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Microsoft hypes BI, adds reporting tools for end users

Microsoft is putting reporting tools into the hands of end users by adding features from newly acquired BI software vendor ActiveViews. But some DBAs say giving more power to the end users could cause problems.

ORLANDO -- Microsoft unveiled plans Wednesday to integrate business intelligence reporting into the next version of SQL Server, placing new reporting tools in the hands of end users.

I like the idea of adding more functionality, but not at the expense of performance.
Kevin Smith
DBA

Bill Baker, general manager of BI for SQL Server, said the company would be putting technology it acquired from BI vendor ActiveViews Inc. into SQL Server 2005. The announcement was made at the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) users conference being held this week in Orlando, Fla.

"We're bringing BI to the masses," Baker said in an interview with SearchDatabase.com following his keynote address at the conference. "We want the local decision makers to have all the data at their fingertips.

Reporting Services Report Builder allows end users to build reports using templates or modify existing reports using a drag-and-drop environment. The tool helps end users sidestep the normal technical issues connected to report building, such as database schema, connection strings or SQL query construction, Baker said.

The goal is to put more BI capabilities into the hands of end users where the best decisions could be made, he added. The tool could be used by loan officers, for example, to easily access data to build a report and factor into a mortgage decision.

"The more people who adopt BI in a company, the better the company," Baker said. "It's about allowing companies to take out as much value as they can from their systems."

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Integrating the ActiveViews product will help to fill some of the limitations that SQL Server had, said Keith Gile, a senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. Microsoft is trying to commoditize enterprise reporting, much like it did when it tried to commoditize OLAP with analysis services several years ago. This move could lead to more market share in the BI space.

"They filled a report writing hole and so this is a natural progression in the maturity of this database," Gile said. "They have had no native report writing mechanism, except for a Visual Studio .NET add-on product, so this needed to be done."

The Reporting Services Report Builder was rewritten with a new user interface. It will be available in beta 3 of SQL Server 2005, code-named Yukon, and due out by year's end, Baker said.

Building reporting services into SQL Server goes directly at third-party reporting vendors Business Objects and Cognos, which offer reporting tools aimed at DBAs.

Meanwhile, giving more control to end users may cause database performance problems in the future, according to some DBAs attending the conference Wednesday.

"We help end users find the most efficient way to tap data and this takes our role out of the process," said Kevin Smith, a DBA who oversees a data warehouse for a Michigan-based retailer. "I like the idea of adding more functionality, but not at the expense of performance."

Other DBAs said end users could build poorly written reports, resulting in inefficient data gathering and slow systems.

"On the one hand, it makes SQL Server a more rounded product, but on the other, it takes control out of our hands," said Paul Thompson, a San Francisco-based DBA consultant.

The plan is popular with IT managers like Lou Ann Leary, who serves as director of merchandise systems at Barnes & Noble. Leary said the tools will give better services to customers and result in a cost savings.

DBAs won't lose full control, according to Microsoft. The system is role-based, giving DBAs the authority to give permission to users before they have access to build the reports. DBAs determine who has access and how much access to grant.

Microsoft is also releasing report packs -- available for free download beginning this week -- that provide users with templates of commonly used reports for Reporting Services. Baker said the report packs include templates for commonly run reports in Microsoft Exchange and in Microsoft CRM 1.2.

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