Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services, the time-tested heavyweight is a low-cost solution but its mobile capabilities are lacking. I built a career around this tool, so here’s my long over-due honest review.
The product has gone unchanged in the last five years. Although that by itself should stand as a warning, it doesn’t change the fact that SSRS is a mature product with features that are not found in more modern BI platforms. Why do companies hold on to SSRS for BI?
They bet early on Microsoft as an established company that could give them un upgrade path in the future. Today, SSRS report developers can still crank out sophisticated reports that are impossible on other platforms. The entire reporting platform is included for free for customers who bought MS SQL Server.
Let me highlight some of the advanced features that keep people on the platform.
- Drill-through reports. These are ones where links in the data presented take a report viewer to related reports. Information Builders is another BI platform where this is available, but not as customizable as in SSRS.
- Highly customizable charts. The data driven custom colors. The fact that almost every attribute of a component of a chart can be tweaked. Try doing some of those customizations on your flashy new cloud BI platform.
- Reports within reports. Sub reports within tables of data and sophisticated charts within tables within sub reports within reports. Go as deep as you want. See as much detail as you want.
- User-accessible parameters. Reports can offer report users parameters like no other platform. This makes linking to and from reports easy and allows you to integrate SSRS reports into other business applications. Try sending parameters to an Excel spreadsheet, a Power View report, or a cloud-based dashboard – impossible.
- Extensible. Programmers can extend the tool’s functionality. Custom data sources can be coded. Custom delivery extensions can be built. External dlls can be referenced from within reports. Many companies do take advantage of these features.
What I like most about SSRS is its deep flexibility in the design tool that allows you to build almost any kind of reporting application with drill downs, links, etc…Reporting Services does have major flaws as a modern BI platform.
The few things I mention below constitute very strong reasons why Microsoft has essentially abandoned the platform and why I agree with them.
- Lack of mobile support. Reports look terrible on mobile screens. They don’t have the ability to redraw themselves as with responsive UIs. Security remains a hassle on mobile because SSRS relies heavily on active directory.
- Speed of development is too slow. To be fair, each SSRS report has the potential to be its own business application, aware of who is viewing the report and customizing the output accordingly. Those that take advantage of the advanced features are in for a surprise – developers will spend countless hours squinting at the screen getting every pixel to fall exactly where they want it. Setting up data sources is still a thing for advanced SQL developers. It’s not like other modern BI platforms where stores of data sets are easily converted to dashboards.
- Antiquated IDE for code developers extending it. I really wish that the custom code windows provided richer programming assistance (like auto-complete, object oriented constructs, intelisense…) and support for otherprogramming languages.
My overall experience with Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services is that it is easy to install and to integrate in an enterprise setting. Developing sophisticated reports, however, can be slow and tedious. Ultimately, getting information to business users is the name of the game. Doing it fast, and doing it intuitevely trumps fancy features. Mobile is no longer a nice-to-have. It is the consumption platform for today.
Companies should follow Microsoft in abandoning the gentle giant once and for all.