Microsoft BI Review
Each solution has its pros and cons which are largely dependent on the target organisation’s existing software, infrastructure and skill set


Last year ServiceNow released ODBC access to their database, enabling customers to produce their own high quality reporting.

As direct reporting from ServiceNow is in increasing demand, I thought I’d put together a brief overview of the more popular choices of Reporting Software on the market.

Of course, if anyone has experience of any others, or wants to add to (or contradict!) my views, please feel free to post.

MS SQL Reporting Services (SSRS)

MS SQL Reporting Services is part of the MS BID package of Business Intelligence software but is a capable piece of reporting software in its own right which produces professional results.

But its main selling point is that it is not sold!  If you already have MS SQL Server, it is free.  This is fantastic news for software of this calibre.  And because SSRS belongs to a suite of programs within SQL Server, there is no extra cost to schedule reports to run at set times automatically.

Report development in SSRS is quite SQL heavy, which is great for DBAs and programmers, not so much for people used to Excel as a reporting tool.

Of course, the flip side of it being free if you already have MS SQL Server is that it is expensive to buy a database just to get the free reporting software.

Because SSRS is intended for use with a suite of other software, it can struggle to do some of the more complex things that other programs in this list can as it is not a full solution in its own right.  This can lead to a ‘bitty’ architectural solution with functionality being spread out without any apparent order.

SSRS is primarily designed for use with MS SQL Server.  As a result, pointing it at over databases can be trickier than the other software in this list (who were created independently of any particular database).

Hiring SSRS expertise can be difficult as consultants tend to be DBAs, rather than SSRS specialists and are in high demand.

Business Objects

‘Business Objects’ tends to refer to an actual suite of software which together form an impressive toolset for data manipulation and display.  The Business Objects component itself is focused on taking the tables from a database and transforming them into a structure ideal for reporting: called a Universe.

With the latest version of Business Objects there is a choice of Web Intelligence (WebI) and Crystal Reports for Enterprise to actually cut and display the data gathered in the Universe.

(Older versions of BO have Desktop Intelligence, but I strongly recommend avoiding this option, it is not future proof and produces reports that just look dated.)

Crystal Reports is covered as a separate solution later, but viewed purely as a means to report on a Universe, it is a match for WebI and arguably better in some respects.  But Business Objects and WebI have been used together for longer and most BO developers are also WebI developers, whereas Crystal Reports is often a separate skill set.

Most of the shortcomings in WebI functionality is covered by the work already done when developing the Universe.

One of the best things about a Universe is that all the statistics you want to create can be done in one place and then included in reports as needed.  There is no duplication of effort that tends to occur in standalone reporting and a standardisation of reporting metrics is enforced automatically.

Scheduling reports is not a problem, as the scheduling software is included within the standard Business Objects suite of products.

However, this standardisation can also be a hindrance.  Professional level ITIL reporting often requires a very flexible approach to data interrogation to cover certain measures.  Often some measurements are at logical odds with other measures based on the same data.  This is where Business Objects can get mired down trying to accommodate all requirements in one place.

Even with free software (and Business Objects is far from free!) implementing an ITIL reporting solution costs money.  Expertise usually has to be hired in, time and money is spent on requirements gathering, hardware and so on.  Setting up a Business Objects Universe and then a complementary suite of reports can take weeks or even months.

This can be too long a wait for a business eager to give their managers the information they need to work at full capacity.  This is a shame, as the table structure of the ServiceNow database is so well thought out there is almost no need for a Universe anyway beyond the aforementioned efficiency of effort.

Crystal Reports

Crystal Reports can report from virtually any data source including of course, the ServiceNow ODBC, is quick to develop with and can produce a wide variety of reporting styles.

Crystal’s inbuilt scripting language allows a huge amount of control though can take some time to learn for those new to programming.

Crystal Reports is hugely popular and used across all business sectors and is versatile enough to do just about any job.  This versatility can also be a problem and without proper work practices in place a suite of Crystal Reports can become an unmaintainable mess.

The main negative thing for Crystal Reports is that it requires a separate piece of scheduling software to automate reporting.  Whichever scheduling software is chosen, be sure to thoroughly test it within your business before deployment, especially the security if you intend distributing reports outside your own intranet.

The charting can also be a bit limiting and is starting to look a little dated now, but still crisp and clear.

Another possible minus for Crystal Reports is that if you do not have the skills in-house already, it can be tricky to hire an effective consultant.  Unlike SSRS and Business Objects developers, who tend to come from a DBA or programmer background, a large percent of Crystal Reports consultants started in office admin jobs and tend not to have the technical experience needed to solve the more difficult questions.

Xcelsius / Crystal Visualation / SAP Dashboards

This product of many names was originally developed as an add-on to MS Excel and still uses Excel for much of its underlying functionality.

The result is reporting software with a shallow learning curve which produces gorgeous, interactive looking Dashboards that can be easily exported and distributed online.

Of course, there is a downside, or two.

The main one is that plugging Xcelsius directly into databases is a pain.  It does not have that underpinning ODBC foundation like the other products in this list and data must either be piped in via another product entirely or through a third party component that plugs straight into Xcelsius.

The good news on this front is any company using ServiceNow probably has some good Java developers at their disposal that can develop Web services to connect Xcelsius to the database.

On a final note, anyone using Business Objects and/or Crystal Reports should add Xcelsius to their arsenal.  It integrates well will both software and is definitely worth the effort in this case, both for dashboard designs and more flexible/nicer looking charting in standard reports.

JasperReports

This software is not really in the same league as the above products in many respects and may look like the odd one out.

But it does have a number of strong benefits in its favour:

1.  Very capable software and produces professional results to challenge any other product in this list.

2.  It is free.

3.  Very, very similar to Crystal Reports, so similar that a Crystal Reports expert can quickly get to grips with JasperReports.

4.  Java based and can be distributed through your organisation with relative ease.

JasperReports is definitely worth a look for any serious ServiceNow reporting implementation.

Summary

All of the above software has its own pros and cons which are largely dependent on the target organisation’s existing software, infrastructure and skill set.  With this in mind, I cannot recommend a specific piece of software, but am happy to answer any questions I can.

Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.

2 Comments

it_user3876ConsultantPOPULAR

Hi Jason. Is there any tool available to convert from crystal report format to jasper format?

23 June 13
it_user1068VendorLEADERBOARD

It is completely true that while a certain BI product (or any other product for that matter) can work for a particular business, it might fail in another. This is due to the fact that a perfect solution for any business is influenced by various factors such as infrastructure that vary from one company to another. Therefore, businesses should not just pick the Microsoft BI tool for their needs but consider other options that would work best for them to achieve maximum output.

01 September 13
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