Enterprise Reporting Systems

The heterogeneous, distributed nature of today's business environment has lead to the recent emergence of a new product category: enterprise reporting. Enterprise reporting involves creating reports that can be distributed to online end users in a heterogeneous networked environment.

Enterprise reporting focuses on solving the business reporting needs of end users regardless of either the source of the report data or the location of the report consumer. Traditional reporting, by contrast, has provided users with other hard copy generated by a single application or a desktop reporting package. Traditional reports are static and noninteractive, and they tend to have limited graphics.

OLAP, on the other hand, is focused on enabling ad hoc analysis of multidimensional databases. The analysis is usually quite rich, since the users can slice-and-dice the data and drill down into the database to get greater detail. Most observers would agree that reporting and OLAP analysis are two distinct, complementary means of delivering business information to end users.

So, what does it take to create and deploy an enterprise reporting system (ERS)?

An ERS must be able to consolidate data from multiple sources, including packaged applications, in order to deliver consistent, integrated enterprisewide information. An ERS should have a graphical development environment that can create reports with headers, footers and, logical breakpoints, and that has a rich palette of graphic objects.

An ERS must support a three-tier, server-based architecture with a source tier, a server tier and a desktop delivery tier. The server tier should be able to run reports on a routine, scheduled basis, on-demand, or in response to an external trigger. For example, the sales manager may want the system to run a special report on sales productivity if sales drop by X% over a prior period. The server should be hosted on a scalable platform that supports symmetric multiprocessing and application threads. The ERS repository, which contains report objects, report definition logic and report metadata, should be able to deliver large numbers (tens of thousands) of complex, multipart reports to many concurrent, interactive users.

ERS users should be able to access portions of a report that are of interest to them, consistent with the user’s security profile. The vice president of sales should be able to see a corporate sales report, while regional sales managers should be able to access only reports on their regions.

Users should be able to tailor the report format -- style, font, color -- for their own purposes. They should also be able to perform analysis on the report using filtering, graphics, pivot tables and drill-through, without needing to go back to the original data source. A good ERS will also allow developers to create reports that can accept run-time parameters, such as date range, product number or sales territory, from users.

Reports should be delivered using either the push or pull paradigm. ERS users should be able to subscribe to reports of interest and have them sent automatically via e-mail or an Internet channel. They should also be able to search or browse a report catalog and view reports that have been run or request reruns of older reports to get current data. An ERS will support a Web browser as its native interface, and reports accessed using a browser should support hypertext links to other, related reports or relevant Web pages. For example, a sales report can have a hypertext link pointing to the customer's Web site.

An ERS should implement a robust enterprisewide management process. This includes support for multilevel security to protect sensitive corporate data. Enterprisewide security profiles, policies and procedures should be supported by the reporting software security system.

Only a few companies are addressing this list of requirements. Both Actuate Software Corp. (San Mateo, Calif., www.actuate.com) and Sqribe Technologies (Menlo Park, Calif., www.sqribe.com) provide high-end reporting engines, with object-oriented report development environments. Seagate Software Inc. (Scotts Valley, Calif., www.seagate.com) is pushing Crystal Info, which includes the Holos OLAP engine. Information Advantage Inc. (Eden Prairie, Minn., www.infoadvan.com) is in the process of integrating its recent acquisition of IQ Software into an enterprise reporting platform that leverages its DecisionSuite relational OLAP engine.

DataWatch Corp. (Wilmington, Mass., www.datawatch.com) has come out with an interesting twist. DataWatch Monarch/ES can extract data from existing report files (usually created using COBOL), and make the data available on a server that can let users access it thorough the Web and perform limited analysis on it. This reduces the need to write specialized logic to extract data from data sources, since the original legacy software has already done that. --Robert Craig is director, Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence Division, at Hurwitz Group Inc. (Framingham, Mass.). Contact him at rcraig@hurwitz.com or via the Web at www.hurwitz.com.