Column: The New World of Enterprise Reporting Is Here

Whenever Bill Gates talks about Microsoft Corp.'s own intranet, which spans 2,000 servers and connects 26,000 employees, he talks about wanting bad news to travel fast. Company executives need to know what's going on so they can make changes on the fly. Good news shouldn't require much behavioral change; bad news might.

In simpler days, company executives might find out what's going on by checking ledgers, walking through a warehouse or talking to the guys in engineering. Today, the information we need is buried somewhere in the great googolplex of data spawned by our modern computer systems. It's in millions of cells in the thousands of rows and tables in hundreds of relational databases.

The big-hammer approach to digging out the relevant data is to build a data warehouse that taps into operational and transaction systems and then overlay analytical applications on top of that. Data marts in turn can sit on top of the data warehouse and pull up topical or application-specific information (or in some cases get it directly from the underlying operational system). Either way, it's a chore.

The small-hammer approach is to use specific, targeted enterprise-reporting software packages that bypass the whole enterprise data warehouse megillah. Those packages are turbocharged descendants of end-user query and reporting tools, except that they build a repository of reports for storage and retrieval; offer administrative functions, such as profiling, security and stored database management system commands; and generate "queriable" reports that let users drill down into the data in real time. They generate "live" electronic reports tailor-made for intranet access, and they're generally drenched in Java and compliant with online analytical processing (OLAP). The products usually come with separate development environments, servers for turning report repositories into Web suites, security tools, end-user viewers and query tools, and tools for managing report objects.

Examples of the genre are Seagate Software's Info 7, Actuate Software's Actuate Reporting System, Data Watch's Monarch/ES and Sqribe Technologies' suite of ReportMart products.

The market for that new class of enterprise reporting software is still small -- a little more than US$100 million in worldwide sales last year, according to International Data Corp. -- but in five years, it will be worth well over $1 billion. The software should be especially attractive to small and midsize companies that don't have the budget, time or resources to scale the enterprise data warehouse mountain.

What I like about these packages is their turnkey nature. They don't try to solve all information access and reporting problems at once, and they don't require an army of programmers to implement. In addition, they tailor information using a metaphor users understand -- reports -- and they were designed from the start with the Web in mind. And you don't need to be a rocket scientist to use them.

I have seen, for instance, a company, whose main business was reporting on Web statistics, use Seagate's Crystal Reports to analyze the volumes of data produced each day. The queries were written by a college kid.

Others may come along and knock those vendors aside. Microsoft's "Plato" (the OLAP servers in SQL Server 7.0) announcement last fall was seen by some as competitive with enterprise-reporting tools, and the collaborative software vendors are bound to crowd that space. New features to those product categories will let other software developers and corporate developers offer their own enterprise-reporting products.

But in the meantime, you might consider looking at one of these packages. You could, for instance, keep track of the progress of your data warehouse development project, including cost overruns, programmer hours and statistics on the political battles you win or lose. Or track the rapid decay of the electric grid on Jan. 1, 2000. Getcher bad news fast, same as Bill.

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