Microsoft has added reporting capabilities to its SQL Server 2000 database, rounding out its business intelligence platform with a feature long sought by some of its customers.
SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services allows users to program their databases to generate reports, such as a breakdown of sales by region, and then helps manage and distribute those reports. It can pull data from multiple sources including databases from Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, as well as line-of-business applications from SAP and others, said Thomas Rizzo, director of Microsoft's SQL Server management team.
The reports can be generated in HTML for presentation on the Web, in a document format such as Adobe Systems' PDF (Portable Document Format), or in a data format such as XML (Extensible Markup Language). Reports can also be exported directly to Excel thanks to close linkage with Microsoft Office, Rizzo said.
The reporting features will be welcomed by many SQL Server users, some of whom were so keen that they went into production with a beta version of the software released last year, said Philip Russom, a principal analyst with Forrester Research.
Microsoft had originally planned to introduce Reporting Services with Yukon, the next major upgrade to its database. With the launch of Yukon delayed until later this year, Microsoft is offering the capabilities with SQL Server 2000 so that customers don't have to wait so long, Russom said. IBM, Oracle and the other main database vendors already support reporting capabilities.
Real estate company Long & Foster turned to Reporting Services to standardize its platform for delivering almost 300 reports to its 13,000 employees. It's replacing a mishmash of software including reporting tools from Cognos Inc. and Crystal Decisions (acquired last year by Business Objects SA) as well as some older technologies, said Lance Morimoto, Long & Foster's senior manager for e-commerce and applications development.
It completed a pilot program involving 35 reports and is happy with Microsoft's software so far, he said. Data for the reports comes from a SQL Server data warehouse, which in turn aggregates data from the company's ERP applications and other systems.
Russom doesn't expect Microsoft's reporting software to hurt companies such as Cognos and Crystal too badly. It will appeal mostly to customers with predominantly Microsoft environments, he said. Microsoft's tool for authoring reports, Report Writer, is offered as an add-on for Visual Studio .Net, Microsoft's development environment, he noted.
"The whole solution is pretty tightly integrated with .Net," Long & Foster's Morimoto said. "We're a big .Net shop, so we were able to add the reporting services module into Visual Studio .Net."
Russom also noted that Report Writer is a "version one" product with some room to mature. The success of Reporting Services will depend partly on whether vendors such as Cognos and Crystal support Microsoft's Report Definition Language (RDL), he said, which would allow reports authored with third-party tools to be managed and distributed through Reporting Services.
"Eventually we'll have to see if other software vendors have report writers that conform to Microsoft's standard, so they can output their reports in a format Reporting Services can manage. Part of the success will depend on how the other vendors decide to act," Russom said.
Cognos plans to support RDL, although when that will happen depends on customer feedback, a Cognos spokeswoman said. Crystal Decisions is evaluating RDL to determine what level of support it will provide, a spokesman said. Both vendors said they see Microsoft's entry to the market as a positive thing. "It puts so much emphasis on what we do and where we play," according to Adam Ciperski, Cognos director of field strategy and support.
Long & Foster created the 35 reports for its pilot program using Report Writer. It's too early to say whether the tool will suffice for porting its existing 250 reports to Microsoft's platform, Morimoto said.
"We've heard from Microsoft that you'd still be able to design in Crystal and save the file as RDL. For the 35 reports we did, we didn't use Crystal; we found we could get away with the report writer in Reporting Services. Have I determined that Reporting Services will be sufficient for all 250 reports? Not yet, there may still be a need for third-party software," Morimoto said.
Another customer said the Report Writer tool included with Reporting Services Beta 2, released in November, is much better than the previous beta releases. "It's like night and day," said Dan Zerfas, vice president of applications development with credit card and banking company First Premier, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
First Premier is also a Microsoft shop and had been building reports using SQL Query Analyzer and Microsoft's Access database. It was able virtually to cut and paste the Access code into Reporting Services, which was a time saver and a big draw, he said. It also liked the GUI on the Microsoft software.
Customers will need a SQL Server 2000 license for each server on which they run the reporting software, so if they run it on the same server as their Microsoft database they won't have to pay extra. To run it on a separate server they'll need a SQL Server license for that system, which starts at US$5,000 per processor.
More than 70 percent of customers are likely to run the software on a separate server, to avoid slowing their main database with the additional workload, said Jason Carlson, a product unit manager for SQL Server Reporting Services.
Even while it ships SQL Server Reporting Services, Microsoft is working on an upgrade that will be delivered with Yukon. That version will generate reports from OLAP databases -- something Rizzo acknowledged is hard to do with the current version. It will also support a broader set of output formats, Carlson said.