With Reporting Services, Microsoft Slowly but Surely Pushes into the Enterprise

An updated Reporting Services may finally be worth considering

When Microsoft Corp. shipped SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) in January 2004, some suggested that SSRS could ultimately displace established reporting solutions to control a sizeable share of the overall enterprise reporting segment.

Call it the SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) paradigm: after all, when Microsoft shipped its "Plato" OLAP engine with SQL Server 7.0, we heard the same refrain. According to the estimable Nigel Pendse and his OLAP Report, SSAS is the OLAP market leader.

The same appears to be happening, albeit to a different degree, with Redmond's SSRS product. As expected, SSRS is displacing established reporting tools -- most frequently, according to an anecdotal sampling, Crystal Reports. SSRS appears to have enjoyed additional adoption with SQL Server 2005. Now that many shops have completed their SQL Server 2005 deployments, they're beginning to think more seriously about using that product's improved version of SSRS.

Some users -- such as Plamen Ratchev, a SQL Server technologist with Web application development specialist Tangra Inc. -- are turning to SSRS to replace commercial offerings. "[W]e like [Reporting Services] and use it more and more. Our company has been historically using Crystal Reports, and that has been serving us very well," Ratchev explains.

"[Recently,] Reporting Services [has been] getting very close to functionality -- in our estimates [it has] about 80 percent of the Crystal functionality --and we are looking more into migrating to a single reporting platform."

Tangra finished migrating from SQL Server 2000 to SQL Server 2005 about a year ago. Once it went live on SQL Server 2005, Tangra started shifting more of its Crystal assets over to SSRS. If -- as expected -- Microsoft closes at least some of the gap with Crystal Reports in the next revision of SSRS, which is scheduled to ship with SQL Server 2008 later this year, Tangra will almost certainly make additional use of that product, Ratchev reports.

SQL Server technologist James Underwood, who requested that his organization not be named, is likewise replacing an existing Crystal Reports-based reporting solution with SSRS. His organization is just at the beginning of the process, however, having recently completed its rollout of SQL Server 2005. "We are beginning to use SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services to replace Crystal Reports. We have just begun using Reporting Services and have not used any other SQL Server BI tools," he told BI This Week.

Notwithstanding his organization's use of SSRS, Underwood says he isn't necessarily interested in SQL Server's other BI assets.

"[T]he best additions to SQL Server 2005 were the ANSI SQL OLAP extensions and the XML parsing functions, along with the enhancements to the optimizer," he says. "The BI additions have never particularly interested me, as there are many products that have been doing it much longer, and often better."

John Workman, a senior manager of performance management with buying cycle optimization specialist RedPrairie, says his company tapped SSRS to replace a homegrown reporting tool. In RedPrairie's case, its SSRS-based reporting facility helps power a profit-generating, customer-facing application.

"We began using SSRS to replace our homegrown reporting engine because of [its] flexibility and ease of use. It allows us to create new reports outside of a build cycle and publish them immediately," he notes.

"One of the great things about SSRS is that it can access both relational databases and OLAP cubes, providing us a common reporting platform regardless of the data source," Workman continues. "The real power of our BI solution is the analytic capabilities, but some users just want the facts. The CEO of a company may not want to drill through multiple reports to determine how the business is doing. He wants a report to show up in his Outlook inbox every morning before he arrives. SSRS scheduling capabilities allow for this."

Not everyone thinks the reloaded SSRS is a slam dunk. Its SQL Server-only (and Windows-only) dependencies are two important issues that users say can limit its appeal. There's a further wrinkle here, too: organizations have often invested significant developer time and effort into their reporting assets. In such cases, it's a non-trivial task for them to switch reporting platforms -- even if it might ultimately save them money. For this reason, some SQL Server pros say, SSRS is a non-starter simply because it would cost too much to move away from existing third-party options.

"SSRS is being used but only on a minor scale [in our SQL Server environment]," says SQL Server MVP Kevin Boles, a principal with Indicium Resources Inc. "It has significant limitations which are preventing client uptake. Several clients have heavy usage of a third-party reporting system and it is not worth the effort to switch and functionality would be lost as well."

For Greg Moore, president with SQL Server-based consultancy Green Mountain Software, it isn't so much the case that SQL Server Reporting Services is itself limited -- it's rather that Microsoft's available packaging options aren't flexible enough to address his organization's needs.

"We are using Reporting Services for both internal and external reports. So far, the only limitation that has been an issue is that the level of high availability we would prefer is only available with the SQL Server Enterprise license and we are using Standard," Moore indicates.

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