Putting the Power Back in Reports

IF VARIETY is the spice of life, today's IT arena is hotter than a field of sun-ripened chili peppers. Never before have we faced such a diverse array of platforms, databases, applications, and operating systems.

At the same time, the need to disseminate information globally and across disparate computing environments has never been greater.

From this maelstrom of diverse technologies, reports have emerged as a pragmatic, economical distribution mechanism. Reports, of course, present valuable information such as sales and accounting data to financial analysts, sales managers, customer service personnel, auditors, accountants, and other users in a simple, intuitive format. But as we will learn, traditional paper-based reports have significant limitations.

Today's modern enterprise reporting solutions create, store, and distribute electronic reports that are far superior to their hard-copy brethren.

Reports can be categorized as either greenbar or presentation-quality in nature. Found in mainframe and midrange environments, the former experienced widespread adoption in the 1970s and remains popular today. Often hundreds or even thousands of pages long, greenbar reports are limited to colorless, single-font textual output. By contrast, presentation-quality reports use multiple fonts, colors, and advanced graphics to present data to users.

To create either type of report, developers must write programs or use tools to extract, decode, and reassemble data from complex databases. This painstaking process leads to reports that, unlike spreadsheet and online analytical processing (OLAP) tools, can be used by people with limited technical knowledge. In this sense, reports mask the complexity of underlying database schemata.

Unfortunately, the utility of either class of report is limited if reports are available only in hard-copy form. Paper is a static medium that traps data and hinders analyses.

Today, many companies are adopting electronic reports in favor of hard-copy reports. Unlike printed reports, electronic reports can be posted on Web sites and/or delivered via e-mail. In addition, their content can be manipulated and analyzed by authorized users.

Reports, redux

Enterprise reporting solutions are server-based applications that store and index electronic reports. With these solutions, users can interact with electronic reports as well as benefit from the ease and speed of electronic distribution.

And just as there are two classes of reports, there are two categories of enterprise reporting solutions. The first lets users transform existing reports into electronic reports, while the second lets developers create brand-new electronic reports.

These solutions are complementary, as each is appropriate in different circumstances and environments. As we shall see, both types of applications enhance analyses, improve communication, and reduce costs.

Revitalizing existing reports

Virtually every application on every midrange and mainframe system creates reports, without regard to programming language, operating system, or database.

And given that 75 percent of the world's corporate data resides on mainframes, it's safe to assume that a significant portion of the Fortune 500's most valuable data can be found in existing reports. In many cases, programmers have updated them for years.

Commonly generated by enterprise resource planning and other operational applications, reports represent a considerable technical and financial investment.

As we pointed out, reports have little value once they've been printed. A printed report is difficult to use if its text and numbers span even just a few dozen pages. Furthermore, printing and distributing hard-copy reports is costly and inefficient.

Those who need the data are often kept waiting at month's end while operators print, burst, collate, and deliver reports. Worse still, users who require a different view of the data in a given report must request a custom version or relay data into a spreadsheet.

Enterprise reporting solutions resolve these issues by storing and indexing electronic versions of existing reports in centralized, server-based archives.

Unlike staid COLD (Computer Output to Laser Disk) systems that merely store, index, and display reports, these modern applications let users work with report data as necessary.

With a few mouse clicks, users can sort, filter, summarize, graph, and drill up and down through the data in existing reports. In addition to these basic analytical functions, advanced products let users run time-series analyses, as well as perform rules-based mathematical, statistical, and string operations on report content. This adds tremendous value to existing reports because users can examine key aspects of their businesses, including revenue, expenses, prices, and margins. If preferred, users can also export data to virtually any PC application, including spreadsheets and databases.

Enterprise reporting products with particularly strong analytical capabilities include Datawatch's Monarch/ES, NSA's Report.Web, and Mobius Management System's DocumentDirect suite, among others. These leading applications also support browser-based access to electronic report archives.

As with any Web-based application, security is a chief concern. To ensure that users access only data to which they're entitled, these solutions secure entire reports, report segments, and even individual pages.

To minimize communications overhead, these solutions also "serve" only those pages containing requisite data. In addition to the products listed above, Magellan Software's SpyView and Quest Software's Vista Plus feature powerful, Web-enabled report archives. However, these latter two products do not provide users with advanced analytical functions.

Reports 'round the globe

Electronic distribution of reports is one of the key advantages of enterprise reporting; many products compress, encrypt, password-protect, and then deliver existing reports to users via e-mail as soon as the reports are generated on host systems. The reports can also be posted on Web sites and intranets, making them accessible to remote users.

Whether users receive reports via e-mail or the Internet, the need to create hard copy is greatly reduced. This has many benefits, including reduced expenditures on paper, printers, and related labor/maintenance overheads.

By analyzing data in reports, report consumers also derive significant business intelligence from these systems. In many cases, these solutions serve as proxies for more expensive data marts. And because users get the information they want without help from IT personnel, programmers are free to address more strategic issues.

Finally, because these systems enhance existing reporting systems, they require no programming effort to implement. This is a key reason for the growing popularity of these so-called "report-extender" solutions.

Of course, report-extender solutions aren't suitable for every environment.

Many companies don't have comprehensive reporting systems, so the need for tools that process existing reports is limited. And often the specific information you're seeking resides in a database, not in an existing report.

Furthermore, although these products support advanced analyses, they cannot create presentation-quality reports. In these cases, developers may use a different type of enterprise reporting tool to create presentation-quality reports from data stored in virtually any data source.

Reporting with panache

Presentation-quality electronic reports are commonly found on Web sites and intranets. As browser-equipped users explore these reports, images such as graphs, charts, logos, diagrams, tables, maps, and even photographs are updated to reflect user input.

For example, consider a report on a real estate agency's Web site. As users select addresses of homes that are for sale, photographs of the homes may appear along with asking prices, tax rates, and lot sizes.

Presentation-quality electronic reports are rapidly becoming an all-purpose, multimedia vehicle suitable for the dissemination of information to very broad, diverse populations. Electronic reports are even beginning to feature audiovisual content as well.

Moreover, these products allow end-users to explore, manipulate, and visualize data, making them particularly well-suited for analyzing trends and uncovering hidden patterns in data.

Because these products let non-technical users easily examine and explore electronic content, they are well-suited for public Web sites that address global audiences. In addition to dissemination via Web sites and intranets, presentation-quality electronic reports can also be distributed as e-mail attachments.

Enterprise reporting solutions that create presentation-quality electronic reports include Actuate's e.Reporting Suite, Brio's Brio.Report, Cognos' Enterprise Reporting solution, Oracle Reports, Seagate's Crystal Reports, and others.

Because these solutions create brand-new reports, programmers must first locate and extract requisite data from complex databases. To ease this task, these report-builders feature wizards to guide programmers through key actions such as connecting to a database (or OLAP repository), selecting and linking requisite tables, filtering on column and row values, decoding and transforming data, deriving new fields such as ratios, formatting resultant data, and adding images, if desired.

Afterward, administrative tasks such as assigning security are performed. Of course, administrators must be familiar with the source database schemata in order to use these "report-builder" solutions.

Choosing an approach

In terms of output, presentation-quality reports are far more appealing than greenbar reports, but there is far more to consider when choosing your enterprise reporting approach. If your organization relies on existing reports, it could use report-extender solutions to enhance analyses, improve information flows, and reduce printer-related costs.

If your business does not already have a reporting infrastructure, if its goal is to disseminate information to a broad audience, or if it requires the power of multimedia content, than you should consider a presentation-quality reporting system.

However you decide to implement enterprise reporting, your investment should result in faster, more dynamic reporting that will improve communication, enhance decision-making, and reduce costs.

Scott Steinacher is an independent technology consultant, program-mer, and author of the book Data Warehousing and the AS/400 (29th Street Press, 1998).

He can be reached at ssteinach@aol.com.

What about data marts?

At first glance, data marts and electronic reports seem suspiciously similar.

Both applications store and present data, both are accessible via Web browsers, and both can be considered business intelligence tools. What's more, users can interactively analyze data with either application. Although these are important similarities, don't be fooled: Critical differences do exist between these applications.

First, data marts are high-powered analysis tools that present data fairly well; electronic reports, by contrast, are high-powered presentation tools that analyze data fairly well. Because they focus on presentation rather than analysis, electronic reports are easier to use than are data marts. As a result, electronic reports do not require a technical lexicon. Data marts do, however, and are described with terms such as "dimensionality," "granularity," and "sparsity." Simply put, electronic reports can be used by people who have no technical background, whereas data-mart users require technical training.

Electronic reports are often posted on Web sites for general consumption, but data marts usually target specific user groups such as an accounting department. Unlike electronic reports, data marts also let users analyze data in an unlimited number of dimensions. For example, users may view sales figures by product, by store identification, or by state. With a click of a mouse, they could then view sales by customer, by product, by product group, and so on.

These tools also let users drill through successive layers of information. For instance, users may first view sales figures by state; next, they may view figures for that state by store identification. Then they may select a particular store identification in which to view sales by product, and so on.

Electronic reports do not support such fluid data analyses.

If your primary requirement is data analysis, you should consider an online analytical processing-enabled data mart. If you're more concerned with widespread distribution and presentation of information, an enterprise reporting solution will fit your needs more closely. In any case, each solution can lead to better decisions in less time.


Enterprise reporting

Summary: Electronic reporting solutions let organizations enhance the flow of report data to end-users, while reducing expenses associated with hard-copy distribution. Users have the ability to manipulate data in an electronic environment, improving ad-hoc decision making.

Business Case: Training users to analyze data requires time on the part of IT.

With electronic reports this burden is eased because they require little technical skill to use.


+ Effectively puts information in the hands of those who need it+ Easily distributed via e-mail or the WebCons:

- Can be expensive

- Lacks the full analytical capabilities of data marts or online analytical processing tools

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