BI First Try
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Review: Given Oracle, MySQL and DB2 databases with interesting data
Feature: Try getting some simple reports out the door in a couple of days with BI tools
Our review of the major free databases has produced some interesting data in terms of the baseball, football, and insecticides databases. So once I had the data loaded in on at least one of the databases I decided to see how easy/hard it would be to get some classic BI-Business Intelligence reports and graphics software to work with this rich data.

Now I know that all of the free database vendors have reasonably good BI and reporting services; but I didn't want to get distracted by having to download and get a full set of BI apps working as well as the free databases. Contending with some of the database problems, especially on loading up and starting to test the querying capabilities - these were taking enough time and effort on their own. So Kiss was in order.

Kiss in this case means using a packaged report writer and if it has an OLAP engine with crosstabs - fine. But the real goal is to get out some simple reports and charts. And following the advice of some BI colleagues I decided to look at Open Source BI tools first. This sentiment was echoed by the the analysts at Spike Sources:
"But now open-source solution providers have aggressively entered the market. A survey by Ventana Research of large and medium-size businesses found that a considerable percentage of respondents (20 percent) had already deployed an open-source BI solution. And, the real surprise, more than 60 percent were planning to....Open-source BI tools have matured very rapidly and many are ready for enterprise deployment."

So I spurned for the time being, tools like Crystal Reports and Crystal Xcelsius from Business Objects or similar programs from Cognos, Hyperion, SAS and others. Too much time and learning curves - take the Open Source root.

Open Source vs Commercial BI

There is actually quite a lot of Open Source BI tools, especially in the reporting and charting arenas. But I wanted something quick and dirty - easy to learn, I could be done looking at two or three products in a day or two at the most. Keep the focus on the free databases and finding out their capabilities. True, linking the databases into multi-table joins across databases was another angle I wanted to follow up on - but later, after getting some simple reports.

So we settled on 5 popular Reporting tools. Three are Open Source and two are commercial. Given the ease with which I have been able to download and install the free databases (DB2, MySQL and Oracle) I expected the same to be available from the BI tool vendors be it Open Source or commercial trial/demo software. However, for getting started and producing the first reports, my expectations were lower - and this is based on a)some of the problems encountered with loading data into the free databases (the devil is in the details) and b)the learning curves associated now with almost all database and application development tools.

On the latter, point I give the vendors top marks in trying to make all development tasks easier - but both Web and even desktop based app development is no easy row to hoe. So I allowed a full weekend to do the downloads and get some quick reporting results for show. This would be proof that the free databases can provide useful output. And given the success so far with the free databases, this should not be mission impossible. Here are the results.

BIRT

BIRT is an add on to Eclipse that is sponsored by a number of vendors with a key role being played by Actuate. The attraction of BIRT is that because it is Eclipse savvy it can be ported to a number of OS platforms including Mac OS/X, Sun Solaris, many flavors of Linux as well as Windows. In addition, a number of commercial and Open Source vendors have BIRT as part of their offerings - Pentaho, which we shall see later, Actuate, and others use BIRT as the core of their broader BI offerings.

I already had a version of Eclipse installed so instead of taking the simple path of doing a second complete install I chose to install BIRT over my existing Eclipse program. Wrong move. Four hours later and I was still not able to get the BIRT Perspective to show in Eclipse. I followed the download instructions to the hilt. Now I know I have many more choices about setting up BIRT, but I also know that BIRT is not a simple gun and run app either.

Crystal Reports

Crystal Reports is a venerable player on the report writing and BI scene. It got started in the early days of Windows and for a long time was the key report writing component for number of Microsoft products. I have used Crystal in VB, C++, and now Java applications and find that it has a very rich set of functions and reporting features. Some complain that the richness leads to a high learning curve - and I certainly would not let end users work with the product with out thorough training.

And it appears thorough training in how to download the 765MB trial version of the Developers Edition is what this reviewer needs. On the third try Sunday evening I got close, 543MBs but no cigar. So I threw in the towel and have a request in with Business Objects to send me the CD version which will be tested as soon as it arrives.

Jaspersoft

Jaspersoft reports is one of the key Open Source rivals to BIRT and is used in a lot of Open Source projects - Bizgres lead by GreenPlum is an example. The reporting tool actually proceeded BIRT and set a lot of trends in Java report writing including output in several formats including HTML, XML, PDF, CVS, etc.

But yet again I was frustrated by the install process. I am not an Ant expert - but not a neophyte either. But I could not get the Ant Build script to work for Jaspersoft Reports no matter what or where I tried - including Eclipse's excellent Ant Engine. So after the allotted 3 turned to 4 hours I again threw in the towel. But I shall return, because of the next software tried.

Pentaho

Pentaho can be thought of as an integrator of BI software including BIRT, Jaspersoft and JFreeReport charting plus reporting tools; Mondrian OLAP and jPivot analysis engines; Weka data mining; Firebird and Shark for underlying database and workflow; plus Kettle Extract Transform Load tools among others. Pentaho provides the scripting and overall integration services along with the integration design. This is not insignificant, because users starting from scratch would have a formidable task to do the equivalent.

Yet the complete system is all delivered as Open Source and we had the best success
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getting some of the systems like BIRT and JasperSoft Reports to work in Pentaho. However, even with Pentaho the demo system and database took enough time and effort to get going that reluctantly a cutoff at 5 1/2 hours in had to be imposed. Again, we know better where to go to get the data and documentation to make it all work - but that awaits another day.

ReportMill

ReportMill is a commercial software vendor that has been in the report writing business since late 1997 using Apple's WebObjects as its point of departure. The company takes a slightly orthogonal approach to report development - its reports are best used in conjunction with third part Application Server and development tools. Again, because they are Java-based , Report Mill tools can be used with Eclipse, Oracle JDeveloper, the BEA set of App Server, Workshop and SOA tools, Sun's Enterprise Developer pack etc.

What makes ReportMill distinctly attractive is that it uses key open standards like Java, XML, JavaScript in novel ways while linking those to very polished Report Designer tools that are dead simple to install and quite easy to learn. We are still from Missouri on how far you can carry the ReportMill output into sophisticated multi-table designs with charting sub regions and complex multi-database joins. But that may be a function of the time we had available to
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work with ReportMill. But in 1 1/2 hours we were able to get the most out of the ReportMill download of all the products we tried. It is not yet completely geared up for end users, but ReportMill could be used to extinguish some of those formatting, styling and sorting rush jobs that inevitably crop up in the BI world. And definitely we shall return to ReportMill for more testing in the future.

Summary

Yes, with the lone exception of ReportMill, this reviewer was disappointed with the difficulties of loading and installing both the Open Source and commercial BI products. I expected to get a lot more done on this past 3 -4 days. These BI vendors should take a page out of the database vendors' playbooks - they have taken their equally bulky and tough to learn software products and made them easy to download and install. Some like Oracle, MySQL and IBM DB2 have really gone out of the way to make First Step and Getting started documentation very accessible. IBM sends an email about 1 week and 3 weeks after your Express C download giving you tips and tutorials on where to go to get more out of your DB2.

Now some will argue that this undercuts key revenue streams for both commercial and Open Source BI vendors. And to an extent that is true. But MySQL and JBoss are two profitable examples of Open Source shops that have made getting started well a key success factor for their software applications.

In sum, we look cautiously forward to finding some good BI tools to go with the free databases. If readers have any recommendations, as always we really do appreciate the advice and will follow up on all emails sent here.




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