Author: Grzegorz Goli
Crystal Reports vs. Microsoft Reporting Services
Reporting - generally understood as a way of presenting data and information - is one of the most important aspects of the performance management process. Performance management itself is - in a word - nothing more than asking and answering three questions about enterprise - how is it doing, why, and what to do, then?
With reporting, manager should be supported in making efficient decisions as quickly as possible. There are quite a lot of reporting tools currently on offer, therefore every customer has a possibility of finding a solution suiting him best. But how? All in all, proper choice isn't easy.
Although every comparison depends on the point of customer's perspective, usually at least the choice of solutions to be compared is simple. Not this time. While confronting Microsoft with SAP, even this choice isn't so obvious. According to that, Microsoft Reporting Services should be compared twice, from a two-dimensional perspective.
As shown in the diagram below, Microsoft Reporting Services might function in a twofold way. Firstly, as a standalone reporting server, therefore working as an independent solution, and, secondly, as a tool to integrate reporting into a parallel .Net application.
The thing of this comparison is to answer, whether one, common solution - Microsoft Reporting Services - is enough to replace two separate concretely-aimed solutions. Both - offered by SAP - Crystal Reports 2008 and Crystal Reports Server XI have been designed for different types of customers.
Reporting Services and Crystal Reports
Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services, unlikely Crystal Reports, is quite a new tool, released in 2004. Announced to be distributed for free (bundled with the MS SQL Server), Reporting Services has had to grab the attention of Visual Studio .NET users.
Very loudly introduced to the market, SQL Server Reporting Services has immediately become the most significant Crystal Reports' rival. Suddenly people started comparing two extremely different (in an experience perspective) tools - "new-born" SSRS, and more than ten-years-old Crystal Reports (11 version). Years of incessant improvements were stood across brand-new product. No one could have been sure of results of the clash. What were the both sides' arguments?
To begin with - that time - already existing solution, Crystal Reports. The first thing repeated as often as possible, were the years of experience that haven't gone to waste. With every new product release, producer provided numerous fixes, increasing also the system's performance. While introducing 11 version to a market, SAP emphasized that current release is completely different from "not-the-best" Crystal 8.5 version.
On the other hand, Microsoft praised SQL Server Reporting Services for its freshness, and - disposing SAP's experience boasts - demonstrated SSRS readiness to immediate use. While preparing this product, Microsoft had a chance do rate every offered then solution, and, therefore, had a chance to base on best parts of each, still having enough time to ensure not multiplying the weaknesses. Thereupon, even the newest product might have competed with those already released.
Let's have a look, how does it work in a practice.
Integrating reporting into a .Net application
The first strength of Reporting Services is Microsoft brand followed by world fame and generally-known trustworthiness. Almost everyone has heard about the Redmond Giant, therefore people might feel a bit more familiar with Microsoft than SAP. Along that, comes a loyalty. Regardless of thousands of accusation presented everyday by Microsoft's opponents, worldwide recognition result in better start position while thinking about choosing a solution. Back to Reporting Services, it's a solution known for its features - provided set is richly enough for majority of basic uses.
Problems begin when it comes to a bit more advanced tasks, for example combining web data with local data. Reporting Services cannot ensure such cooperation, rather Crystal Reports 2008 would be better. The same problems come out while trying to do both financial and non-financial reports with only one reporting tool. Unlikely Crystal Reports 2008 and its improved crosstabs, Microsoft Reporting Services isn't designed well-enough to fulfill these needs.
While talking about Microsoft world-famous name, an interesting aspect should also be mentioned. It's not as widely-known fact, that Business Objects cooperates with Microsoft, becoming its "Gold Partner". The partnership lasts for quite a lot of time as Crystal Reports supplies Microsoft platform. What's worth noticing, Crystal Reports has been also included in Visual Basic and Visual Studio environments. This kind solution has been offered since the version 2 Visual Basic development environment and does not seem to be retired soon, as it continues with Visual Studio 2008.
SSRS and Crystal Reports strengths and weaknesses
SQL Server Reporting Services is praised especially for its independence, but its generality has also a few bad sides.
The first thing that might have been prepared much better is report design environment. The one included in Reporting Services lacks in options. Moreover, editing reports with data is almost impossible - that demands a separate preview cycle, what results in lengthening report design process. Also, the formula of editing might be a bit more advanced. And finally, accessing data demands SQL knowledge. Solutions provided by Crystal Reports 2008 seem more user-friendly. What's most significant, Crystal Reports allows changing report design even while it's been already fulfilled with the data. Then, adding conditional logic to reports is simplified, due to a broadened formula workshop included in Crystal Reports 2008. Also, knowing SQL isn't required - with graphical Database Expert, data access is possible simply as drag and drop.
Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services doesn't support Flash and Flex, impossible is forwarding data from report into Flash.
Crystal Reports 2008 cooperates well with Adobe Flash and Flex. Well-prepared integration enables creating powerful visualizations with only standard tools. With simplified Adobe Flex embedding, integrating reports with different web services is easier than ever before. With a help of Xcelsius, designing what-if scenarios is also possible.
Reporting Services isn't also designed straight for financial reporting. This kind uses generally demand implementing a second tool - Microsoft FRX/Performance Point server. In opposite to Crystal Reports 2008 that is provided with crosstab features which creating financial reports is much easier with. Crystal Reports is completely self-sufficient - a customer doesn't need to use any other reporting tool for financial reports.
Furthermore, Reporting Services doesn't enable web deployments without the SQL server database - applications based on SSRS need to operate on SQL Server. The thing looks extremely different in Crystal Reports - it has its own reporting engine, therefore no other support is required. What's more, deploying runtime engine to server isn't problematic with only 24MB EXE, .MSI or MSM file - all self-extracting.
Finally, Reporting Services has never been a goal itself. It's main role is to increase SQL Server sale, and - for that - run both database and report processing on one server. Crystal Reports functions a bit differently with over fifteen-year experience in reporting that led to separating database from report processing. During these years efficient partnerships have been worked out, thereupon currently cooperating with Flash or other formats is rather trouble-free.
Even though Crystal Reports has a lot of strengths, there are some widely known weaknesses that have been improved in newest releases. Former versions of Crystal Reports were accused of too complex licensing, too big footprint, and, finally, being too static.
Fortunately, things have got significantly improved with Crystal 2008. Current licensing enables user to free deploy all kinds of applications across the enterprise, as well as royalty-free access to .Net Report Creation interfaces. Also, Crystal Reports implementing isn't as problematic as before with only about 24MB runtime engine and 300MB report design tool. Changes have applied not only to prevent the weaknesses, but also increasing strengths with a higher level of interactivity - Crystal Reports 2008 customers are supported with new parameter panels and controls.
Reporting Services as a standalone reporting server
Functioning as a standalone reporting server, Microsoft Reporting Services has almost the same set of strengths, which are also followed by a low price. Microsoft's product seems to be significantly cheaper than its equivalents. The thing isn't so obvious, though. Reporting Services might be really implemented for free, but only while not separating report from database processing. Trying to use Reporting Services on an independent server, buying another SQL Server license is required.
Not only strengths are similar. While using Microsoft Reporting Services as a standalone reporting server, some weaknesses repeat as well. The same as earlier, design environment isn't enough for anything more than extremely basic uses. Also the accusations of Reporting Services dependence are well-founded. Unfortunately, the list of weaknesses isn't over yet.
Another troubles come out while trying to use a semantic layer for accessing a relational data - it's impossible. For this place, Crystal Reports Server XI - SAP's equivalent for standalone reporting server - offers Business Views semantic layer, which power is mixed with highest levels security in.
Microsoft Reporting Services significantly lacks for advanced exporting capabilities. By standard offered are only static exports to Excel spreadsheets and PDF files. How is it solved in Crystal Reports? By the Live Office service that enables live integrating modifiable reports into Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and other Office documents.
Microsoft Reporting Services is designed rather for online work, therefore viewing reports while being offline demands converting files. SAP provides Crystal Reports Viewer XI - it's a free tool, which viewing reports - even being disconnected - is possible in.
Finally, Crystal Reports offer an online service www.crystalreports.com/share - it's a nice facilitation allowing customers to host and share online their reports. That reduces a necessary IT involvement. Microsoft doesn't have anything like that.
As it's been mentioned many times before (at the beginning of this article, as well), the choice of every reporting tool, or maybe more generally: of every product, depends on customer's needs. Specifying them is a first step that must be done before even trying to choose anything. Unfortunately, not all the customers remembered about that and - as soon as they heard about new product - moved leaving all the rest behind. Not everyone was happy with that change.
It's impossible to unambiguously state which one, SSRS or Crystal Reports, is better. Depends on the requirements. Despite all of the strengths and weaknesses, no product is perfect since its beginning. And - as well - no one can guarantee that the final version of product will be perfect. Customers must be prepared for advantages and disadvantages, therefore they should care especially to choose a product, which producer ensures not to leave a client alone with his problems.