Enterprise Reporting Moving Beyond the Firewall

Recent releases from two of the biggest names in enterprise reporting demonstrate an effort to push outside the corporate firewall by these traditionally intranet-focused products.

Last month, Actuate Corp. (www.actuate.com) announced the Actuate e.Reporting Suite 4, an upgrade to the company’s flagship product, which was formerly known as the Actuate Reporting System. Three weeks earlier, Sqribe Technologies (www.sqribe.com) unveiled version 5.0 of its flagship SQR Enterprise Reporting Server. Sqribe’s product ships this month. Actuate’s release is scheduled for late in the third quarter of this year.

"It’s a combination of the evolution of what e-business is itself and how Actuate has transformed itself from an internal role to an outgoing role, as well," says Vijay Ramakrishnan, Actuate’s technical marketing manager, of the new external focus of his company’s product.

Enterprise reporting’s traditional reason for existence has been to save money on printing costs. A common justification was to eliminate the so-called greenbar paper reports that ran to the hundreds of pages and were distributed through the halls of an enterprise in shopping carts. The paper reporting method cost a lot of money over the long-run in printing costs and required an extended lead time for delivery, especially to remote offices. Electronic transmissions eliminated these difficulties.

Companies also highlighted the ease of preparing enterprise reports in their development platforms, with the ability to draw data from different sources and platforms. The comparison was to hand-code reports developed by IT department programmers. The argument for using enterprise reporting tools became more compelling as Sqribe and Actuate added graphical interfaces to their development tools, a feature Sqribe continues to refine with its latest release.

Unlike paper reports, both tools allowed end users to perform simple queries. Brio Technology (www.brio.com), a desktop OLAP and analysis suite vendor, will soon complete its acquisition of Sqribe, extending Sqribe’s analysis capabilities. Actuate released "Transporters" in early Spring that provide single-click integration of its reports with analysis and OLAP tools from a number of vendors.

Sqribe laid a foundation for making its product an e-business tool in September by standardizing on a browser interface instead of the Windows clients or browser plug-ins, which had been the enterprise reporting standard. But Sqribe aggressively positioned its product as an enterprise portal, a hot term for centralizing employee access to corporate information on an intranet site. Still, the focus was internal.

With its latest release, Actuate is working to get customers to associate its name with e-business by leveraging its own browser-based interface to push the enterprise reporting concept outside the intranet toward extranet-style business-to-business and business-to-consumer reporting and interaction.

"What we’re seeing now is that a lot of the information that’s stored in operational databases, data warehouses and internal applications has a lot of value for existing customers and partners," Ramakrishnan says. "These data sources can provide things like statements, performance summaries and status reports."

Among the specific new features in Actuate that target outside-the-firewall activity are support for Dynamic HTML to improve the Web browsing experience and page security through the use of Access Control Lists that would allow a user to view a certain section of a lengthy report without being able to see all of the content. Actuate’s range of display formats will also permit a company to burst appropriate sections of lengthy reports in the output format preferred by a customer or partner. Those output formats include XML DTDs and PDF.

The features of the two products don’t seem to diverge significantly. The companies got into a spat a few months ago about which was first to integrate XML into its product. Either way, both are moving toward that emerging standard.

Sqribe shares many similar features, including sophisticated security and support for XML, PDF and myriad other output and display formats. The company also sees the opportunity for pushing enterprise reporting toward customers and partners.

John Schroeder, senior vice president for research and development at Sqribe, and Ramakrishnan both say between 10 percent and 20 percent of their respective companies’ customers are using their products outside the firewall, but each believes that percentage will rise dramatically.

"The IT organizations are starting to standardize on business intelligence tools, and the purchase is becoming more strategic," Schroeder says. "Right now, almost 100 percent [of potential customers] say, ‘I need to deploy this in an Internet fashion.’ Hardly anybody buys a product that won’t allow them to do Internet."