Microsoft Reaffirms Commitment to Crystal Reports

Release of the company's Reporting Services add-on for SQL Server won't stop distribution of the limited-use version of Crystal Reports with Visual Studio. Meanwhile, Business Objects introduces a lower-priced version of Crystal Enterprise for small-to-midsize companies.

Although Microsoft Corp. launched its long-awaited Reporting Services add-on for SQL Server just two weeks ago, the software giant recently confirmed that it will continue to package a competitive tool with its Visual Studio integrated development environment (IDE) – both in the current release and in the next version, which is code-named "Whidbey," as well.

For a decade now, Microsoft has packaged a limited-use version of Crystal Reports with Visual Studio to support interactive and other reporting requirements. But with the acquisition of Crystal Decisions Inc. this summer by Business Objects SA, and with Microsoft’s own Reporting Services in the offing, many industry watchers expected that the software giant would replace Crystal Reports with its own reporting product—if not in Visual Studio .NET, then certainly by the time it released Whidbey—in late 2004 or early 2005.

The software giant put such speculation to rest late last month, however—with a little help from Business Objects, which published a release touting its ongoing relationship with Microsoft. "Crystal Reports has been part of our product offering for more than 10 years. We are committed to Crystal Reports for the current release of Visual Studio, as well as the next release," David Lazar, Microsoft director of product management for developer tools, said in the release.

Truth be told, Microsoft will actually give developers both reporting tools in Visual Studio. That’s because the Visual Studio IDE bundles a Developer Edition (MSDE) of SQL Server 2000, which can be used in conjunction with Reporting Services. Microsoft points out that the Report Server Database component of Reporting Services cannot be stored in an instance of MSDE 2000, however.

Microsoft officials position the decision as giving customers a choice while protecting existing Visual Studio-based projects that already use Crystal Reports. "We want to make sure that customers can still move those solutions ahead," said Tom Rizzo, director of SQL Server product management. "We didn't want to strand customers if they had existing solutions. We hope that in the future, people will take a look at both."

Chris Caren, vice-president of product marketing with Business Objects, acknowledges that Microsoft’s Reporting Services launch festivities led to some confusion in the marketplace. “I believe the release that came out maybe last week was mainly because of some confusion in the financial analyst community,” he observes. “I think that people misread some quotes or some statements that Crystal Reports was no longer bundled with Visual Studio.”

Caren says Business Objects hasn’t offered Microsoft any additional enticements to continue the relationship. “The relationship and the terms are the same. For Crystal and now for Business Objects, I don’t believe that [the bundling arrangement with Microsoft] generated significant revenue for the company. It was much more about seeding the market with Crystal Reports, seeding the development community,” he confirms.

Forced Migration Could Cause Headaches

One long-time user of Crystal Reports, who also participated extensively in the Reporting Services beta, says that for many companies, migrating from Crystal Reports to Reporting Services shouldn’t be disruptive. “For most companies, who actually generate a canned [Report Definition Language (RDL)] or RPT template, the migration to RS from Crystal is a breeze,” says Jason Volpe, a SQL Server administrator with a prominent telecommunications firm.

Nevertheless, he concedes, a straight-ahead migration from Crystal Reports to Reporting Services did pose a problem in his environment: “Since my company doesn't have any templates in place—we generate the RDL/RPT files at runtime—the current build of [Reporting Services] is far too immature for us to implement; so we had to build our own control which replaced Crystal.”

Volpe, who manages reporting services for several thousand of his company’s end users, says he is anxious to deploy Reporting Services because Crystal Reports simply can’t scale to support the requirements of his environment—and because Business Objects’ high-end Crystal Enterprise offering is prohibitively expensive for his purposes. Nevertheless, he concedes, one advantage that Crystal Reports has over Reporting Services is its ability to generate RDL files at runtime. In addition, Volpe says, Reporting Services’ tight integration with Microsoft’s Active Directory security model could pose problems in some environments. “There are/were issues with permissions where users had to be within an Active Directory in order to authenticate, which would be a problem in my company,” he explains.

Finally, he says, Crystal has for some time featured an open API against which developers can write to create very dynamic report files.

Volpe isn’t the only user who’s lamented the expensive price tag of Business Objects’ Crystal Enterprise product. Stephen Witter, a database administrator for Empath Medical Inc., a medical supply company, says that when he went shopping for a scalable reporting solution, he opted for Microsoft’s SQL Server Reporting Services instead of Crystal Enterprise, initially on the basis of cost. “Crystal Enterprise was cost-prohibitive for us because we needed more than five concurrent access licenses,” he explains.

To address some of these concerns, Caren says, Business Objects is touting a new Crystal Enterprise offering priced for small-to-medium-sized business customers. “There’s a new offering around Crystal Enterprise this year for the SMB market, so for small customers looking to leverage that functionality, there’s a new offering at a low price point, but, yes, it also sort of caps the scale of usage,” he asserts. “Beyond that, Crystal Enterprise is sold on a variety of different bases, so the goal is to be pretty flexible in licensing bases, so that most customers who want to move from Crystal Reports can do so.”

ENT editor-in-chief Scott Bekker contributed to this report.

About the Author

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