One of the most interesting trends in computing over the last few years has been the increasing number of companies that sell proprietary software moving to embrace open source in some form. One of the less well-known examples is Actuate, which operates in the field of business intelligence. Its open source offering, BIRT (Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools), is an “Eclipse-based reporting system that integrates with your Java/J2EE application to produce compelling reports” according to its home page.
Rich Guth is the person in charge of Actuate's Java group. As the VP of Marketing at Sendmail, he worked for one of the very first companies to offer commercial versions of a successful open source project – experience that stands him good stead for nurturing the BIRT developer community. Here he talks about the company's origins, why it decided to embrace open source alongside its proprietary code, and what it hopes to achieve with its BIRT Exchange site for developers.
GM: What's the background to Actuate's foundation – when and why was it set up? How has it evolved since those early days?
RG: Actuate was founded in 1999 with a vision to develop software that would revolutionize the way information was delivered in the enterprise and beyond by removing the barriers to disseminating information to all who need it. Actuate has had an innovative vision since day one – reach a much larger audience of consumers by being the first to disseminate reports securely via a client-server model.
Actuate has evolved dramatically since the early days. In 2004 the company realised the potential of open source in delivering highly customizable reports that are accessible by any user level in an organization. To meet this need, Actuate made its foray into the open source market with BIRT (Business Intelligence Reporting Tools), a joint project with the Eclipse Foundation. With Actuate’s BIRT-based product line, the company is able to extend its software to a larger market – Java developers.
In 2007, based on the success of BIRT, Actuate moved toward a hybrid business model that leveraged the company’s experience in monetising open source technology. Today, BIRT has become one of the top 20 Eclipse projects with 2+ million downloads and an active community site, BIRT Exchange, to support its use.
GM: What problems are your products trying to solve today? Who typically uses them?
RG: The Actuate product line assures that 100 percent of enterprise users – both inside and outside the firewall – gain value from all their information assets. Actuate’s products are intuitive, personalised and easy to use with formats that present data integrated from all relevant sources for any size company, no matter how small or large.
Corporations today require more effective reporting tools that will simplify each person’s job – having unified reports that can be easily shared from one department to another increases collaboration within organizations as well as reduces time spent when developing reports. Actuate tackles common reporting problems such as multiple report versions, inconsistent metric definitions and multiple departmental-centric spreadsheet data silos, all of which ultimately results in multiple versions of the truth. Actuate’s software solutions put an end to this problem through simple reporting measures – live business data is delivered within easy-to-use and familiar Excel spreadsheets with all formatting, formulas and graphs intact.
Today, thousands of C-level executives, analysts, business managers and IT departments benefit from Actuate’s products. Actuate’s highly customisable dashboards and Google-like look and feel of its applications helps business users benefit from having business data delivered just the way they need it while IT has complete control over mission-critical data with zero-training and low maintenance and deployment costs.
GM: When and why did Actuate decide to release software as open source? What are the advantages of doing so?
RG: The inspiration for BIRT was to foster additional levels of innovation with the company’s product development while driving down sales and marketing costs and increasing its developer base. By compiling mindshare from the developer community and other industry influencers, Actuate continues to develop new BIRT-based functionality at an unprecedented pace.
Traditionally, software products have a 12-18 month feedback cycle based on a drawn out roadmap and product review process. At the same time, organisations are collecting feedback directly form select customers. The open source model enables Actuate to release quality software based on a constant cycle of feedback from a broader base of constituents more rapidly.
As Actuate’s CEO frequently points out, part of the goal in the upcoming years will be increasing the number of BIRT developers, growing from two million to ten million.