Excitement Grows Over Microsoft’s Reporting Services Add-On

BI production reporting facility comes to SQL Server 2000

Last Friday, Microsoft Corp. announced the first public beta of its forthcoming SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services, a free add-on component that will bring a production reporting facility to a SQL Server 2000 business intelligence stack that already includes OLAP and ETL features.

Although Reporting Services won’t be available until later this year, many of the BI professionals and SQL Server users with whom we spoke say that they are anxious to take the new product for a test drive. There’s good reason for that: Customers will be able to run Reporting Services for free when deployed on the same server as SQL Server 2000, and for $5,000 per processor when deployed alone. At those prices, Reporting Services is tough to beat.

Take Ronald Cook, a software systems consultant with Westinis Inc., an application development consultancy. To satisfy many of its customers’ most common production reporting requirements, Westinis currently uses a version of Crystal Reports that is bundled with Microsoft’s Visual Studio .NET integrated development environment (IDE).

Westinis already exploits Microsoft’s Analysis Services (for OLAP) and Transformation Services (for ETL), and Cook says that as a result of salutary experiences with both add-ons, he can’t wait to get his hands on Reporting Services. “The majority of [our] interest in Reporting Services is that it’s from Microsoft, so [it] will be bundled in—and well integrated with—products we already use,” he observes. “Also, we’re a ‘Microsoft shop,’ and the fewer alternate companies we have to engage … the better.”

Although competitors have tended to downplay the threat posed by Reporting Services, Cook’s last statement could ring alarm bells in corporate boardrooms across the United States, Canada, and France. After all, Microsoft’s bread-and-butter strategy has been to leverage the strength of its operating system or application stack as a means to expand into new, potentially lucrative markets; expansion of this kind almost always comes at the expense of existing players.

In the low-end reporting space, Crystal Reports is by far the dominant tool, largely because it’s bundled with not only Visual Studio .NET as well as with application software from other ISVs. If Business Objects hadn’t acquired Crystal in July, the latter would probably have faced stiff competition from Microsoft in the low-end reporting space. But Crystal’s status as a Business Objects asset—coupled with the widespread belief that Business Objects will ratchet up integration between Crystal’s tools and its own—alters how Microsoft and other ISVs must approach the issue of bundling Crystal’s tools with their own products.

The upshot, says Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis, is that is that while ditching Crystal for its own technology may be a foregone conclusion in Microsoft-land, it’s also an option that’s on the table for other Crystal partners. “With Crystal off the market, a lot of these guys … may have to find another partner, because I doubt if they're going to want to put money into Business Objects’ product,” he says.

Indeed, some of the users with whom we spoke waxed less than enthusiastically about Crystal Reports’ strengths as a reporting solution, particularly for use in large deployments with SQL Server. One such user, a report administrator with a large telecommunications company, says that he manages reporting for the more than 15,000 sales representatives who staff his company’s call center. Because his employer was (understandably) reluctant to shell out three-quarters of a million dollars for Crystal’s upscale Crystal Enterprise product, it opted instead for versions 8.5 and 9 of Crystal Reports. The upshot, he says, is that the latter product cannot scale to support the needs of his users.

This report administrator is currently beta testing SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services—his company was one of the private beta adopters—and says that he can’t wait until Microsoft formally ships the product later this year. “We will have Crystal in the trash can by early January,” he asserts. “We can’t wait to use Reporting Services to replace our Crystal Reports, which, [in my opinion], is not meant for enterprises the size of ours, as it's too slow.”

Another current Crystal Reports user says that he doesn’t have any particular problems with the product, outside of its less-than-native integration with SQL Server 2000. As a result of his experience with Microsoft’s Transformation Services add-on—which features native integration with the SQL Server 2000 database—this report developer says he will take a long look at Reporting Services. “I feel [Transformation Services] is really fast and does give a decent programming model for experiment with,” he indicates, adding, “Surely [we] would be interested to adopt [Reporting Services] soon.” Would he replace Crystal Reports with Reporting Services after evaluating the product? “[It’s] possible, as I [will] not need to buy another product to do such reporting activity. I get a single united environment to work with. And on … end-to-end Microsoft technologies, the response, support, and features would be amazing, I suppose.”

Given Microsoft’s track record, Crystal—or, rather, Business Objects—can’t be the only vendor that’s uneasy about the software giant’s newfound interest in the production reporting space. There’s also a great deal at stake for Actuate, Cognos, and other reporting stalwarts. After all, Microsoft was a relative latecomer to the office productivity space, for example, but has effectively buried competing applications. Similarly, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser has reduced the once-dominant Netscape Web browser to niche status.

“When [Microsoft] enter[s] a market, the industry has to pay attention. Over time, they will become a threat,” says Schiff. “Right now, heads will turn, and [reporting vendors] probably won’t lose many sales in the short term. The question is, what will this functionality evolve to over time?”

Odds are that BI professionals won’t have to wait much longer to see what Reporting Services is made of. The version now available for download is a second beta release, and has already been distributed to private beta customers. All indications are that Microsoft is still on track to release Reporting Services to manufacturing by the end of this year.

The report administrator introduced above has participated in the Reporting Services—previously code-named “Rosetta”—private beta and gives the product high marks. “We have been beta testing Rosetta [beta 2], and love it. We have implemented Reporting Services … in our newest application, and the only issue we are finding is the lack of documentation to help us get it up and running even faster,” he notes. “No issues at all [with it], can’t wait to replace everything we have with it as it collaborates extremely efficiently with SQL Server, which we are a complete SQL organization.”

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About the Author

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