Thursday, May 12, 2005

SQL PASS 2005 - Reporting Services Enhancements

Ah Reporting Services. Both a blessing and curse to me in recent times. The first thing a customer always asks me to do with this tool is something it cannot do out of the box. This isn't a problem really but it can be time consuming when you're creating your suite of reports for a client (say 2 dozen) and they decide that they really would like to be able to sort one of the columns (at the end of development). Fortunately Microsoft has taken a hell of a lot on board since the first version of Reporting Services saw the light of day and features that made this an incredibly powerful reporting client have been enhanced 2 fold. Firstly as an improved product in its own right but secondly when combined with 2005 Analysis Services one of the best Microsoft OLAP client reporting tools on the market.

When people saw the first version of SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services the first thing said was probably something along the lines of "where's the MMC snap-in?". Visual Studio has a vastly better environment for this kind of development and thank the lord MS decided to continue this throughout the toolset (que sandals and beards being thrown from the old skool, burn him, BUUURRNN HIMMMM..!). Developers know what they are going to get with Visual Studio and people in the BI world and DBA are going to get more benefit from an intuitive environment that stabilises and speeds up dev time tremendously.

OK less on the environment and more on the presentation and product. Dave Wickert from the SQL Server product unit was the Microsoft employee working the crowd for this one. I managed to speak to him briefly on the evening before and when he said all of his demonstration were to based on OLAP data the words 'Christ' and 'Thank' may have slipped out. I’m never going to be able to go over all the enhancements but I can certainly give an overview of the key areas that will be big in this version.

Right, leave here and go and write some MDX for an OLAP data source then stick that in a matrix, after you’ve watched some paint dry look at your report. OK that’s not at all fair but the current version was not as responsive as I certainly would have liked when it comes to multi-dimensional data. Trying to get the correct data to appear depending on what axis you put the dimension then the subtleties of the order the dimensions were on the axis was a pain. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being child birth, where would you place MDX on multiple hierarchies for display in a flattened dataset? I may use that as an interview question.

2005 Reporting Services with 2005 Analysis Services……….fixed. How the new version of RS interacts with AS 2000 I shall be doing some investigation on.

The next thing I want to mention are the little things. Those featurettes that when Dave mentioned them brought a wave of positive emotion to the room. Multiple selections on parameters, column sorting by measure or header, server trip for drill down (need to get some confirmation on this one but it has massive implications in low bandwidth scenarios), deployment via SQL Management Studio, floating column headers and so on and so on. These are the areas where users have been listened to which in itself is very refreshing, and I know from experience that some of these features could have saved me days of development in recent times.

Lastly is a very big new feature which I was lucky enough to have a glance at early last year and that is the Report Builder. This new tool is driven from the pre-defined data model and deployed to the Report Server for the users. What does this mean? Well if you’re familiar with Business Objects Universes then think of it as similar, sort of. You take a model, create relationships, calculated fields, etc. and put it on the server. Bob from accounts doesn’t need to understand one record from the Invoice table has a one to many relationship with records in the Invoice Line table, he just sees that he can select Invoice and Invoice Line from a list and drag it on to a report layout of his choice.

The tool has a few more tricks up its’ sleeve and I’ll leave the statements “an understanding of the semantic model” and “infinite drill” for another time. Microsoft are quick to state that this is not a replacement for the plethora of reporting tools out there but an extension of the interface. Either way it should open Reporting Services to another user community which for Business Intelligence is nothing but good.

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