BIRT is an open-source reporting project that is sponsored by the Eclipse Foundation. Actuate initiated that project back in 2004. It was designed with the intention to provide a new way of doing reporting, and, indeed, BIRT is different from many other reporting tools that pre-date BIRT.
A typical report designer is a banded report writer, with a header, details and a footer, and everything had to fit into that format to be on the report. BIRT does that a bit differently. We have grids, nested grids, and in general a Web 2.0 approach to designing reports.
BIRT is aimed at Java development teams looking to embed reporting into their applications. We recently reached the milestone of 1 million downloads, and the project has several hundred developers.
BIRT includes a rich designer that's aimed at Eclipse developers. It's a plug-in for the Eclipse IDE, and allows you to design reports within that environment. It also comes with a runtime API as well so you can easily integrate reporting into your application.
Virtually any report you can think of—whatever style of output, operational reporting, sales reports, forecasting reports—any sort of reporting can be facilitated with BIRT. We see users from all across the board, from OEMs who are integrating BIRT into their applications, to those integrating it into their Web sites, and there are universities and commercial entities who are integrating BIRT into their internal and external reports.
The main benefit of using a tool for reporting, instead of writing your own custom code for reporting, is that you can focus more on your application and application logic, and not worry about the reporting part of your application. BIRT is especially useful if you have multiple data sources. BIRT can handle those sources, and combine their output in a graphical way. BIRT facilitates working with multiple data sources with something called a joint data set that lets you take the various data sources—a database or XML or text—and lets you join that on a key that's appropriate for your reports. You can merge some text data with some XML and some database results to produce one result set.
As for laying out your pages, BIRT comes with design grids and nested grids, things that you think about in terms of Web pages. In general, it gives you a nice and easy drag-and-drop environment. For viewing the reports, the open-source version has a viewer for static reports. You can deliver reports as PDF, HTML, Excel, PowerPoint, RTF files, lots of those output types. If you're presenting into a Web browser, you can present these as HTML, cross-tabs, or reports that drill into one another.
Actuate provides support, services, and training around the open-source BIRT. In addition, we provide some value-added products that give you additional interactivity. We have an Ajax engine, for instance, as well as the Actuate iPortal that has an interactive viewer that allows people to re-sort and re-arrange their reports, and makes one report valuable to many users.
The newly unveiled BIRT exchange is a self-service community for developers using BIRT. It's a resource to find tips, we have forums arranged by solution areas very specific to what you're doing. There is also a DevExchange for developers to share report designs, example code, scripting that worked for them, in addition to a wiki and blogs.