Crystal Hones Web Reports in Version 9

Organizations developing applications that summarize key business metrics will find a capable tool set in the upgrade to Crystal Decisions Inc.'s database reporting tool, Crystal Reports.

Organizations developing applications that summarize key business metrics will find a capable tool set in the upgrade to Crystal Decisions Inc.s database reporting tool, Crystal Reports. However, Version 9 is still oriented around desktop and workgroup reporting tasks.

The Version 9 release of the well-established report writer started shipping in the middle of last month and adds two major features: a Web-based report server (replacing the basic Web server plug-in report generator used in previous Crystal Reports versions) and a Java API.

eWeek Labs tests show that the report server, called Report Application Server, lacks the built-in administration, user management and security framework needed for enterprisewide report deployments. Its really suitable just for workgroup-level projects, but at $1,995, it is a low-cost option.

The Java API is new to the Crystal Reports line and a much-needed addition. Organizations can use the Crystal Reports Java classes to process and display reports in thick-client Java applications or in Web-based Java 2 Enterprise Edition applications. Microsoft Corp. Component Object Model and .Net APIs are also included, so Crystal Reports now fits into just about any development effort that needs reporting features.

Crystal Reports continues to be much more focused on production reporting and charting (including map-based charts) than it is on ad hoc query or data analysis: While we could create cross-tab reports and query a variety of OLAP (online analytical processing) servers, pivoting and drilling down in reports was awkward.

The report viewer also doesnt allow filtering, sorting or the addition of new fields—basic ad hoc query tasks. For these tasks, Business Objects S.A.s Business Objects—which can integrate reporting, querying, OLAP and data mining into a single interface—is a better choice.

Crystal Decisions offers a separate traditional OLAP client, Crystal Analysis.

Crystal Reports comes in four versions: a $195 Standard Edition that can access only desktop databases; a $495 Professional Edition that can connect to server databases; a $595 Developer Edition that includes the development APIs; and a $1,995 Advanced Edition that includes Report Application Server. All versions are Windows-based. We tested Advanced Edition on Windows 2000 Server with Oracle Corp.s Oracle9i database.

The $1,995 price for Advanced Edition (regardless of the number of users accessing the server or number of CPUs in the server) is notable because it is a much cheaper way to get Web-based reporting than Crystal Decisions has offered in the past. Although many features are disabled in it, Report Application Server is based on Crystal Decisions higher-end and far more expensive Crystal Enterprise report server.

Crystal Enterprise is more suitable for enterprise production reporting jobs, though: It supports clustering for fault tolerance and scalability, has a central report repository, and integrates with enterprise user directories. It also offers scheduled report generation in addition to on-demand reporting, has a sophisticated security model and runs on Solaris as well as Windows. Report Application Server offers none of these advanced features.

Web applications written in Active Server Pages, Active Server Pages .Net or JavaServer Pages have easy access to Crystal Reports functions, but this release also includes a packaged Web report client (see screen, below). We could browse the file system of the server to load up a report as well as edit and create report files.

Crystal Reports Web report viewer has strong report search and navigation tools; we could search for arbitrary text strings or use a tree control to jump to particular places in a report. It also let us save a report as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file, a Microsoft Excel or Word file, or a rich text format file.

Crystal Reports 9 adds two features that help multiple report authors produce more consistently formatted reports: In tests, we could use existing reports as templates, as well as add text objects, images or queries to a shared database repository. We could then simply drag and drop objects out of the repository into new reports to reuse them.

West Coast Technical Director Timothy Dyck is at