Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What's new in SQL Server 2008 Reporting Services?

With the release of SQL Server 2008, Reporting Services (SSRS) reached its third version. While the previous version contained many new features, this latest release of SSRS is easier to use and an even more powerful enterprise-level reporting tool. This article will discuss the most significant and most useful new features that make SQL Server 2008 Reporting Services a worthwhile upgrade.

IIS is no longer required
The previous two releases relied on IIS to host the RS Web service and the Report Manager Web application. Many organizations have made a rule of not installing IIS on the same machine as SQL Server for security reasons. This dependency on IIS therefore became a showstopper for using SSRS for many potential users. Based on user feedback, Microsoft re-architected SSRS 2008 and removed this dependency.

SSRS now handles HTTP via HTTP.SYS, a native OS kernel that intercepts and handles HTTP requests just like IIS. If this sounds familiar, that's because it's the same mechanism used by the Native XML Web Services in SQL Server 2005 – a feature that, interestingly, was removed in SQL Server 2008. Microsoft also claims that this implementation provides better performance and scalability. The Reporting Services Configuration tool has been updated to provide management capabilities for Report Manager and Reporting Server services.

Better memory management
Users who have deployed SSRS in high-traffic environments may have noticed performance degradation when many concurrent users access reports with many pages. The reason for the slowness was that SSRS was holding rendered reports in memory, causing problems if memory demands became too high. SSRS now saves rendered pages to the file system to remove the load on server memory. For large reports, it also renders reports as the user is viewing them. This on-demand processing decreases the load on the server by not rendering pages the user might potentially not view at all. In addition to these memory enhancements, you can now also set a threshold on how much memory SQL Server Reporting Services should use.

Export into Microsoft Word
This feature has been requested pretty much since SSRS 2000 came out in 2004, mainly because there are more Word users than Excel users. For whatever reason, this feature did not make it to SQL Server 2005, but it's finally here and certainly a much welcome addition to all the other export options.

Improved charting components

Last year Microsoft acquired Dundas Data Visualization technology for SSRS. Dundas is a company specializing in developing powerful visual components for developers, such as chart, gauge, map and calendar controls. Purchasing the code base for the chart, gauge and calendar controls allowed Microsoft to provide better integration of these components with SSRS and to control the components' future direction. Dundas components have always been visually stunning, so it's no surprise that the new chart component is like night and day compared with chart control in the previous versions of SSRS.

In my opinion, if you do a lot of charting in your reports, this feature alone justifies the effort to upgrade SQL Server 2008 Reporting Services. The new chart region includes many additional chart types, such as cylinder, pyramid, radar and funnel. Other useful enhancements are interval labeling for avoiding label collisions, combining small slices into a single slice in a pie chart and more 2-D and 2-D visual effects.

Tablix data region
This new data region combines the functionality of both table and matrix data regions. This region allows you to combine multiple column groups and row groups, essentially allowing you to create reports that have both dynamic row and dynamic column output. You can now more easily create nested and recursive groups and make them adjacent to each other. There is a lot more to the Tablix data region than I can describe in this space. For more details, read the Understanding the Tablix Data Region section of Microsoft Books Online.

Enhanced CSV export

Comma-separated value (CSV) export can be very useful for automating report processing if you are interested in extracting data elements from the report. SSRS CSV export in previous versions included both the data and the layout in the export. But the inclusion of report layout elements in the CSV output created additional work and complications. The new output format is much cleaner and easier to use for automating programmatic processing.

There are plenty of significant reasons for you to give SSRS 2008 serious consideration. And remember, just like Integration Services, SSRS is a standalone tool you can install on a dedicated server. This means, if your organization is not ready to migrate to SQL Server 2008, you can upgrade just your reporting server and use these new features, using your 2000 or 2005 databases as data sources.

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