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Twenty years ago, virtually all companies selling networking products sold products based on proprietary protocols. These vendors were hoping to dominate the networking market by locking out other vendors who did not support their protocols.
Among these vendors were then-LAN software giant Novell and Microsoft. What none foresaw was the emergence of a vendor-neutral standards body, the Internet Engineering Task Force. The IETF was developing a set of protocols that would supplant the current protocols of these vendors, as well as their dreams of network domination.
Today, another open community is devoted to developing a vendor-neutral and open platform, this time for application development. Eclipse is an open source community whose projects are focused on providing a vendor-neutral open development platform and application frameworks for building software.
The potential for Eclipse-based projects is huge for numerous reasons, particularly for thebusiness intelligence community. Eclipse itself also has huge potential. It is a significant project of projects, funded and supported by many of the biggest names in business intelligence and business software. The most obvious and prominent Eclipse project related to business intelligence is the Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools (BIRT) project.
What is Eclipse?
Originally formed as a consortium in 2001 by Borland, IBM, MERANT, QNX Software Systems, Rational Software, Red Hat, SuSE, TogetherSoft and Webgain, Eclipse was established when IBM released its Eclipse Platform as an open source project. Since then, Eclipse has developed into a community with dozens of related open source projects.
In some ways, the Eclipse organization echoes the IETF. This is mostly because it is a very large project that crosses disciplines and coordinates many different activities occurring simultaneously. Much like the IETF, Eclipse has a goal of building a vendor-neutral application development platform; it is almost as broad as the IETF goal of building a vendor-neutral architecture for seamless interoperability over networks and heterogeneous hosts.
Within Eclipse are several top-level projects, including the Eclipse Top Level Project, an open source, robust, full-featured, commercial-quality, industry platform for the development of highly integrated tools and rich client applications. Under the Eclipse Top-Level Project are subprojects. Some of these subprojects include: the Eclipse Platform Subproject, which defines standard services and frameworks for development tools; the Equinox Project, a component model where the Eclipse Rich Client Platform (RCP) and Integrated Development Environment (IDE) platforms run; the Java Development Tools (JDT) project, which provides tools for a Java IDE; and the Plug-in Development Environment (PDE) project, which is used for building and integrating Eclipse plug-ins.
In addition to the Eclipse Top-Level Project, there are various other Eclipse projects. These projects include the Eclipse Tools Project, which is a focal point for diverse tool projects on the Eclipse Platform; the Eclipse Web Tools Platform Project, which provides a generic, extensible and standards-based platform and set of tools for J2EE and Web-centric application development; and the Test & Performance Tools Platform Project (TPTP), which provides powerful frameworks and services for an open platform upon which developers build unique test and performance tools for all kinds of testing and performance monitoring.
What is BIRT?
One of the most prominent top-level Eclipse projects is the Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools (BIRT) project. BIRT is an Eclipse-based open source reporting system for web applications, especially those based on Java and J2EE.
BIRT is special—and useful—because of its two main components: a report designer based on the Eclipse platform and a runtime component that you can add to your own application server. BIRT can produce reports from simple lists to charts, cross tab/matrix reports, text documents and compound reports that combine two or more of these types of data into a single report.
BIRT reports can incorporate data from any source by using BIRT's Open Data Access (ODA) framework to access any kind of tabular data; reports can be generated from multiple data sources. Various data transformations are also supported. Some examples of this include summarization, sorting and calculation of percentages, as well as the type of sorting and grouping that is typically needed for business intelligence reporting.
The Promise of Open Standards
BIRT and, more generally, Eclipse will do for business intelligence applications what the IETF and the open standard Internet Protocol suite (TCP/IP) did for networking applications: increase their popularity and usability.
The value of an open standards protocol for networking lies primarily in permitting implementers to stop worrying about whether or not their products interoperate with those of other vendors. The problem of translation—converting network data from one protocol to another—has been simplified: as long as your product speaks TCP/IP according to all the rules, it will interoperate perfectly with other TCP/IP-compliant products from other vendors. With interoperability addressed, vendors are able to concentrate on improving their networking products.
The Internet protocols were even better for networking customers who constantly worried whether the computers on their networks would interoperate with other computers in their organizations. These companies could also eliminate wasted time and effort previously spent buying, building or borrowing software to allow disparate hosts to interoperate.
Similarly, BIRT and Eclipse users no longer have to worry about compatibility issues. They no longer have to be concerned if their report writing software will be compatible with their database software, their dashboard software or their custom-built applications. Business intelligence systems can become interoperable by writing them to Eclipse, an open application platform.
Giving BIRT a Chance
Forget about interoperability and open standards for a moment. BIRT is a tool that may suit your business and solve your business problems. However, open or proprietary, no product will be worth time and effort if it doesn’t solve your problems—even if it is free.
If you think BIRT might be useful (after finishing this article), then you should view the online tutorial My First Report. This is a flash movie demo, with narration, showing how to build a simple report with BIRT. You can find other tutorials at the BIRT Web site as well, but it’s often a good idea to try the tutorials yourself to see if they are helpful.
If you want to download the code and try it yourself, you could run into the type of problems that open source critics often see as flaws. In reality, though, these are just the types of problems you'll encounter with any new software.
BIRT is not necessarily easy to install. It runs on Java, so you must have an appropriate Java runtime environment (JRE) running on your computer. However, it also runs on Eclipse, so you must have this platform running as well. There are also other software dependencies that occur. Overall, you must:
- Make sure you have an appropriate version of JRE running. ("appropriate" depends on which version of Eclipse you will use).
- Download and install the Eclipse Platform.
- Download and install GEF, the Graphic Editor Framework, an Eclipse plug-in used in the BIRT user interface.
- Download and install EMF, the Eclipse Modeling Framework that BIRT uses for charting.
- Download and install the latest BIRT release itself.
- If you already have Eclipse, GEF and EMF, you can skip these steps and just download and install BIRT. This will configure it to work with your existing setup.
- You'll want to generate PDF files on the fly. This is another Java program can you can download and install.
- You'll need to download Apache Axis, a SOAP implementation for Apache, and then install only six Java programs for BIRT.
Usable and Useful
While installing BIRT is not something you can do on the spur of the moment while drinking your morning coffee, this does not mean it's not worth doing. This also does not mean that people will not find a way to turn it into a single downloaded executable, because they will. If you are willing to devote enough time, though, implementing BIRT can help you get a jump on the competition.
In future articles, I will be writing about my firsthand experiences with BIRT, as well as otheropen source business intelligence application software. How easy (or hard) is it to install, really? How well does it work? Will it make life easier for business intelligence professionals?
For Eclipse and Eclipse-based applications like BIRT, the details of the implementation, just like the details of implementing any particular TCP/IP-compliant network stack, are not very important. Instead, it is important that BIRT is just as usable and useful running on a Windows desktop as on Linux, BSD or any other platform that supports Java and Eclipse.