Microsoft has added reporting capabilities to its SQL Server 2000 database, rounding out its business intelligence platform with a feature long sought by some of its customers.

SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services allows users to program their databases to generate reports, such as a breakdown of sales by region, and then helps manage and distribute those reports. It can pull data from multiple sources including databases from Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, as well as line-of-business applications from SAP and others, said Thomas Rizzo, director of Microsoft's SQL Server management team.

The reports can be generated in HTML for presentation on the Web, in a document format such as Adobe Systems's PDF (Portable Document Format), or in a data format such as XML (Extensible Markup Language). Reports can also be exported directly to Excel thanks to close linkage with Microsoft Office, Rizzo said.

The reporting features will be welcomed by many SQL Server users, some of whom were so keen that they went into production with a beta version of the software released last year, said Philip Russom, a principal analyst with Forrester Research.

Microsoft had originally planned to introduce Reporting Services with Yukon, the next major upgrade to its database. With the launch of Yukon delayed until later this year, Microsoft is offering the capabilities with SQL Server 2000 so that customers don't have to wait so long, Russom said. IBM, Oracle and the other main database vendors already support reporting capabilities.

Russom doesn't expect Microsoft's reporting software to hurt companies such as Cognos and Crystal too badly. It will appeal mostly to customers with predominantly Microsoft environments, he said. Microsoft's tool for authoring reports, Report Writer, is offered as an add-on for Visual Studio .Net, Microsoft's development environment, he noted.

Russom also noted that Report Writer is a "version one" product with some room to mature. The success of Reporting Services will depend partly on whether vendors such as Cognos and Crystal support Microsoft's Report Definition Language (RDL), he said, which would allow reports authored with third-party tools to be managed and distributed through Reporting Services.

"Eventually we'll have to see if other software vendors have report writers that conform to Microsoft's standard, so they can output their reports in a format Reporting Services can manage. Part of the success will depend on how the other vendors decide to act," Russom said.

Cognos plans to support RDL, although when that will happen depends on customer feedback, a Cognos spokeswoman said. Crystal Decisions is evaluating RDL to determine what level of support it will provide, a spokesman said. Both vendors said they see Microsoft's entry to the market as a positive thing. "It puts so much emphasis on what we do and where we play," according to Adam Ciperski, Cognos director of field strategy and support.

"We've heard from Microsoft that you'd still be able to design in Crystal and save the file as RDL. For the 35 reports we did, we didn't use Crystal; we found we could get away with the report writer in Reporting Services. Have I determined that Reporting Services will be sufficient for all 250 reports? Not yet, there may still be a need for third-party software," Morimoto said.

Customers will need a SQL Server 2000 licence for each server on which they run the reporting software, so if they run it on the same server as their Microsoft database they won't have to pay extra. To run it on a separate server they'll need a SQL Server licence for that system, which starts at US$5,000 per processor.

More than 70 percent of customers are likely to run the software on a separate server, to avoid slowing their main database with the additional workload, said Jason Carlson, a product unit manager for SQL Server Reporting Services.

Even while it ships SQL Server Reporting Services, Microsoft is working on an upgrade that will be delivered with Yukon. That version will generate reports from OLAP databases -- something Rizzo acknowledged is hard to do with the current version. It will also support a broader set of output formats, Carlson said.