BIRTh of an open-source reporting alternative

By Stephen Swoyer

Since its debut more than two years ago, SQL Server Reporting Services has become immensely popular, such that it’s now poised to challenge third-party reporting solutions for market share. Don’t look now, but the open-source Eclipse Foundation might have a similar Wunderkind on its hands, the Eclipse BI Reporting Tool project.

BIRT, which turns two in August, is the lovechild of enterprise reporting specialist Actuate (which donated code and full-time technologists to the effort) and the open-source Eclipse software community. BIRT is a J2EE-based reporting solution that plugs into the Eclipse IDE.
Like Microsoft’s SSRS offering, BIRT combines an embeddable reporting engine, report lifecycle management capabilities and a client authoring tool. And, like SSRS, BIRT has an ace up its sleeve: enterprise developers. BIRT expects to be the de facto (if not the default) choice for J2EE developers. The first BIRT release (version 1.0) went gold last June, and—in January—Eclipse and a number of partners (including IBM and open source BI upstart Pentaho) trumpeted the availability of BIRT 2.0.

BIRT users indicate BIRT is mostly displacing competitive J2EE reporting solutions (such as JReports, Jasper Reports, and JFreeReports), along with ad hoc tools. As BIRT and J2EE become more integral components in the enterprise app future-scape, this could change.

“We didn't look at commercial reporting tools because BIRT looked good from the start and it's free,” says Vladimir Perlov, a J2EE developer with a Brooklyn-based healthcare organization. “We don't have very high requirements for performance and functionality of the reports that we are developing. I know only one important feature that is missing from BIRT—support for crosstab reports.”

For now, Perlov and his employer are tapping BIRT mostly for use with their J2EE app dev efforts. In the future, however, Perlov says he expects that his company will try to build out an open-source BI stack, based not just on BIRT, but also Mondrian, Pentaho or other open-source BI tools. “Probably in two years we will try to integrate this kind of software, but not now,” he concludes.

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer based in Athens, Ga. You can contact Stephen via e-mail.