Put to the Test: Microsoft Report Builder - InformationWeek

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12/8/2006
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Put to the Test: Microsoft Report Builder

This ad hoc query tool is a free component of SQL Server 2005 and part of Microsoft's evolution from providing infrastructure to offering a complete BI platform.

Web-based Authoring

In contrast to the leading BI vendors that now use DHTML or Java applets to provide Web-based authoring, Microsoft provides a "Click Once" application, a kind of plug-in that communicates with Reporting Services via Web services. Users launch the Report Builder smart client from within the Web-based Report Manager, which serves as a BI portal. This downloads a small application (5.9 MB) that provides a rich Windows-interface with drag-and-drop capabilities (functionality some BI vendors have struggled to deliver in redesigning products for the Web).

To build a query, users first decide on a layout and then design in an interface that provides a structural, rather than WYSIWYG, view (see screen, left). Users drag and drop fields from the report model onto the layout. If you build a tabular report, there's no way to change it to a chart or crosstab; instead, you must start from scratch. It's also not possible to design a report that contains both a table and a chart on one page. These design limitations are competitive weakness compared to more flexible reporting products from leading BI pure-plays. In addition, changes to a report, such as adding a calculation or filtering the data, forces a query refresh. This lack of caching places additional demands on the data-source server. BusinessObjects XI R2 and MicroStrategy 8 do a better job of minimizing the impact on the data source.

Report layout options are basic, consisting of pivot, crosstab or chart. In a major weakness, there's no master/detail report, a common report style that lets users group tables into sections. However, there are many chart types and plenty of options to adjust the scale, individual bar colors, label placement and so on.

Interacting With Reports

Once you're satisfied with the query design and report layout, reports are saved to the repository and accessed via the Web-based Report Manager (or via SharePoint WebParts). Report Manager offers a common report viewer for reports authored in Report Builder or developed in Visual Studio, providing a seamless experience for information consumers. Leading BI pure-play vendors also offer portals for BI content, but interactivity options and menu selections sometimes differ depending on the type of content accessed.

Report Manager offers a number of caching options to improve performance. In fact, report viewing interactivity is one of the strongest features of the product. Report consumers can resort columns, find particular values and perform multiple drill-downs -- a capability referred to as "infinite drill" (see the screen, right). Infinite drill is a handy feature, but it must be supported by the object properties in the data model. Also, it's not possible to define a path from country-to-state-to-city on a "Total Sales by Country" report, for example; instead, the drill immediately goes to the individual order numbers that make up the total sales.

Although drilling down was straightforward, drilling up was not (though the browser's back button works). In this regard, genuine OLAP capabilities, such as drill by and modeling of hierarchies, requires Analysis Services and Excel or ProClarity as the front-end. Still, infinite drill will prove valuable to report consumers who want an additional level of detail without having to build a new report or without developers having to explicitly link sub reports.

If you need to focus on a subset of the report and filter certain values, you must rerun the query, whereas competing products (Business Objects Web Intelligence and Hyperion System 9 Interactive Reporting among them) offer filtering on a cached data set. If you add a prompt to a report, an intuitive filter drop-down menu is added to the report viewer, and once again the query re-executes. The workflow for viewing and then modifying the same report needs improvement as users must separately launch Report Builder (it can't be can't be launched from the report viewer) and then rerun the query.

Given that Microsoft owns Office, it's surprising to me that the company's BI and Office integration lags that of BI competitors. Users can't access report models or reports from Office, and this hasn't changed in Office 2007. Many pure-play BI vendors now offer access over PowerPoint, but, here again, this feature is lacking in Report Builder as well as other modules of Microsoft BI. Users can, however, export data to Excel or schedule data to be exported to Excel. Microsoft has greatly improved the Analysis Services integration in Excel 2007 but the same improvements have clearly not carried through to relational reporting via Report Builder.

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