Microsoft Enters Reporting Services Market

Microsoft's RS, an add-on to SQL Server 2000, welcomed by competitors

Sometime before the end of the year, Microsoft Corp. plans to revamp its SQL Server 2000 database with a new Reporting Services (RS) add-on.

The software giant positions SQL Server RS as a comprehensive platform for the creation, management, and publishing of reports. Microsoft says that RS will bring robust reporting to a SQL Server business intelligence (BI) stack that already includes online analytical processing (OLAP) and extraction, transformation and loading (ELT) features. Because of this, Microsoft officials expect that RS will have an immediate impact on the reporting market.

That’s an optimistic projection from a vendor—Microsoft—with very little experience in the space. What’s surprising, however, is that many established enterprise-reporting vendors say that they’re in agreement with the software giant. In fact, some vendors say, RS addresses an important market segment and will be a welcome contribution from Microsoft.

“I think that’s exactly the type of low-end, very specific purpose-oriented type of reporting solution that some users need,” comments Michael Branchaud, director of product marketing for Cognos. “I could see that being a nice complement to a Microsoft platform that they’ve already built that application [which has a reporting requirement] on.”

Adds Eleanor Taylor, manager of BI strategy with SAS: “Certainly it does a good job of enabling the small or medium enterprise to leverage that [reporting] capability, but it also does a great job of raising the awareness and the importance of this kind of thing.”

The upshot, then, is that reporting vendors aren’t sweating Microsoft’s forthcoming RS suite—they’re just trying to pigeonhole it.

When it appears, RS won’t be a giant-killer—nor is it intended to be. It’s designed to provide a solid set of reporting services—including support for ad hoc and operational reporting—that should appeal to traditional report developers and consumers alike. Microsoft also expects that RS will expose reporting capabilities to rank-and-file developers, largely on the basis of its tight integration with Microsoft’s Visual Studio .NET integrated development environment (IDE). Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of programmers already feel at home in the Visual Studio .NET IDE.

“[With RS,] we’re saying, ‘Let’s just leverage the best development tool out there, let’s just integrate with Visual Studio so that they can write easily build reports,” says Tom Rizzo, group product manager for SQL Server with Microsoft. “They can use the debugging that they’re used to in Visual Studio, the data tools that they’re used to in Visual Studio, so if you’re a Visual Studio customer, shame on you if you don’t use [SQL Server and RS], because you’re missing out on one of the most integrated solutions out there.”

The idea, says Rizzo, is that developers can exploit RS to embed reporting capabilities into Visual Basic, C#, and other applications. Elsewhere, report developers or power users can use RS to create reports that pull data from a data warehouse and then distribute them to recipients through a subscription model or by e-mail, or publish them to a corporate portal. Granted, he acknowledges, existing ad hoc and production-reporting tools let them do all that (and more), but for the price—free for co-deployment along with SQL Server 2000, pay-for-use when deployed by itself—RS is hard to beat.

Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis, says that it’s too much to expect RS to compete with established reporting suites from powerhouses such as Actuate Corp., Cognos, Crystal Decisions Inc. -- which Business Objects SA picked up for a cool $820 million in July -- MicroStrategy Inc. and others. “Initially, [these vendors are] going to downplay it, because it’s a first generation product, it doesn’t have the features and the bells and whistles of their own products,” he observes. “But they’d better damn well keep an eye on it, because Microsoft tends to add more functionality with every new release. The endpoint could really cause the enterprise reporting vendors a problem.”

As first generation products go, Schiff thinks highly of RS: “I think [reporting services are] a great way to expose reporting [capabilities] to a lot of these guys who use Microsoft development tools, and they’re also great for some of Microsoft’s partners, like [analytics vendor] ProClarity [Corp.”

Although some vendors have further pigeonholed RS as a Windows-only play, Microsoft’s Rizzo says it can support Oracle, DB2 data and other OLE DB- or ODBC-compliant data sources.

Given Microsoft’s track record, Actuate, Cognos, and other vendors are no doubt wary of the software giant’s upcoming foray into the reporting services space. Microsoft was a relative latecomer to the market for office productivity software, for example, but—over time—effectively buried competing application suites from both Corel Corp. and IBM Corp.’s Lotus Software Group. Similarly, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser has reduced the once-dominant Netscape Web browser to niche status.

Says Cognos’ Branchaud: “We’d be pretty naïve if we didn’t think they were going to move up that food chain. But the way that we look at it is that … there will absolutely be a compelling need for this enterprise reporting layer, so while Microsoft will no doubt do this, the leaders will survive and thrive, because what Microsoft does is elevate the conversation.”

Cognos and other vendors argue that once new users or non-traditional consumers get a taste of what RS can do for them, they’ll opt for more full-featured solutions. “A lot of times, BI is still at the department level, where there’s less knowledge about [reporting],” says SAS’ Taylor. “But Microsoft, being the marketing giant that it is, really helps validate where we’re going with reporting. They can educate and raise the awareness about this.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.