Crystal Enterprise 8 Speedy but Lacks OLAP

Crystal Decisions Inc.'s Crystal Enterprise 8 Professional Edition data report server provides a fast, highly programmable tool for creating and distributing reports to users

Crystal Decisions Inc.s Crystal Enterprise 8 Professional Edition data report server provides a fast, highly programmable tool for creating and distributing reports to users.

However, this release—which replaces Crystal Info 7.5 and started shipping last month—is something of a two-steps-forward, two-steps-back effort, with some important new performance and programmability features appearing, but other important analysis and report editing features removed.

Organizations that want to do high-volume reporting or create custom reporting applications will find Crystal Enterprise a very good fit, but those doing OLAP (online analytical processing) or ad hoc reporting should look to offerings from Brio Technology Inc., Business Objects S.A. or Cognos Inc.

Crystal Enterprise costs $500 per named user, $3,500 per concurrent user or $45,000 per CPU. It includes one copy of the Windows-based Crystal Reports Professional Edition 8.5, which is necessary to design the reports Crystal Enterprise processes. Additional copies of Crystal Reports Professional Edition cost $399 each.

Crystal Decisions redesigned the reporting engine from the ground up to use a new design that allows on-demand report generation instead of just the scheduled report creation previous versions allowed.

We could still schedule report runs using Crystal Enterprises flexible scheduler, but many users will want to switch to on-demand report creation, which frees administrators from having to worry about exactly how old (and out-of-date) reports can get before they need to be regenerated.

The new version of Crystal Enterprise can progressively render individual pages of a report to make data appear in front of users just as fast as possible. For example, we would see text data appear nearly instantly, followed a second or two later by a summary graph that required more server-side computation.

These features, along with Crystal Enterprises continued support for report server clustering and failover, will keep Crystal Enterprise in the top tier of production report servers, especially when Unix versions of the new report engine design ship later this year. Right now, Crystal Enterprise only runs on Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000. (Crystal Info did run on Unix systems as well as on Windows.)

Can be customized

Programmability is the second big focus for this release, with the addition of Crystal Enterprises CSP (Crystal Server Pages) Web scripting language. CSP is virtually identical to Microsoft Corp.s Active Server Pages language but will run on all operating systems Crystal Enterprise supports.

Having a complete Web scripting language is a real distinguisher for Crystal Enterprise and makes it quite easy to add custom reporting to a company Web portal or more far-flung applications such as a Wireless Markup Language reporting application for mobile phones.

Fitting right into a Web development strategy, XML (Extensible Markup Language) can now be used as a data source (along with the huge variety of databases and nontraditional data sources Crystal Enterprise supports). We could also export report data in XML format.

However, the software isnt the all-in-one reporting system it could claim to be in the past. The OLAP server, OLAP viewer, and Java data query and report creation tools are no longer part of the product, big steps backward in functionality.

Crystal Decisions plans to ship an OLAP client called Crystal Analysis Professional next quarter and is also working on new Web-based query and report creation tools for a future release.

Crystal Enterprises HTML, Java and ActiveX report viewers are all capable, offering searching and report navigation trees. We could use the client to export reports as PDF files for high-quality printing, a new feature, or as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word or Rich Text Format documents. However, the Web clients do not allow ad hoc tasks such as filtering or re-sorting a report.