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17 February 2010, 12:56

Seeding the Community

How enterprise open source vendors can nurture a community around their software

By DJ Walker-Morgan

For an open source company, nurturing a community around the software is as important as picking the right licence. Although developer communities tend to be more self-starting with a reasonably open development process, user communities, which are a source of valuable feedback, need more encouragement. The H went to the first meeting of the UK BIRT User Group (BUG) to see how one company was helping to create a user community.

BIRT is one of those software components you'll find in all sorts of different applications. Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools, is at its simplest a report generation tool with report design tools. The BIRT project was proposed and sponsored by Actuate when the company joined the Eclipse Foundation in 2004. Since then it has been adopted by numerous companies, from large corporations to small developers. The H has come across BIRT in use at BullionVault where, despite some issues, it is a useful part of their in-house development toolkit.

This widespread use doesn't mean that users' feedback easily finds its way into the core open source, or that users can see other examples of BIRT in action. Actuate, who produce their reporting tools based around BIRT, decided that it was worth seeding a wider community; people who use BIRT.

Zoom The BIRT user group

The H went along to the first meeting of the UK BIRT User Group, held at Planet Hollywood in London and talked with Paul Bappoo about creating the user group from an organiser's point of view, and with Ray Gans, Actuate's Community Manager, about the company's plans for seeding the community:

The H: Why BIRT?

Paul Bappoo: For several years now I have seen software companies talking about reporting systems that are capable of producing interactive, dashboard style BI reports, but so far they have all been difficult to use and had a long learning curve attached. BIRT seems to overcome these issues, as it is quick easy to get started and produce great results.
Paul Bappoo

H: How much of a role does BIRT being open source play in that?

PB: For me, a lot! The fact that the open source product is extremely capable means that it can provide a genuine solution to developers who wish to add a low cost reporting solution to their projects. However, unlike many open source projects, BIRT has full commercial backing from Actuate, thereby making it a safe choice too. The argument against open source software in a commercial environment is essentially that, when things go wrong it is not guaranteed that you will be able to find a solution quickly. This is of course not an acceptable situation for many commercial organisations who come to rely on software for their daily operations. So the commercial support from Actuate and the commercial add-ons mean that the product and the support is extensible for anyone who needs to take it the distance.

H: Why a UK BIRT User Group?

PB: BIRT is relatively new - first launched in 2005, it is only now starting to gain a foothold and increasing in popularity in quite a dramatic manner. As organisations such as IBM and Infor start to bundle BIRT with their products the number of users is increasing and I believe that to get the most from the open source products users need to help each other. It's all about community and one of the best ways to create a community is for people to meet and interact with each other.

Next: Are there other BUGs?

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