Executive Summary:

The products included in this buyer’s guide offer more detailed reports and enhanced data visualization options than SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services (SSRS), enabling you to more efficiently analyze data. However, if you’re planning to upgrade to SQL Server 2008 any time soon, you need to be aware that many of the features included in these third-party tools are now available in SQL Server 2008.

For many businesses, SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) offers all the functionality needed to create reports and efficiently analyze data. However, some organizations have more involved and specialized reporting and analysis needs. For example, if your business users frequently complain that they can’t get the type of information they want from their current reports, you might consider purchasing a third-party solution that offers more data visualization options. Here’s what you should consider when shopping for a SQL Server–compatible reporting and analysis tool.

First, Check SQL Server 2008

If you’re considering upgrading to SQL Server 2008 in the near future, I recommend taking a look at its native reporting and analysis features before you purchase a third-party reporting solution. With Microsoft’s acquisition of Dundas data visualization technology, SSRS 2008 is greatly improved over SSRS 2005 and includes Dundas Chart for Reporting Services, Dundas Gauge for Reporting Services, and Dundas Calendar for Reporting Services. Previously, you had to purchase a third-party solution if users wanted to create funnels, gauges, scattergrams, or visually pleasing dashboards. (You could create dashboards in SSRS 2005, but they were, to put it bluntly, boring.) However, SSRS 2008 offers enhanced data visualization features (e.g., gauges), new charting options, and drag-and-drop functionality that lets you create better-looking dashboards directly in SSRS.

In addition, Report Builder 2.0’s UI has been enhanced and is now similar to the Microsoft Office 2007 UI. SSRS 2008 also offers the ability to render reports in Word format, enabling business users to edit reports after they’ve been rendered. If you’re still running SQL Server 2005, you’ll need to use a third-party solution to render reports in Word format. Also, the Report Designer was enhanced in SQL Server 2008 to support the Tablix data region feature, which is a combination of the table, list, and matrix data regions, and provides more ways to customize how you collect and summarize data.

Report Enhancements

Are your users frequently asking you for more detailed or visual reports to better analyze data, but you’re not planning to upgrade to SQL Server 2008 any time soon? If so, you’ll be happy to know that the third-party reporting and analysis tools listed in the buyer's guide table offer additional functionality that you can use to enhance existing reports, create data visualizations, and better analyze data. "The benefit to purchasing a third-party reporting solution is that you get a more feature–rich application with little implementation effort," says Dennis Thompson, the director of Enterprise Information for Acosta Sales and Marketing. The products featured in this buyer’s guide offer more types of graphs and charts than SSRS 2005 does, and many offer 3D charts and 3D graphics.

If you’re looking for a solution your users can use to create reports for data analysis with no involvement from your DBAs and developers, you should consider a product that offers self-service reports. Many of the solutions in this buyer’s guide don’t require any programming or scripting, and several of the products offer cascading style sheets, which let you make a single change and have an effect on multiple reports. Other features that these products offer include the ability to schedule reports, use stored procedures to gather data for reports, modify reports in real-time, and use the product from within SSRS. You might choose to use a third-party product over SSRS 2005 because your users find Report Builder to be difficult to use; many of the products in this guide offer intuitive UIs that let users easily create reports and dashboards.

Other Considerations

If you’re running SQL Server, you’ll most likely want a third-party reporting and analysis product that works with SSRS and SSAS. But if you work in a heterogeneous environment it might be equally important that the product be able to run without SSRS and SSAS. In addition, you’ll want to ensure that the product will support SSAS MDX queries if you work with them frequently. "When selecting a reporting tool, technical compatibility with the data source should be the number one concern," says Thompson. "Many reporting tool providers will claim compatibility with SSAS but when put in use in production they do not perform. Some reporting tools have been supporting SSAS for some time and have not updated their MDX-generating engine to take advantage of the latest syntax enhancements." And although you might think all reporting and analysis tools support RDL, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft Access, you’d be surprised—several of the tools in this guide don’t support RDL, and a handful of them don’t support Access.

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