Using SQL Azure Reporting Services to offer data analysis services

By adding Azure Reporting Services to your line card, you can provide customers with easy data analysis services. SQL Azure Reporting information can benefit your company, too.

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IT solution providers can use Microsoft’s SQL Azure Reporting Services to publish business intelligence reports that benefit themselves, their clients and their clients’ customers.

SQL Azure Reporting is a Windows Azure service based on SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) technologies that lets users publish business intelligence reports that support rich formatting and data visualization options. These reports give solution providers the opportunity to build up their data analysis services offerings, but they present some challenges as well. As of publication, only SQL Azure Reporting CTP version is available, released by Microsoft in October 2011.

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Reports delivered through SQL Azure Reporting are hosted on hardware in Microsoft data centers. A report server provides the mechanisms necessary to render reports, but the data itself resides on SQL Azure databases. Reports can be created and deployed in Business Intelligence Development Studio in SQL Server 2008 R2 or in SQL Server Data Tools in SQL Server 2012 (not yet released). Approved users can then view the reports through their Web browsers or via applications (either on-premises or in the Windows Azure cloud) in which the reports have been embedded. These reports can form the foundation of a solution provider’s data analysis services business.

Pros and cons of SQL Azure Reporting services

The benefits of using cloud-based reporting to develop data analysis services are many. By implementing SQL Azure Reporting Services, IT solution providers can leverage the high availability and fault tolerance inherent in the Windows Azure platform. In addition, solution providers can scale up or scale down the service based on immediate needs. They don’t have to support or maintain a separate infrastructure, nor try to predict the scale of that infrastructure. There’s no purchasing or setting up servers. No resource-intensive maintenance and administration. No late-night calls to IT to reboot the server.

SQL Azure Reporting does have drawbacks, such as its inability to connect to data sources other than SQL Azure databases. Like SQL Azure, SQL Azure Reporting can’t use Windows Authentication. It also doesn’t support subscription and scheduling functions, client report-authoring environments, or custom assemblies, extensions or report items. Make sure to weigh these pros and cons before moving forward with your data analysis services plans.

Despite these limitations, SQL Azure Reporting is a fast and easy way to get reporting capabilities up and running. Developers use familiar tools to create and deploy the reports, and users can log on to the report server through a PC browser to access the reports.

Adding value with SQL Azure Reporting services

By making reports easily available to a variety of users, including internal staff, clients and client customers, solution providers can use SQL Azure Reporting Services to create a full business intelligence offering. Solution providers can easily set controls for who can see what data and how the data is presented, providing a powerful data visualization tool for customers.

An example of how SQL Azure Reporting can work is if you are implementing a Web-based application for a client, and the client wants daily updates on how customers are using that app. Usage information can be collected and stored in a SQL Azure database. From this data, one or more reports can be created that present the data as charts or tables and aggregated across multiple variables.

SQL Azure Reporting Services can also be used to provide reports to the client’s customers. For instance, suppose the client provides medical supplies to different types of facilities and the new app supports online browsing and ordering of those supplies. Approved users at those facilities can log on to the SQL Azure Reporting report server -- just like client users -- and access reports targeted specifically at them, such as a report that analyzes their buying patterns and how those patterns compare to national and regional trends. In this way, solution providers can use SQL Azure Reporting to extend their clients’ offerings and in so doing extend their own offerings.

Another way SQL Azure Reporting can add value is to create a set of reports that provide project-specific information to in-house and client users. For example, a report can be created that provides details about what project milestones have been met and those not yet completed. The report can include a breakdown of costs and resource hours, as well as any other details relevant to tracking the project. Just about any information that can be stored in a SQL Azure database can be included in the reports.

Any time a service provider can deliver detailed, relevant information to their clients, their clients’ customers and their own staff, they are adding value to their offerings, particularly if that data is presented in a timely manner and easy to understand. That means investing the resources necessary to produce effective reports and offer beneficial data analysis services. SQL Azure Reporting services might be easy to implement and provide a number of benefits, but what matters the most is the quality of the reports and the data they’re presenting. More than offering just convenience,  SQL Azure reports support a wide range of formatting and presentation options, and  can be exported to popular file formats, such as PDF, XLS, XML and CSV.

About the author
Robert Sheldon is a technical consultant and freelance technology writer. He's authored numerous books, articles and training material related to Windows, databases, business intelligence and other areas of technology. He's also published the novel Dancing the River Lightly and the step-by-step guide Ebook Now,and has recently begun working on the 5-Spot ebook travel series. 

This was first published in March 2012

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