Analyst's Perspective: Crystal Enterprise 9

Crystal Ups the Ante for Enterprise BI

Vendor reputations die hard in the software industry. Since 1992 when Crystal Decisions released the industry’s first Windows PC-based report writer, the Vancouver-based firm has been cast as a provider of desktop or production reporting tools. However, during the past seven years, Crystal has expanded its product line beyond pixel-perfect report generation into interactive end-user analysis.

Last week, the Vancouver-based firm shipped the third major version of its business-intelligence (BI) suite, Crystal Enterprise 9. The product offers a highly scalable BI infrastructure that supports a range of analytical users and activities, including production reporting, OLAP, Web-based report creation and analysis, and rich interfaces to embed Crystal reports and views into other applications.

From the Desktop to the Web

Not surprisingly, Crystal has a similar strategy to compete in the BI market as Business Objects, another erstwhile desktop reporting firm. Both have taken a phased approach to migrating their desktop reporting tools to the Web. For example, both companies still offer their desktop tools as the primary interface for designing Web reports. However, one major difference is that Business Objects has focused more on integrating reporting and OLAP within a single toolset, while Crystal has channeled significant resources to building a scalable BI infrastructure to handle large volumes of batch and on-demand report requests.

Having created a highly scalable, plug-and-play Web architecture, Crystal is now looking to catch up on the front end by offering more interactive analytics to better compete with Business Objects, Cognos, Microstrategy, and others.

Better OLAP Integration and Thin Client Browsing

Crystal Enterprise 9 Premium bundles Crystal Reports 9, Crystal Analysis 9, and Crystal Ad Hoc. It also contains a robust, thin client (DHTML) viewer that lets end-users consume Crystal reports and OLAP views with only a browser. (Crystal also still provides a variety of “thick Web clients,” including a Java applet, Java plug-in, and ActiveX controls for those wanting to simulate the desktop environment within a Web environment.)

Crystal Reports 9 is the firm’s flagship reporting product, which enables desktop report designers to publish interactive Web reports that integrate data from both relational and multidimensional databases. Crystal Analysis, a front-end to OLAP databases, such as Microsoft Analysis Services, Hyperion Essbase, and SAP BW, lets desktop designers publish interactive OLAP “views” to the Web.

Crystal Enterprise 9 more tightly integrates Crystal Reports and Crystal Analysis, Crystal’s first step toward merging its multiple analytical tools into a single Web-based toolset. Crystal Enterprise 9 allows users who are viewing a Web-based report designed in Crystal Reports to “click through” to a predefined Web-based OLAP “view” created in Crystal Analysis while preserving context.

Crystal Ad Hoc: The Suite's Future

Although Crystal Reports has a huge installed base, Crystal Ad Hoc represents the future of Crystal’s analytical suite. Crystal Ad Hoc is a Web-based version of Crystal Reports with some OLAP capabilities thrown in for good measure. Crystal Ad Hoc allows users to create and modify reports on the Web. In contrast, Crystal Reports requires report designers to use its desktop tool to design reports and use Crystal Enterprise to publish the reports to the Web.

Whereas Crystal Reports is geared to the power user or analyst, Crystal Ad Hoc is designed for casual users who want to create new reports—or more likely modify --existing Crystal Reports within a thin-client Web browser. For example, Crystal Ad Hoc gives users the ability to create and apply formulas, columns and formatting, to existing Web reports or create them from scratch, among other things.

In addition, Crystal Ad Hoc can dynamically create a static, non-persistent microcube from an existing report so users can “slice and dice” the results in a lightweight OLAP environment.

Crystal’s Strategy

To flesh out its tools strategy, Crystal Decisions will need to upgrade Crystal Ad Hoc with robust design features available in Crystal Reports and native OLAP capabilities found in Crystal Analysis. (Crystal Ad Hoc currently connects to ODBC data sources but not OLAP databases.)

More importantly, Crystal will need to provide a more robust semantic layer to shield casual users from the complexities of back-end data sources. Like other erstwhile reporting vendors who predate the advent of data warehouses, Crystal’s report engine was designed to directly query operational databases. It assumed that report developers were tech-savvy and could navigate their way around corporate databases. It is not geared to casual users who simply want to point and click on business-oriented objects to build personalized reports.

In addition, Crystal Decisions will need to deliver better collaboration, Excel integration, advanced statistics, and guided analysis capabilities to compete with other leading BI vendors. We suspect, however, that Crystal will close the gap quickly since it is focused solely on BI rather than branching out into ETL, data integration, or analytic applications.

Crystal’s real challenge is convincing the market it is no longer a desktop or production reporting vendor and fending off the incursions of database vendors, such as Microsoft, Oracle, NCR, and IBM, who are embedding analytics and reporting services into their database engines.

About the Author

Wayne Eckerson is director of research at The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI), a provider of in-depth education and research in the business intelligence and data warehousing industry.