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Keeping Ahead of BI Reporting Trends

As the BI industry comes to grip with the implications of cloud computing, big data, and a host of other disruptions, two companies are trying to stay ahead of reporting trends.

Turn the clock back a decade. Imagine the year is 2002. The business intelligence (BI) of the era begins -- and for most shops ends -- with reporting: financial or informational reporting, mostly, with an emerging (but by no means thriving) interest in operational reporting.

Actuate Corp. was there. A decade later, as the BI industry comes to grip with the implications of cloud computing, "big data," mobility, and a host of other paradigm-disturbing disruptions, Actuate's still here. Moreover, company officials say, Actuate's ready for the challenge.

Near Extinction

A list of the biggest names in best-of-breed BI from the early 2000s reads like a Who's Who of The Acquired. It includes former market-leader Crystal Decisions Inc., the former Brio Software Inc., and the former Applix Inc. (Unlike both Crystal and Brio, Applix was a specialist in Excel-centric, OLAP-driven reporting.) At this point, larger BI platform players such as Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., Hyperion Solutions Corp., Microsoft Corp., and MicroStrategy Corp. didn't yet field dedicated informational reporting tools of their own. Those came later, either by acquisition or (in the cases of Cognos, Microsoft, and MicroStrategy) via in-house development.

Two names missing from this list are Information Builders Inc. (IBI) and Actuate.

Both were -- and still are -- prominent BI players, although the IBI of today is very much a BI and data integration (DI) platform vendor. The Actuate of 2012, on the other hand, sounds a lot like the Actuate of 2002, at least if you listen to its marketing team.

Then and now, they say, Actuate focuses on reporting. The difference, of course, is that the scope of what Actuate means by "reporting" has expanded (drastically) over the last decade.

"We have extended into dashboards, and we now do some visualizations, too. We've also added more interactivity, but we haven't done more predictive analytics or advanced analytics," says Nobby Akiha, Actuate's long-time senior vice president of marketing. "We are an enterprise software company. Our specialty is [supporting] the high-scale, high-performance reporting requirements [of enterprise software developers]. We have the same strategy with big data, too."


Actuate made a smart bet nearly a decade ago with BIRT, the open source software (OSS) BI Reporting Tool. Starting in 2004, Actuate donated some of the code and attached several of its internal resources (i.e., employees) to kick off the BIRT project, which was to be hosted under the auspices of the Eclipse Foundation.

BIRT was just one of several OSS reporting efforts based on Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE, now dubbed Java EE). Another, similar project was a J2EE library called JasperReports. (If that name sounds familiar, it should: JasperReports was the basis for Jaspersoft BI, which is today a recognizable name in OSS BI.) Actuate saw BIRT as its means of entry into a then-emerging market -- namely, that of an embedded reporting technology for Java EE software development -- which had lots of potential.

The goal wasn't to dominate embedded reporting in the Java EE space, says Akiha. Instead, Actuate hoped to entice a "segment of customers" into paying Actuate for BIRT support. "What we wanted was to get the 10 to 20 percent of the developers who were using the [Eclipse] open source [software development stack] who had the need for high-scale, high-performance reporting; we wanted to get [those customers] to buy our servers," he explains.

BIRT gave Actuate newfound relevance. A decade ago, few could have guessed that JasperReports would effectively give birth to an enterprise BI platform, but that's exactly what happened. Jaspersoft Inc. -- the for-profit software company that grew up on top of JasperReports -- styles itself as a full-fledged enteprise BI vendor. These days, in fact, Jaspersoft arguably has more name recognition than Actuate.

Such a comparison of Actuate and JasperSoft isn't an arbitrary one. Both recognize one another as arch competitors, at least in the reporting space. (In an interview last August, for example, JasperSoft's Jim Bell said his company "see[s] BIRT most often competitively," and acknowledged that "half" of JasperSoft's reporting business consists of "Actuate replacements on the enterprise side.") JasperSoft's rise also highlights an Uncomfortable Likelihood: had Actuate not bet on BIRT, it might -- like several of its erstwhile competitors -- now be a footnote in the annals of BI market consolidation. In the 12 months before Actuate kicked off the BIRT project, after all, Crystal was acquired by Business Objects (subsequently acquired by SAP), Brio was acquired by Hyperion (subsequently acquired by Oracle), Cognos (subsequently acquired by IBM) introduced ReportNet, Microsoft delivered SQL Server Reporting Services, and MicroStrategy shipped Report Services.

BIRT saved Actuate from oblivion. There's a reverse to that coin, however: if JasperSoft has more name recognition than Actuate, it's likewise that BIRT is at least as well known, if not more so, than its creator. In its marketing collateral, for example, Actuate introduces itself as "the people behind BIRT." Akiha doesn't dispute this. That Actuate bet on BIRT, and chiefly on BIRT, is worth crowing about, he says; so, too, is Actuate's reporting-centric focus, to which the BIRT project, and its ongoing refusal to morph into a BI-of-all-trades platform, is a testament.

He contrasts this message with that of -- who else? -- JasperSoft. "If [prospective customers] download BIRT, they're probably downloading JasperSoft [too]," he says.

"We do kind of compete with the basic functionality [in JasperSoft], but [customers] say they're picking BIRT because there's a well-established company behind it, and also because it just does one thing [i.e., reporting]. That's important to them."

An Arms Race in the Cloud

Actuate and JasperSoft are both proactively contesting the next battlefield in commodity reporting: the cloud. JasperSoft officials, for example, say they're as committed to embedded reporting (a typical enabler for software development) as they've ever been. So far this year, they point out, JasperSoft has notched accords with cloud-based platform-as-a-service (PaaS) providers such as Amazon Inc., VMware Inc., and Red Hat Inc.

The VMware and Red Hat deals involve embedded reporting -- with an intriguing twist.

"What we're seeing [among developers] is that they're moving to [the] cloud. It's still early days, but the trend is definitely there," says Karl Van den Bergh, vice president of product and alliances with JasperSoft, who anticipates the emergence of a market for embedded analytics, in addition to bread-and-butter embedded reporting. "Where they're moving is [to] platform-as-a-service. We believe that in that middle layer ... [although] it's not typically included today ... we expect analytics to be a key component of the PaaS piece."

He stops short of predicting a sea-change shift to BI-in-the-cloud -- i.e. a move that would immediately and totally upend the on-premises status quo -- but argues that cloud-based BI, increasingly in the form of PaaS, can and will complement on-premises BI, both with respect to how BI applications are delivered or consumed and how BI features (or "services") are incorporated into application development projects.

According to Van den Bergh, it's an all but lead-pipe cinch: a significant share of enterprise application development already targets cloud; JasperSoft, Actuate, Microsoft, and others already embed their reporting tools in the PaaS cloud. Over the next half decade, more BI and analytic functions will likewise shift to the cloud; developers will look to exploit these capabilities in their application development efforts.

That's why JasperSoft has been ramping up its cloud PaaS partnerships.

"Our strategy is to become the de facto preferred BI service part of PaaS," he says. "This data-driven world ... is increasingly going to be cloud-hosted, [and] the analytics piece is going to be vital. We expect that [an] analytic reporting service is going to be a ... de facto component that PaaS providers are going to offer."

Akiha says he concurs -- to a degree -- with this vision. Actuate, too, plays in the cloud: both in the traditional (software-as-a-service) context, as well as in a PaaS topology. Actuate last year announced support for Amazon Inc.'s Relational Database Service (RDS) in its BIRT OnDemand SaaS offering. What's more, Actuate positions BIRT OnDemand, which comprises a BI reporting platform in the cloud, as a PaaS offering.

Akiha says Actuate likewise does a good bit of PaaS OEM business, selling BIRT OnDemand as a reporting enabler for SaaS or PaaS cloud offerings. (Actuate claims more than 200 OEM customers, but doesn't distinguish between on-premises and SaaS/PaaS sales.)

"Part of the reason why our OEM business continues to be healthy is that it gets fueled from the BIRT [OnDemand] side," he comments. Actuate is aggressively partnering on the big data front, too. Just last month, it notched a deal with Hadoop specialist Hortonworks -- a mere eight days after trumpeting a similar deal with Hadoop highflier Cloudera.

On the other hand, Actuate hasn't aggressively courted cloud PaaS providers, at least not on the scale of arch-rival JasperSoft. Akiha -- who was interviewed at TDWI's May World Conference in Chicago -- says Actuate isn't ruling such partnerships out. "Things are changing so much, [and] there's lots of opportunities for a vendor like us," he concludes. "The key is going to be offering [customers] a set of technologies that hopefully allow them to take advantage of these opportunities on their own [terms], whether it's big data, mobility, or the cloud."

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