Read an Excerpt
Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services Recipesfor Designing Expert Reports
By Paul Turley Robert M. Bruckner
John Wiley & SonsCopyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBusiness Reporting Paradigms
In the world of business, we use a lot of different styles and types of reports. To appreciate how pervasive reports are in the world of business, in different organizations, and in our day-to-day lives, we must first define what a report is. Any formatted output of data from a database or any other type of data source could be called a report. Some types are obvious and may include sales reports, end-of-period summaries, trend analysis, and comparisons. These are some traditional report styles. Reports are used in all areas of business and practically every business function involves printing, displaying, browsing, or using some other method to present data to business leaders, workers, service providers, customers, inspectors, analysts, and others for a variety of reasons. Reports, in many different forms, are everywhere.
Less traditional report types that may be used in different business scenarios include things like product labels, name badges, routing tags, invoices, claim forms, request forms, government documents, and shipping manifests. You probably have types of reports that are unique to your specific business or industry that outsiders aren't even aware of. To provide a better understanding about the various functions that reports perform, this chapter explores different types of reports. Chapters 2 and 3 will review the basic building blocks of report design and development that you will need to know to apply the report design recipes in this book. We expect that you already have some hands-on experience with SQL Server Reporting Services but we will review the basics as a quick refresher.
For the purpose of simplicity, we will group all of these report types into general categories. You will no doubt be able to identify some of your own unique reporting requirements but they generally fall into one of the following major categories:
* Process and operational support
* Business intelligence and analytical reports
* Application integration
* Forms, labels, and letters
PROCESS AND OPERATIONAL SUPPORT
Day-to-day business processes require reporting solutions to keep business working. Nearly all businesses and organizations today rely on operational data stored in some kind of database. Although there are some proprietary, special-purpose databases used to support certain types of business, more than ninety percent of all data is stored in a relational database system on a standard product platform such as Oracle, SQL Server, IBM DB2, or SyBase. These systems capture transactions as they occur, and records are stored at the detailed transactional level to support real-time processes.
Consumer business has many common examples. A point-of-sale transaction is captured in a local database at the store or POS terminal and may be replicated to a regional or central database. Of course, the sales receipt is a report generated directly from this transactional data. Similarly, banking transactions record every debit, credit, and adjustment made to an account. Transactional records may be recorded every time you use your cellular phone, swipe your key card at work, go to the gym, send a tweet, post a comment on Facebook, or visit a secure web site.
Operational reports are some of the most commonplace in the business and consumer world but they also exist in many specialized scenarios. In working with several different consulting clients to migrate their reporting solutions to a new platform or toolset, we often ask them to identify the operational reports from analytical and decision-support reports. Inevitably we identify a gray area of reports in each category. These may be reports that aggregate and group details for analysis from operational data stores or analytical reports that include some level of operational detail.
Putting the exceptions aside for the time being, let's take a look at some of the more common and a few of the less common types of operational reports.
Sales Orders, Invoices, Manifests, and Inventory Forms
The items in this category are usually not referred to - or even thought of - as reports. Specialized software is typically used to input and process orders. These may be for general use in a retail or commercial wholesale operation or they may be for specialized applications, such as a medical laboratory or an electronics assembly plant. Although the basic structure of an order or invoice may be similar, the specific components may be adapted to meet specific business needs. An invoice usually contains a header, specific sections for the seller and customer's contact, and billing and shipping information, followed by a tabular section of line items. Each item typically has a product code, description, price, quantity, and other information that may be specific to the business process or industry, such as weight, cost, discounts, freight, tax, or shipping cost.
These types of reports have a relatively simple design but are also usually integrated into a custom application, rather than selected from a report menu on a central server. Some order forms may be printed on stock forms and other companies may print the entire form on blank paper. Figure 1-1 shows a typical sales order report with a customer and shipping details header, repeating line items, summary totals, and a footer area containing contact information.
In the past, most forms were preprinted with blank lines for typed or hand-written information. Modern printers have made it much easier to produce highly formatted forms all at once on blank paper rather than using fill-in-the-blank forms with preprinted logos, borders, and detail lines. However, certain applications call for printing on standard forms for a variety of reasons. It may be cheaper to use lesser-quality printers or black ink/toner printers with multi-colored forms. Some forms require duplicate copies produced with impact printers. Or, perhaps the process has yet to be modernized. In the medical insurance claim business, for example, some of these traditional standards were highly influenced by a thriving pre-printed forms industry.
Whatever the reason, these forms can be quite challenging because each character must be printed in a specific location. Often, getting the report character spacing and size to line up is only half the battle because these forms are highly-dependent on the printer and paper dimensions such as the margins and gripper space. Reports that are designed to provide some latitude for margins and character positioning make it easier to adjust the report itself rather than to rely on printer settings.
In recent years, most of the industry-standard preprinted forms have been replaced by all-at-once reports that print on standard sized blank paper. Less expensive, high quality printers have made this more feasible for small businesses but it has created more demand for sophisticated reporting tools capable of producing pixel-perfect reports and forms.
Tabular and List Reports
Tabular, row-based reports have been common for so long and many variations of this design have become commonplace. The green bar-style report, shown in Figure 1-2, uses a shaded background for every other row to make it easier for users to differentiate and follow each row visually.
Grouped reports add more information to the tabular layout with grouped bands, headers, and footers. Color has become more important in report design, and different background colors are often used to differentiate not only each row but the group bands and other related elements. This report type uses different background colors for the table header and two group bands, and then a light color for alternate row shading. A simple example is shown in Figure 1-3.
Sometimes it may be more important to differentiate group values rather than the detail rows. In the example shown in Figure 1-4, the Category values use alternating shading bands.
A product catalog is a common layout used to group categories of products and then provide details in an ordered list. A catalog report must be easy to read with bold headings and group descriptive text. Figure 1-5 shows a continuous report using a repeating list area for product category and subcategory groups and containing a description block and product image in the group header. The groups include a tabular region for product details.
Label reports are usually simple in layout but have a few unique characteristics. A rectangular data region is repeated across rows and columns on the printed page. The size and position of the data region must be aligned to the standard label sheet with relatively precise margins and column spacing. Figure 1-6 shows a multi-column list report formatted to fit a standard label sheet.
The greatest challenge is to easily produce labels in a variety of standard sizes and dimensions. The label industry, led by a few well-known companies and influenced by dozens of generic label form producers, has managed to produce hundreds of "standard" sheet label formats.
The line between operational and analytical reporting is not simply that one is at the detail level and the other includes groups and summaries. There is a lot of business value in rolling up details into groups and aggregating measures into summary totals. Even when these summaries are compared across different business dimensions, such as time or geography, these comparisons can be performed appropriately using operational data. The most significant difference between operational and analytical reporting is the approach taken to get to the result. If these summaries are performed within an operational scope (such as a single manufacturing plant or within a finite period of time) and the results should be easy reconciled back to the details, then this is an extension of operational reporting. However, if the results are for enterprise-wide comparisons, long-term trend analysis, and corporate decision support, you will be met with significant challenges trying to run these reports with operational data sources.
Summary reports on occasion will evolve to include components of truly analytical reports and, when that happens, it's important to consider whether they should be migrated to a business intelligence reporting model. The paramount question to consider is whether the report exists to support a specific business operation within the scope of that group, department, and leadership.
The term "status report" means different things to different people but the common theme is that this type of report is used to provide concise results that are comparable over periods of time. It's important to understand the needs of the person who will use the report and the message it should convey. A common report may be for a team leader to get the status for a project or task. This should typically summarize data points to a standard indicator at the end of a time period or project phase, relative to some goal or objective. For example, is the project on schedule, behind schedule, or ahead of schedule? Is the application component development completed or incomplete? These simplified results are typically broken down by tasks, stages, or responsibilities for comparison over each reporting period to measure progress.
Status reports can vary in sophistication but most are fairly simple. Figure 1-7 shows an example of a Top 10 report of ranked values, which is common in many business scenarios where leaders may want to see the best producing items.
The concept and purpose of business intelligence (BI) is much more than just reporting. BI solutions help business leaders make critical decisions. A complete BI strategy involves financial forecasting and strategic approaches to the way resource investments are planned, managed, and measured. A business intelligence methodology prescribes the rules and standards for defining business targets and the success factors for measuring actual metrics against those targets. Reporting is a big part of that process. After defining business metrics and the rules for measuring success - and of course, gathering all of the necessary data, different report types are used to analyze current and historical data to evaluate correlations and trends.
Analytical reports tend to be more concise and graphical than operational reports. Traditionally, column and line charts dominated the desktops of business analysts but a new breed of reports plays the role of BI dashboard components. There are a variety of standard metaphors for indicating goals, status, and trends. Sometimes an array of simple pie charts or needle gauges is an effective method to convey the state of things in the business enterprise. However, as user reporting needs have become more sophisticated (as have many business users) there is an ever-increasing need to add more useful information to business reports while keeping reports easy to read and manageable.
The style of reports used in a BI solution range from common tabular and chart reports to particular report styles with graphical indicators, symbols, arrows, and progress bars. BI defines a lot more than just a style of reports; other types of business data systems can include dashboard and scorecard report styles.
Dashboards and Scorecards
By definition, a dashboard is a collection of reports or report elements and gauges that convey the state of related key metrics. At a glance, a dashboard reflects the health of the business. Report actions allow users to drill down or drill through to more specific details and assess the status of each metric across different dimensions, such as time periods or geographic regions. A business scorecard is a specific style of dashboard-type report that helps business leaders measure key performance and success values relative to goals and business plans. Aside from the style and layout of reports, business scorecards conform to a standard process for planning business growth and measuring success.
Although dashboards and scorecards may not be limited to business intelligence solutions, the need for them may suggest that eventually a full BI solution should be developed to support all the business reporting requirements.
Dashboard design is often a balancing act between simplicity and usability. The goal is to give business users the information that they need, based on universally understood metrics, measures, and performance indicators. That information must be delivered at the right level of detail so the users can make important decisions and take action on the most critical issues affecting business performance.
Pivot Table and Matrix Reports
Known within different products as a cross-tab, pivot table, or matrix, this type of report groups data on both the rows and columns axis, showing aggregated values at each intersect point. Pivot reports are very useful for ad-hoc analysis. For larger volume result sets, drill-down features can allow results to be aggregated at higher group levels within axis hierarchies and allow users to expand each branch to expose more detail at lower group levels. See Figure 1-8.
Chart reports provide a varied range of visualization options. Aggregated data is presented graphically and plotted on a linear two-dimensional or three-dimensional grid, in circular pie slices, or a radial plot space. Combinations of chart types may be combined to make comparisons and to correlate graphical data displays. In Figure 1-9, a Pareto chart employs a column chart type to range categories in descending order while a line chart type shows cumulative values.
Simplicity is often the best choice. A basic pie chart displays proportional values with an optional legend (see Figure 1-10). Pie charts can also display data point values and/or point labels over each slice or with callout labels. Pie or donut charts can have bold visual impact when exploded, extruded, or embossed 3-D options are added.
Although common chart types like the pie and donut display data in a simple, easily readable format, they may not be the best choice when more sophisticated users need a lot of information presented with the most effective use of screen space.
Excerpted from Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services Recipes by Paul Turley Robert M. Bruckner Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.