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Users Cheer Microsoft’s New Reporting Services

Although Microsoft announced its new SQL Server Reporting Services add-on just last week, many customers have been using it for months, thanks to a very broad beta program the software giant kicked off in October.

As a result, Microsoft was able to tout a range of big-name early adopters at its Reporting Services launch last week, including Best Buy, Cox Communications, and Mary Kay. The software giant confirmed that 23,000 registered users downloaded last October’s Beta 2 release of Reporting Services.

While users in non-Microsoft environments haven’t yet weighed in on the new offering, consumers of Microsoft’s SQL Server database and .NET technologies say that the software giant has hit a home run in its first at-bat.

Take Stephen Witter, a report developer with a medical products company. Witter plans to replace an existing solution based on Crystal Reports with Reporting Services by the end of this month. Although admitting that the new product’s price tag—free of charge, when used on the same system as SQL Server—was the first thing that caught his attention, Witter says Reporting Services has other qualities to recommend its use. “After using the Reporting Services beta for a while I started realizing how much more powerful it was than Crystal,” he comments. “[Reporting Services] offers a much deeper level of control over the creation, and rendering, and management of reports, and it fits much better into our overall intranet development plans.”

Reporting Services fits better with his .NET infrastructure and is easier to manage as well, Witter says. “Having [Reporting Services’] Web service available in my .NET applications will make for … more seamless applications, at least from a development standpoint, and make it easier to manage and deploy solutions,” he adds, noting that Microsoft has demonstrated an impressive commitment from third-party ISVs to the new product, as well.

For Mark Bourland, a senior software developer and analyst with FirstCity Financial Corp., Reporting Services was a no-brainer. After all, his company didn’t have an existing enterprise reporting solution in place—“Each department does its own reporting, most using Excel,” he says—and Bourland was initially attracted to the first-generation product because of its free price tag. FirstCity Financial is still testing Reporting Services, Bourland says, and hopes to standardize on it as the tool of choice for all of its enterprise reporting requirements. In addition to its free price tag, Bourland says Reporting Services has something else going for it: its integration with other Microsoft technologies, particularly SQL Server and Visual Studio.

“We chose Reporting Services because it comes with SQL 2000, which is our preferred back-end database. It also is integrated into the Visual Studio .NET 2003 development environment which we are beginning to use more and more often for new development,” he says.

Bourland reports that he’s most impressed with the ease of creating reports in the Reporting Services environment: “The feature that I think we like the most is that reports are easy to build, connecting to a variety of data sources and that the reports can be built within our development environment without having to launch an external application which speeds development time.”

Users acknowledge, however, that many of the qualities they most appreciate about Reporting Services—namely, its tight integration with Microsoft’s BI stack—may be less than attractive in other, non-Microsoft environments. “For us, we use all Microsoft technologies including SQL [Server] 2000 and Visual Studio .NET, which made it a no-brainer,” Bourland concedes. “For someone that doesn't use SQL Server 2000 and doesn't already have Visual Studio .NET, it might be a tougher sale since they would have to invest the money in both, which would far outweigh the cost of something like Crystal Reports.”

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has sought to play up Reporting Services’ tight integration with its broader technology offerings. "It's built on .NET," Tom Rizzo, director of SQL Server product management with Microsoft, told ENT recently. "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.

According to Jason Carlson, product unit manager for SQL Server-Reporting Services, the new product takes advantage of security features built into Microsoft's platform and relies on directories (Microsoft's and those of others), for names and permissions. "We don't store users," Carlson says.

Microsoft has also made noises about growing the size of the enterprise-reporting marketplace (market research firm International Data Corp. pegs the market at $3.5 billion) by bringing reporting services to many non-traditional consumers or by displacing existing custom or ad hoc reporting solutions. Microsoft’s Rizzo claims, for example, that with Reporting Services his company has created a $5,000 entry point for a product category that had previously cost customers tens of thousands of dollars.

While non-Microsoft shops may balk at the Redmond-centric scope of Reporting Services, users who have invested heavily in Microsoft technologies are uniformly enthusiastic about the offering. Andy Svendsen, a third-tier systems engineer with InterAmerica Technologies, a provider of correspondence management, workflow, and document management solutions, says the new offering is “such a sensible idea.”

Like his peers, Svendsen lauds the product’s integration with SQL Server and the rest of Microsoft’s product stack. “I am looking forward to scheduling and e-mailing reports,” he says, noting that his existing solution—built on Sybase InfoMaker product-- doesn’t allow him to include these features. “I like the fact that is Web based. Mostly, I really like it because if it works, it will be such an integrated solution. My company is a Microsoft shop.”

Although Microsoft’s competitors have tried to downplay the capabilities of the first-generation Reporting Services offering, users say they’re impressed with the product's features and functionality. For example, says report developer Witter, the report publishing, distribution, and lifecycle management tools that are part-and-parcel of the Reporting Services experience have been an especially pleasant surprise. “I have been very impressed with [Reporting Services] and its capabilities for such a new product. At first glance I thought it was just a report writer, but after working in it for a while I started to realize it was much more powerful than I would have ever expected,” he says.

About the Author

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

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