Last week, Microsoft announced the availability of SQL Server 2005's third Community Technical Preview (CTP3). Each CTP build releases a few new features and provides improved stability over the earlier CTP versions. Among other things, CTP3 includes improvements to Management Studio and adds improved 64-bit support. CTP3 is available only to BetaPlace and Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscribers; however, anyone can download the SQL Server 2005 Express Edition CTP3 at http://lists.sqlmag.com/t?ctl=4D4A:7B3DB. This is a great way to play with SQL Server 2005, even if you don't have direct access to the CTP builds.

CTP3's key new features center around SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services. Reporting Services' current version requires you to author reports in a developer-oriented environment. You can buy a third-party tool to help you, but most end users and DBAs like to build reports with an easy-to-use product such as Microsoft Access--and most people expect Microsoft to provide a decent solution in the box. Report Builder, an end-user report-definition tool based on technology Microsoft acquired from Active Views, is Microsoft's answer to this need and is new in CTP3. I hope it lives up to its promise of providing a solid end-user reporting tool that doesn't require working with tools that are geared more toward developers. Reporting Services has already garnered a large following, but I think we'll see much more adoption when Microsoft finds a way to deliver Reporting Services' power and features with a front end that's as simple and approachable to use as Access. Hopefully, Report Builder is what we're looking for.

Microsoft also announced the release of Reporting Services Service Pack 2 (SP2) and a new set of report packs for Microsoft Great Plains 8.0 and Microsoft IIS log files. The Great Plains report packs include a set of eight pre-defined report definitions and a sample Great Plains database. The IIS report packs contain 12 pre-defined reports with a sample database of information extracted from IIS log files. Additional report packs will be coming for Microsoft Office Project 2003, SharePoint Portal Server 2003, and Microsoft Axapta. "Our goal since we introduced BI capabilities in SQL Server was to give as many people as possible greater insight into their business and the market to make better, more-informed decisions, and Reporting Services is a major component in delivering on that vision," said Bill Baker, general manager for SQL Server Business Intelligence at Microsoft. "As part of this goal, we want to make our customers more efficient, and the new Report Builder in SQL Server 2005, new Web Parts and printing functionality in SQL Server 2000, and additional report packs are all examples of how we are listening to customers' pain points and delivering reporting tools that provide relief."

Historically, Microsoft has done a poor job of helping IT professionals do complex monitoring of Microsoft server products without spending lots of money on third-party tools. I'm encouraged by Microsoft's push to make its technologies more manageable by including more robust reporting and monitoring capabilities as part of the product set. I suspect that there will always be a need for third-party solutions, but including decent reporting in the box will benefit customers greatly.