Microsoft’s Ambitions Soar with SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services

According to users who’ve put the updated Reporting Services through its paces, Microsoft just may have something to crow about

When Microsoft Corp. announced its free SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services add-on last January, the software giant was careful to position it as a non-disruptive product entry into an already crowded reporting tools marketplace.

With Reporting Services 2.0, slated to ship with Microsoft’s forthcoming SQL Server 2005 database, the software giant is taking a very different approach. To wit: Microsoft officials have eighty-sixed the humility and are ready to discuss Reporting Services as a product on par with established entries from Actuate Corp., Business Objects SA, Hyperion Solutions Corp., and others.

According to users who’ve put the next-gen reporting services through its paces, Microsoft just may have something to crow about.

In late 2003, when Reporting Services was then a beta-only deliverable, Tom Rizzo, group product manager for SQL Server, was happy to position that product as a no-brainer solution for developers working with Microsoft’s ubiquitous Visual Studio .NET IDE. “We think that [Reporting Services is] going to have a definite impact … especially for customers that are using Visual Studio .NET,” he said. “It’s going to make it easier and more practical for them to expose reporting in the applications that they build.”

More to the point, Rizzo sought to downplay, or otherwise deflect, questions about Microsoft’s expectations for Reporting Services as a competitive alternative to established enterprise reporting tools.

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s just leverage the best development tool out there. Let’s just integrate with Visual Studio so that they can easily build reports,” he argued. “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 2000 Reporting Services], because you’re missing out on one of the most integrated solutions out there.”

These days, Rizzo and Microsoft are singing a different tune—and not just about Reporting Services. Redmond’s SQL Server point man has also touted SQL Server 2005’s revamped Integration Services (nee Data Transformation Services) component, which he says has been “built … from the ground up to compete with the Ascentials and the Informaticas of the world.”

Microsoft is similarly bullish about SQL Server 2005’s updated Reporting Services component. Rizzo, for example, has said that Microsoft “frankly believe[s] we have a better product” than Business Objects’ Crystal Reports. “We feel [SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services] can compete with Crystal. It can compete with Cognos. It can compete with anyone out there.”

Why is Microsoft so optimistic? For starters, the new version of Reporting Services actually comprises a comprehensive reporting solution: SQL Server 2000 shipped with report life-cycle management capabilities and a supercharged report development environment (Visual Studio .NET), to be sure, but it lacked a user self-service reporting front-end. Reporting Services 2.0 delivers that—in spades: Microsoft is delivering a new end-user oriented reporting and development tool, called (appropriately enough) Report Builder, that for the first time places Reporting Services on the same footing as products from Actuate, Business Objects, and others.

Report Builder is based on technology Microsoft acquired from ActiveViews last April. Those familiar with the ActiveViews technology say it enables a point-and-click, drag-and-drop environment, suitable for business users, that facilitates report design and customization. One upshot of this is a more empowered knowledge worker who generates fewer trouble tickets with IT.

“From our perspective, this is what’s going to save us a lot of time,” says Damien Georges, a manager of database applications with venture capitalist and equity investment firm Summit Partners.

Summit Partners deployed SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services last year, and has since gone live with a small SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services implementation. Georges says the Report Builder tool, hands down, is the most important new feature in Microsoft’s next Reporting Services offering. “A lot of our questions from end users are, ‘Can you show me how to do this?’ Or ‘I really want to know exactly how to do this,’” he explains. “[Report Builder] can cut down on—really eliminate—those [kinds of questions.]”

Does Georges think Reporting Services, SQL Server 2005 edition has the stuff to contend with Business Objects and other established players? If not now, he says, then someday. “I think eventually it might. I think [Microsoft is] putting their heart and soul into developing it. I spoke to Bill Baker who heads up their BI [team], and just listening to what his ideas are and the fact that he’s very close to the presentations group, the Reporting Services people, was exciting. Eventually, they’ll get there, I don’t doubt it.”

Reporting Services Rising

An ascendant Microsoft obviously poses problems for Business Objects, Hyperion Solutions Corp., and other enterprise-reporting stalwarts.

Business Objects, for example, ponied up a not-insignificant sum ($840 million) for a company (the former Crystal Decisions Inc.) known precisely for its reporting expertise. Hyperion, for its part, paid $130 million for the former Brio Software Inc. BI competitors Cognos Inc. and MicroStrategy Inc. have invested heavily in developing new enterprise-reporting solutions (ReportNet and Report Services, respectively) tied to their BI stacks.

The response of these competitors, and others, has typically been to tar Reporting Services with broad SQL-Server-only warnings. “Certainly, [Reporting Services] has its niche, but, I don’t think you can really compare” it with Crystal Enterprise, said Darren Cunningham, director of product marketing with Business Objects, in an interview earlier this year. For starters, Cunningham pointed to Crystal’s integration with Business Objects’ BI stack, which—he argued convincingly—offers more sophisticated capabilities than Microsoft’s own SQL Server 2000 or SQL Server 2005 BI capabilities.

Cunningham also noted that Crystal and Business Objects are far from SQL Server-only propositions; just this month, Business Objects signed a partnership with open-source database champ MySQL AB. Finally, Cunningham argued that Crystal Enterprise is a “very scalable [solution]. We have customers who are using it to support thousands or tens of thousands of users.” Cunningham’s implication, of course, is that Reporting Services 1.0 isn’t quite as scalable. Based on the experiences of some users, there may be something to this.

Of course, a number of former (or would-be) Crystal users have also complained about the high price of that offering, particularly of the Crystal Enterprise variant. It’s in this respect that Microsoft’s Reporting Services, irrespective of its feature shortcomings or SQL Server-only requirements, glistens as a particularly attractive alternative. One would-be Crystal user, a BI professional with a wholesaler based in the Southeast, protests that Business Objects’ “deeply-discounted” pricing was more than twice what his company was willing or able to pay. “We walked away from that offer but aren't giving up yet,” he says.

A BI professional with a financial services firm relates a similar experience. His company recently transitioned from Crystal to Reporting Services, he says, largely because of the former product’s price. “They’re outrageous [on pricing], really outrageous, since Business Objects took over,” he says. “They have a captive audience, too. There [are] a lot of companies that are so invested in Crystal Reports that they just can’t justify switching to another [reporting] tool.”

This isn’t to pick on Business Objects and Crystal, however. The same could be said about any pay-for-use enterprise-reporting tool. For users of Business Objects’ BI solutions, Crystal will almost certainly be a go-to reporting solution, thanks in large part to that company’s stellar work in coupling the Crystal technologies to its BI stack.

Ditto for Cognos users and that company’s ReportNet, Hyperion users and the former Brio technologies, and MicroStrategy users and Report Services. If anything, analysts say, customer defections will come from users who aren’t heavily invested in a particular BI platform—or who are lured by the all-in-one attractiveness of Microsoft’s burgeoning BI stack.

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