Microsoft rolls out its budget version of a large-scale enterprise report writer

Can SQL's built-in reporting tools remove need for costly third-party software?

Can SQL's built-in reporting tools remove need for costly third-party software?

On hearing the term "report" many business and IT people think first of the end product - the report - then the report writer where it was created, followed by the report server that delivered it, and finally the tool that administers the report server.

Reporting Services, an add-on to Microsoft SQL Server, would be most appropriate for large-scale enterprise reporting, where thousands of reports are managed and distributed to thousands of consumers.

As well as the challenge of producing thousands of reports, IT managers in large organisations have to cope with the problems of storing and managing a repository of thousands of reports and distributing them to thousands of users in the format and on the schedules required by individual consumers.

Reporting Services provides an infrastructure for information delivery that addresses the problems of report storage, management and distribution that other suppliers have neglected.

Since Reporting Services runs on top of SQL Server, it has the potential to be more scalable than similar platforms from other business intelligence suppliers.

Reporting Services includes components for all these pieces of the enterprise reporting technology stack in the form of Report Server Database, where reports are stored; Report Designer, where they are created; Report Server, which delivers the reports; and Report Manager, which administers Report Server.

Given the high number of users and reports involved in enterprise reporting, scalability is a key requirement.

Horror stories abound about user organisations that tried and failed to achieve enterprise reporting with Olap-based business intelligence platforms. When the number of concurrent users is high, even platforms constructed specifically for enterprise reporting have trouble scaling up. SQL Server is a mature, multi-threaded database management system with proven scalability in transactional and decision support environments.

Since Reporting Services can use SQL Server's scalability, its prospects are good for scaling up to large deployments of enterprise reporting.

With the licensing structure Microsoft has adopted, Reporting Services on top of SQL Server may also prove to be cost-effective, offering relatively good performance at a low price. Reporting Services is not exactly free, because it requires a licence for SQL Server 2000. Using Report Designer also requires a licence for Visual Studio .net 2003.

In some cases, a user organisation may be able to co-locate Reporting Services with a pre-existing SQL Server licence, which would entail no additional licensing cost.

However, it seems likely that, given the demanding environment of true enterprise reporting, most organisations will want a separate hardware server running an additional SQL Server licence and Reporting Services to distribute processing load for the sake of performance and scalability.

Even with this configuration, the low cost of SQL Server licences amounts to a fraction of the licence cost of report servers from suppliers such as Actuate and Crystal Decisions.

IT organisations that must deploy enterprise reporting on a budget yet want to minimise the risk of failing to scale up should evaluate Reporting Services. Although the server components are promising, the catch is that Report Designer may not satisfy the desires of experienced IT professionals.

Report Designer is good for grouped reports in a banded report design environment, but the application is not yet up to ambitious report styles such as heavily visual and personalised dashboards. But help is at hand - several third-party report writers can already output reports in Report Definition Language (RDL), which Reporting Services requires to manage and distribute them.

As more business intelligence suppliers support Microsoft's RDL, Reporting Services will be able to fulfil its role as a cost-effective and scalable infrastructure for information delivery, while third-party products satisfy unique requirements for report creation in various styles.

As such, the first release of Microsoft Reporting Services should provide a strong infrastructure for server-based report storage, management and distribution. Although it downplays the role of report writing.

Philip Russom and Keith Gile are analysts at Forrester Research

Read more on Business intelligence software