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The Emergence of Enterprise Reporting

Published
  • May 01 1999, 1:00am EDT

To respond quickly to market opportunities and competitive pressures, organizations must empower managers and other knowledge workers to make rapid front-line decisions. This requires fast, easy access to information about the key factors driving the business ­ capabilities that business intelligence query and reporting tools provide. Until recently, business intelligence query and reporting tools were client desktop products, which are only cost-effective to install and maintain for dedicated analysts and other power users ­ typically about 20 percent of knowledge workers in an organization. Now, with the emergence of World Wide Web technologies and the acceptance of the Internet as a primary vehicle for distributing information, there is an opportunity to maximize the return on investment in corporate information. It is now possible to cost-effectively deliver reporting capabilities to every user, from senior executives and production line workers, to sales forces and branch offices across an entire organization and beyond to customers, suppliers and other business partners.

This democratization of information accessibility makes cost-effective enterprise reporting a reality.

There are two different classes of enterprise reporting solutions available for organizations today: those that run your business and those that improve your business.

The first class centers around reporting on the status of your business ­ inventory, human resources, products and so on. As the fundamental information pipeline that supports business processes, status reporting is essential to running your business efficiently.

Status reporting requirements across the enterprise are diverse. To be effective, an enterprise reporting solution must address the broad spectrum of these complex needs. In so doing, basic, yet critical, reporting needs are met. However, it is important to note that status reporting solutions address a baseline need and do little to help an organization actually improve its business.

The second class of enterprise reporting solution delivers the means to improve your business by adding value to stores of enterprise data so use of information can move beyond simple status reviews. This type of solution allows users to measure business performance, rather than simply review the status of business measures. In addition, this second class of reporting offers report formats that support business measurement activities by presenting information in a manner that matches what users are trying to accomplish: uncovering problems and discovering trends. The results: better, more informed decisions that relate directly to improvements to the bottom line.

In providing an enterprise reporting solution, IT must address both of these critical requirements. Often, the initial thrust is to solve fundamental status reporting needs. Although they may begin with status reporting, enterprise solutions designed to deliver maximum return on investment do not end there. The reporting solution value curve increases steeply with the provision of status and business measurement reporting capabilities that allow companies to both run and improve their business.

Until recently, the primary focus of IT reporting solutions was addressing departmental needs, which meant deploying tools to power users within the client/server environment. Today's enterprise reporting requirements are more complex and diverse than ever before and present IT professionals with a new set of challenges:

  1. Meet enterprise reporting needs without creating an IT reporting backlog.
  2. Deploy reports to the organization in a cost-effective way that is easy to manage.
  3. Deliver a solution that will grow with evolving user needs and that won't lock the organization into a particular vendor's infrastructure as technology changes.

The optimal approach to enterprise reporting is to provide organizations with a complete solution (one that addresses reporting requirements for both running and improving the business) that meets the needs of power users, casual users and everyone in between.

Enterprise reporting solutions should also be architected to address the new challenges facing IT as reporting emerges from departmental coverage to full-blown enterprise solutions. This can be achieved through:

  1. Distributed report authorship. Organizations need to move as much report authoring as possible to the end-user community across many functional areas in the company.
  2. Centralized report management and distribution. To be cost- and time-effective, IT needs a central place to store, update, manage and distribute reports.
  3. Open and scalable Web architecture. Enterprise reporting architectures need to be Web-based, open to support existing enterprise infrastructures and scalable to accommodate all users within the enterprise and the extended enterprise.

If an enterprise reporting solution is going to run and improve an organization's business, it needs to address three key reporting needs:

Status reporting.

Status reports are usually generated on a regular basis and draw on relational data to give users a "snapshot" of a particular data set, such as weekly product inventory. Status reports are the most commonly required type of report.

Ad hoc reporting.

Ad hoc reports are the result of data access requirements that happen on the fly, they are "one-offs" and, therefore, do not have a corresponding status report.

Business performance measurement reporting

(also known as key performance indicator reporting or KPI). Business performance measurement reports help users to measure and compare key performance indicators over time. Status reports are the best understood and implemented types of reports in enterprise reporting. Ad hoc and business performance measurement require special attention.

Most people only need ad hoc access to data on a casual basis. They need information quickly to answer their questions, which typically vary from week to week. Because of the unique and fleeting nature of most ad hoc requirements, a robust reporting tool that requires a great deal of training is simply not a viable option. The key to successfully addressing ad hoc access requirements is to make the process both fast and easy.

The problem with most enterprise reporting solutions is that they deliver too much functionality to ad hoc users. This is the IT equivalent of giving a home gardener a backhoe to turn over a 4 x3 patch of land. Although the backhoe is capable of doing the job, the average gardener will not be able to use it without investing a great deal of time to take costly training courses. So the result is the user who has the ad hoc need can't figure out how to use the tool and either doesn't get the information needed, or the user has to call a report author to produce a report. This obviously is not the goal of the ad hoc portion of an enterprise reporting solution which is to offload the reporting backlog from IT.

The best approach to broad-scale ad hoc requirements is to leverage the broad accessibility, low-cost architecture and easy navigational paradigm of the Web. Web browsing is so easy for people to learn because they can interact with the Web sites the way they think, which is top down.

Ad hoc needs are usually broad and high level at first. For example, a marketing manager is going to see customer X and needs to know more about customer X's experience with his company. At first, he may want to look at customer X's sales. The marketing manager may notice that customer X bought a lot of a particular product, so he may want to look at the support calls customer X has placed for that product. From there he may want to see what his company's response time was for the calls and so on. As you can see, prior to getting into the data, the marketing manager wouldn't have known what to ask IT to put in his report.

The solution is for IT to publish a framework to the Web that contains many permutations and combinations of reports users can surf through to get the information they need. Many ad hoc needs can be addressed through well-planned and published frameworks offloading report writing requirements from IT and empowering end users with self-service data access.

Business performance measurement (BPM) reports are the "ROI boosters" of a complete reporting solution because they facilitate business improvements. The reports draw on summary data so users from all functional areas can quickly explore the factors driving their business with the common goal of improving the company's overall business performance.

To effectively identify exactly what is driving a trend or exception, BPM reports should allow users to view performance indicators in a graphical format so that they can interactively change them. Users should be able to interactively drill up and down on report text and graphics to get higher or lower levels of detail regarding the information they are assessing. They should also be able to slice and dice various dimensions of business information ­ such as revenues, products and time ­ in different ways to help uncover trends.

Some of the advanced features a BPM report should include are:

  • Currency conversion
  • 80/20 filtering
  • Subset measurement
  • Exception highlighting

One of IT's key challenges when implementing an enterprise reporting solution is delivering reports to consumers across the enterprise in a manageable, cost-effective manner.
A significant portion of the cost of implementing software solutions is in deployment, training and maintenance. Web technology holds the promise to reduce this burden, but this promise can only be fulfilled when Web-based tools use server technology that has no client footprint or client limitations. Enterprise reporting solutions that are completely server based and have an HTML-only interface ensure maximum deployability and the lowest possible deployment and maintenance burden for IT.

One of the most widely acknowledged problems with Web-based reporting is that the report a user sees is not always the same report the author generated. If it is a report that has been rendered from Windows to HTML, it might not contain all of the layout features the client report had. This problem intensifies when the user tries to print the HTML page. For instance, columns do not fit on the page, lines get cut off in the middle and so on.

The two key methods used in enterprise reporting solutions to address this are:

Adobe PDF output of reports:

Adobe PDF outputs can be generated to maintain the same design and functional elements the report author designed.

Java applets:

Java applets can be provided to render HTML output into a printable format. However, this is not an acceptable solution for organizations that don't enable Java or that don't want to worry about whether their users' browsers support the particular version of Java used to create the applet. An open and scalable architecture is a key requirement for an enterprise reporting solution. Organizations cannot afford to adopt products or technologies that lock them into a proprietary infrastructure or prevent them from deploying reporting capability throughout their enterprise and to their extended business partners.

Key to meeting this requirement is a three-tiered server architecture, HTML Web-browser interfaces, support for a diversity of open Web protocols, distributed load balancing across multiple application servers, fault tolerance and pooled connections. With these architectural considerations, IT can deploy a reporting solution across the enterprise and beyond to suppliers, customers, and business partners.

For performance and scalability, an enterprise reporting solution needs dynamic load balancing that is administrated on the server. Processes need to be monitored at each level of the architecture for server performance, query performance and server availability. Each individual query needs to be routed to the least busy server based on the combination of performance attributes. This ensures optimal usage of available resources and maximum query performance.

Load balancing features should monitor servers based on performance and availability. If an application server shuts down, then it should be automatically restarted. If the server fails, then all requests should be redirected to other active servers.

Pooled connections are an architectural feature that allow a large number of users to be serviced through a small number of permanent database connections. Since the database is receiving requests from only one user name, rather than opening and closing connections for each user, database performance is enhanced.

Pooled connections can also allow users who are not known to the database, but who are known to the application, to access the data they need. This is particularly important for extranet applications.

Just as different users have different needs, these users often have different degrees of computing power at their disposal. To enable Web distribution of reports to all users, regardless of their Web browser capabilities, an enterprise reporting solution should offer an HTML-only option.

Also to ensure the broadest possible deployment, enterprise reporting solutions need to offer the choice of three industry-standard interfaces between the application server and the Web server:

  • CGI: Common gateway interface is open and supported by all major Web servers.
  • ISAPI: Microsoft's Internet server application programming interface is an alternate technology that allows the Web server to communicate with applications behind it through plug-in dynamic link libraries (DLLs). ISAPI is a proprietary technology supported only by Microsoft Web servers.
  • NSAPI: Netscape server application programming interface fulfills exactly the same role as ISAPI. NSAPI is a proprietary technology that runs only on Netscape Web servers.

There are two different classes of enterprise reporting solutions available for organizations today: those that run the business, and those that improve the business.

Although most reporting solutions only address status reporting requirements, enterprise solutions that are designed to deliver maximum return on investment do not end there.

The reporting solution value curve increases steeply when business measurement reporting capabilities are also addressed. Business performance measurement reports are the "ROI-boosters" of a complete reporting solution because they facilitate business improvements.

As a reporting environment evolves from departmental coverage to full-blown enterprise coverage, reporting requirements are more complex and diverse. The challenges to IT professionals bear repeating. They are:

  1. Meet enterprise reporting needs without creating an IT reporting backlog.
  2. Deploy reports to the organization in a cost-effective way that is easy to manage.
  3. Deliver a solution that will grow along with evolving user needs and that will not lock the organization into a particular vendor's infrastructure as technology changes.

To be complete, an enterprise reporting solution must address all of these challenges.

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