September 2009

"Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius-and a lot of courage-to move in the opposite direction."

Albert Einstein

The main purpose of a business intelligence (BI) system is to provide access to information for decision makers. Reporting tools help to create, administer and distribute reports. Reports can be classified into three categories: i) standard reports containing information in table form; ii) cubes which are online analytical processing (OLAP) reports designed to analyze multidimensional data; and iii) dashboards which provide an overview of selected reports and key performance indicators (KPI). Each of these report types are often supplemented by graphical representations of the data.

There are many different reporting solutions available in the open source market. In this article, we compare four open source reporting solutions. They give a good insight of the current state of the market and are among the most popular solutions in use today.

Four Reporting Solutions

This section provides a brief overview of the four reporting solutions we compared.

BIRT is a popular reporting solution hosted by the Eclipse Foundation. The BIRT software project started in 2004 when Actuate Corporation joined the Eclipse Foundation and donated the software.

Based in Orlando, Florida, Pentaho is one of the most recognized open source BI vendors. Their flagship product, Open Source Business Intelligence Suite, includes reporting, analysis, dashboards and data mining features. This comparison focuses on the reporting capabilities of the open source version which has fewer features than the enterprise edition.

Founded in 2001, Jaspersoft is an established vendor of open source BI solutions. Jaspersoft's Business Intelligence Suite offers a feature set comparable to Pentaho's solution. While an enterprise edition is available, this review analyzes the features of their open source community edition.

Headquartered in Toronto, Canada, SQL Power Group open-sourced its reporting tool Wabit in 2008. Wabit offers reporting and OLAP analysis. Unlike most other open source BI reporting tools, Wabit comes with all existing features in its open source version.

Table 1 summarizes the four solutions and their most recent versions.

Table 1: Open Source Reporting Solutions


Comparison Criteria

The four solutions were compared using the following criteria:

1. Getting started: the software should be easy to install and to use. For the ease of installation criteria, we tested how many different files had to be downloaded and how many different programs were installed in order to create and view reports. We also determined whether sufficient examples are available, and whether prior knowledge of SQL is required to create reports.

2. Feature richness: compares the main product features in order to determine whether the software fulfills the most common reporting requirements. The ease of use criteria indicates how much effort is needed to create and view reports. It is also important to see which data sources can be used and which output formats are available.

3. Available support: an often heard prejudice against open source software is the lack of documentation and support. This category contains information on how well supported the reporting solution is based on its documentation and forum activity.

Table 2 summarizes the results of our survey. A star rating is used to rate each criteria as described above. "Y" indicates a feature is present, "(Y)" indicates a feature is partially present, and "-" indicates the feature is not present in the product.

Table 2: Feature Comparison of Solutions



All four tested reporting tools provide the features needed to create basic reports. BIRT is easy to get started with and is well supported, but is limited to relational reports since it does not support OLAP reports and dashboards. BIRT doesn't have its own security but depends on the security of its underlying application server. Nonetheless, BIRT has seen widespread use, especially embedded in other open source applications.

Although Jaspersoft's BI suite report development environment is more complex, it compensates for this fact with added features and functionality. Jaspersoft allows OLAP analysis but its current open source version doesn't support dashboards. Its report designer gives the user many options to create reports but the web interface lacks usability and functionality.

The most complex product in this comparison is Pentaho's BI suite which includes several client applications for different tasks. The effort users expend getting started pays itself back in a feature-rich BI solution with a state of the art web interface expected by medium to larger businesses.

Wabit takes a different approach than all of the other tested solutions. It provides all the functionality to create and view reports in one application, making it easy for the first time user. Its current version is missing some features such as a web interface, security and parameterized reports. But its ease of use makes this reporting solution a compelling alternative for small to medium size organizations. SQL Power has to add the missing features to compete with Pentaho and Jaspersoft.

Although none of the presented solutions can fulfill all criteria, the comparison shows that open source BI solutions are mature enough to be used in production environments.


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