Services -- but do not require it. In sum, given the breadth but sometimes uneven neutrality of the RDL spec, it will be interesting to see how much is adopted by BIRT. Again, BIRT can take alternate paths -- a dual XML driver approach, for example.

The financial, accounting and government sectors (especially the Securities and Exchange Commission) have been working for years on XBRL, or eXtensible Business Reporting Language. XBRL is designed to encapsulate data to produce the balance sheet, income statement, statement of equity, statement of cash flows, and the notes to financial statements. The advantage of XBRL is that, being based on an XML XSD schema, it can be used to produce a variety of reports in such formats as Web HTML, Adobe PDF, Microsoft Excel, and others. XBRL is currently supported by Actuate, Hyperion, Microsoft, and MicroStrategy among major BI Players. This is another example of XML data standards starting to permeate the BI community.

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