Microsoft Launches SQL Reporting Services

Microsoft on Tuesday launched its SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services, a technology three years in the making that has market-changing potential for business intelligence over the long term.

The technology is an add-on for SQL Server 2000, Microsoft's three-year-old flagship database. As an enterprise reporting tool, it is designed to provide companies with the ability to create reports that push real-time data from any data source to any device in a variety of formats.

Reporting Services is being included in the base licensing price of SQL Server 2000, and will come in three editions that parallel the editions of the database -- developer, standard and enterprise. A time-bombed evaluation edition is also being offered. Customers who already own SQL Server licenses can get Reporting Services for free.

The move builds on Microsoft's pattern starting with SQL Server 7.0 of bundling increasing business intelligence functionality into the database at no extra cost. Microsoft started with Online Analytic Processing (OLAP) and Extraction, Transformation and Load (ETL) functionality in SQL Server 7.0 and added data mining algorithms at the launch of SQL Server 2000.

Enterprise reporting vendors from Cognos to MicroStrategy to SAS contend Microsoft's entry is welcome, not threatening, because it will provide low-end reporting functionality. "I think that's exactly the type of low-end, very specific purpose-oriented type of reporting solution that some users need," Michael Branched, director of product marketing for Cognos, told ENT a few months ago.

Microsoft, typically, is unwilling to concede that its product is low-end. "There are a lot of advanced features in the product. I think it can go head-to-head with other products in the space," says Tom Rizzo, director, SQL Server product management.

Such comments could be easily dismissed as Microsoft hubris, except for Microsoft's track record for exceeding first-generation expectations in the data management field. The SQL Server 7.0 OLAP Services surprised the industry with its robustness. Like OLAP Services, later renamed Analysis Services, Microsoft's new Reporting Services is capable of running reports on data stored in competitive platforms, such as IBM DB2, Oracle and other data sources.

Broad customer deployments will be necessary to tell if the functionality is on par with enterprise reporting offerings from Cognos, Business Objects, SAS and the like, but Microsoft is well on the way to building a base of reference customers. Big-name early adopters include ASB Bank, Best Buy, Coldwater Creek, Cox Communications, IS Partners, Long & Foster Companies, Mary Kay, PREMIER Bankcard, RF Micro Devices, Scout-Master and TSYS. The software giant also points to a large pool of registered beta testers -- 23,000 since the October Beta 2 release.

Regardless of the robustness of the functionality, a primary market impact will be a traditional one with Microsoft -- sucking the profit margin out of the sector. This is a role often forgotten, given Microsoft's new role of defending its operating system profits against lower cost Linux alternatives. But with Reporting Services, Microsoft is showing it's ready to bare its competitive teeth in the database market.

In an official launch statement, Microsoft senior vice president of Enterprise Servers Paul Flessner billed SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services as "more affordable than competitive solutions in the marketplace today." More specifically, Rizzo points out that Microsoft has created a $5,000 entry point for customers to a product category that previously cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Microsoft and its competitors agree that regardless of how Reporting Services fares against higher-priced, existing products, it will expand a reporting market valued by IDC at about $3.5 billion. "We're going to make this market even bigger," Rizzo says.

Already Microsoft partners have lined up to create solutions embedding or extending SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services. Early partners include ActiveViews, Aspirity, Comprehensive Software Systems, Configuresoft, Fenestrae, Geac Computer, Hitachi Consulting, IntelligentApps, Intellinet Technologies, OutlookSoft, MaxQ Technologies, MIS, Professional Advantage, ProClarity, Solutions Consulting Group, Silvon Software, SPSS, Trax Retail Solutions and Unisys.

One of Microsoft's main selling points for its first-generation of the product is its tight integration with broader Microsoft technologies. "It's built on .NET," says Rizzo. "It's a requirement, but it's a benefit. You're buying a modern reporting solution," he argues, instead of a technology built on legacy code. Jason Carlson, product unit manager for SQL Server-Reporting Services, adds that the reporting solution takes advantage of security features built into Microsoft's platform and relies on directories, Microsoft's and others, for names and permissions. "We don't store users," Carlson says.

On a similar note, the product takes advantage of a plug-in to Visual Studio .NET for a report designer called the Visual Design Tool. Although the plug-in is not required, and developers can write code directly as XML, it is designed as a drag-and-drop tool to make it easier for non-developers, such as business analysts, to build reports. The drag-and-drop functionality is only available for SQL Server and other SQL-based data sources.

Other features of the product include a hierarchical view of reports, making it possible to browse for reports by categories or disciplines, delivery and subscription technologies, and multiple output formats, including .pdf, .tiff, Excel, HTML or XML. Scalability is addressed in the Enterprise Edition, which is designed to support systems with more than four processors, more than 2 GB of RAM and for Web farm deployments.

Meanwhile, Microsoft isn't giving competitors much time to get a handle on the weaknesses of its first-generation product. Generation two will be available relatively soon. Microsoft's major upgrade to SQL Server, code-named "Yukon", is scheduled for a late 2004 or early 2005 release. Although Microsoft has been working on SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services for three years, it hasn't thrown all its functionality into the first version. "We focused on this release, but I had people writing for Yukon simultaneously," Carlson says.

When Yukon comes out, the Reporting Services component will benefit from many of the performance, scalability and functionality changes in that major overhaul of the database, SQL Server officials say. Some functionality will be expanded as well. For example, the Visual Design Tool will be expanded to support drag-and-drop report creation from multi-dimensional and other data sources and the product will see more integration with the Microsoft Office family.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.


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