Buy vs. Build
There is a wide variety of reporting requirements, and whether to buy or build a reporting tool for your business intelligence needs is also heavily dependent on the type of requirements. Typically, the determination is based on the following:
- Number of reports: The higher the number of reports, the more likely that buying a reporting tool is a good idea. This is not only because reporting tools typically make creating new reports easier (by offering re-usable components), but they also already have report management systems to make maintenance and support functions easier.
- Desired Report Distribution Mode: If the reports will only be distributed in a single mode (for example, email only, or over the browser only), we should then strongly consider the possibility of building the reporting tool from scratch. However, if users will access the reports through a variety of different channels, it would make sense to invest in a third-party reporting tool that already comes packaged with these distribution modes.
- Ad Hoc Report Creation: Will the users be able to create their own ad hoc reports? If so, it is a good idea to purchase a reporting tool. These tool vendors have accumulated extensive experience and know the features that are important to users who are creating ad hoc reports. A second reason is that the ability to allow for ad hoc report creation necessarily relies on a strong metadata layer, and it is simply difficult to come up with a metadata model when building a reporting tool from scratch.
Reporting Tool Functionalities
Data is useless if all it does is sitting in the data warehouse. As a result, the presentation layer is of very high importance.
Most of the OLAP vendors already have a front-end presentation layer that allows users to call up pre-defined reports or create ad hoc reports. There are also several report tool vendors. Either way, pay attention to the following points when evaluating reporting tools:
Data source connection capabilities
In general there are two types of data sources, one the relationship database, the other is the OLAP multidimensional data source. Nowadays, chances are good that you might want to have both. Many tool vendors will tell you that they offer both options, but upon closer inspection, it is possible that the tool vendor is especially good for one type, but to connect to the other type of data source, it becomes a difficult exercise in programming.
Scheduling and distribution capabilities
In a realistic data warehousing usage scenario by senior executives, all they have time for is to come in on Monday morning, look at the most important weekly numbers from the previous week (say the sales numbers), and that's how they satisfy their business intelligence needs. All the fancy ad hoc and drilling capabilities will not interest them, because they do not touch these features.
Based on the above scenario, the reporting tool must have scheduling and distribution capabilities. Weekly reports are scheduled to run on Monday morning, and the resulting reports are distributed to the senior executives either by email or web publishing. There are claims by various vendors that they can distribute reports through various interfaces, but based on my experience, the only ones that really matter are delivery via email and publishing over the intranet.
Security Features: Because reporting tools, similar to OLAP tools, are geared towards a number of users, making sure people see only what they are supposed to see is important. Security can reside at the report level, folder level, column level, row level, or even individual cell level. By and large, all established reporting tools have these capabilities. Furthermore, they have a security layer that can interact with the common corporate login protocols. There are, however, cases where large corporations have developed their own user authentication mechanism and have a "single sign-on" policy. For these cases, having a seamless integration between the tool and the in-house authentication can require some work. I would recommend that you have the tool vendor team come in and make sure that the two are compatible.
Every one of us has had the frustration over spending an inordinate amount of time tinkering with some office productivity tool only to make the report/presentation look good. This is definitely a waste of time, but unfortunately it is a necessary evil. In fact, a lot of times, analysts will wish to take a report directly out of the reporting tool and place it in their presentations or reports to their bosses. If the reporting tool offers them an easy way to pre-set the reports to look exactly the way that adheres to the corporate standard, it makes the analysts jobs much easier, and the time savings are tremendous.
The most common export needs are to Excel, to a flat file, and to PDF, and a good report tool must be able to export to all three formats. For Excel, if the situation warrants it, you will want to verify that the reporting format, not just the data itself, will be exported out to Excel. This can often be a time-saver.
Integration with the Microsoft Office environment
Most people are used to work with Microsoft Office products, especially Excel, for manipulating data. Before, people used to export the reports into Excel, and then perform additional formatting / calculation tasks. Some reporting tools now offer a Microsoft Office-like editing environment for users, so all formatting can be done within the reporting tool itself, with no need to export the report into Excel. This is a nice convenience to the users.