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By | Philip Howard 17th January 2006 11:43

Actuate gets busy

Buys performancesoft, releases BIRT 2.0

Comment Actuate has been busy lately: BIRT 2.0, which is the reporting technology developed by Actuate for the Eclipse community will shortly be generally available, and the company has just announced that it has acquired performancesoft. Both of these developments are significant.

performancesoft (spelled with a small ‘p’) is/was arguably the leading provider of dashboard and scorecard applications, with some 500 implementations world-wide. Perhaps even more surprisingly it managed to do this while not having any business intelligence capability per se: it just marketed dashboards and scorecards.

It was able to do this because its environment is extremely flexible and very easy to customise: if you want to change your metrics or your hierarchies that’s really not a problem, where it is with a great many other such tools. The product also has features like support for bubble-up exceptions, which are not commonly supported by other tools. The reason for this is that all this dashboard stuff sits on top of an OLAP engine. This allows you to drill down to a problem area and then slice and dice against that activity. So, for example, you could look at any issues you have by geographic region, or by company division, or by any other dimension that you care to mention.

Now, when you think about it, this is not what other vendors do. They may be business intelligence vendors but slicing and dicing is within the BI product as opposed to the dashboard and the two often do not integrate seamlessly (often because one or other product was acquired from elsewhere and they do not really represent a single solution set).

Of course, there was a downside to performancesoft: if you needed to drill down beyond aggregated data to transactional information then you had to leave the performancesoft environment and you ended up using Cognos or Business Objects anyway. However, Actuate completes this picture so that a single vendor (Actuate) will now be able to offer this full set of capabilities. Indeed, there is also the potential to leverage Actuate’s spreadsheet functionality so that (once integration is complete) you will be able to leverage performancesoft directly in conjunction with spreadsheets.

So there is certainly a technology synergy. The company’s respective customer bases are also complementary: Actuate has traditionally been strong in financial services while performancesoft has had most success in government, utilities and so on; so there should be significant cross-selling opportunities.

So, all good news, as is the announcement of BIRT 2.0, which provides a considerably richer environment than the previous version. This has attracted considerable interest amongst other vendors, most notably IBM (and Actuate BIRT received the “Ready for IBM Rational Software” validation back last June), which raises an interesting point referring back to last year's article about IBM acquiring a BI vendor.

At that time I wrote that “… the next logical question is who they might buy? One of the smaller vendors is theoretically possible but this would not make the sort of impact on the market that IBM would be likely to want to make – though Actuate is a possibility because of its work with Eclipse …” – well, Actuate is not such a small company now, its work with Eclipse has been considerably extended and its acquisition would make more of an impact.

As a result, I am inclined to change my view of last November when I suggested that MicroStrategy was the likeliest bid target and opt for Actuate instead, as Actuate would be a double win for IBM: enriching both the BI platform and Eclipse.

The release candidate of BIRT 2.0 became available for download at the beginning of this month, and should be generally available at the end of this month. Actuate BIRT (the licensed version) should be available a few weeks thereafter.

Now, the problem with BIRT (which stands for Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools) is that most BI people don’t know much about development and only some developers know much about BI, and BIRT is, in effect, BI/reporting for developers. That is, it provides developers an open source, Eclipse-based environment for building BI and reporting capabilities into applications.

If you are a Java developer that is a big deal: 65 per cent of all Java programmers use an Eclipse-based environment and BIRT is the reporting technology for Eclipse. If you want to develop a reporting capability and you use Eclipse then BIRT is where you do it.

So far, so good. But with BIRT 1.0 that was as good as it got. With BIRT 2.0 that all changes. First, Zend is going to be instantiating BIRT into PHP so that means that all of you PHP developers can use BIRT for reporting and development. In addition, a number of other companies are planning to implement BIRT within their environments.

The second major point is that BIRT is now much richer. There are new reports and charts, large and persistent reports are supported, there is support for Java (as opposed to just Javascript), there is built-in debugging for both of these and, in particular, there is now a Report Component Library. What this last means is that BIRT supports reuse. Reuse means that you can build templates and templates mean that business analysts can use these to build reports.

In other words, and this is the big news about BIRT 2.0, BIRT is now moving beyond the domain of application developers programming reports (though those facilities are extended and strengthened with facilities like cascading style sheets) and into the world that is dominated by Crystal Reports.

This raises the obvious question: can BIRT make inroads into Business Objects’ domination of the reporting market with Crystal? The short answer to this question has to be yes—more interesting is how far? Crystal Reports is functionally richer than BIRT but BIRT is open source. Not only does this mean that BIRT is free (unless you license Actuate BIRT) it also means that the community is developing it and not just one company. For example, there are new report types in BIRT 2.0 that were developed within the community and not by Actuate, and this is likely to accelerate.

So, the clear answer is that BIRT can hurt Business Objects and other reporting tool vendors, just as MySQL has made substantial inroads into the database market. It will be interesting to see how these suppliers respond: will they more or less ignore open source, as the major database vendors have done (in so far as the databases themselves are concerned) or will they respond? And if the latter: how? Watch this space.

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