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The Value of Crystal Reports 9

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This lesson introduces the concepts of report design and the components of Crystal Reports that aid in the planning and creation of reports. It will also cover many of the new features made available in this latest release of Crystal Reports (version 9.0).

"Sams Teach Yourself Crystal Reports 9 in 24 Hours" will guide Crystal Reports users through conceptual topics, such as understanding data sources, to creating simple reports using the report wizards to custom report creation, modification and design techniques. This book will cover the latest version of Crystal Reports, which includes unprecedented technological advances and user interface design improvements - making for the most significant release enhancement to date. Whether you're a beginner to Crystal Reports or an experienced report designer who needs to better understand the many enhancements provided with version 9, this book is for you.

This book picks up where the other available Crystal Reports books leave off — it focuses on the actual delivery of interactive report content created with Crystal Reports 9 and includes the valuable perspective of the authors whom all work with Crystal Reports on a daily basis as employees of Crystal Decisions, the company that developed Crystal Reports.

Crystal Reports can access data from the most widely used databases and can integrate data from multiple databases within a single report, and it has been endorsed as the standard program for reporting with over 300 third party business solutions — companies such as Microsoft, SAP, PeopleSoft, Baan, IBM's Lotus, and many others. The reason Crystal Reports is so popular is because today's organizations are looking for fast, efficient ways to make sense of their data. Crystal Reports can be found everywhere, bundled in products from ERP solutions, such as SAP, PeopleSoft and Baan, to developer products such as Visual Basic and Visual Studio.NET.

Crystal Reports is used to solve almost any type of reporting or information access problem imaginable, such as creating bank statements, sales reports for field-based account managers, balance sheets and financial reports for Fortune 1000 companies, and summary reports

This chapter is from the book

Crystal Reports is a design application for creating powerful and compelling reports that transform data, from virtually any data source, into meaningful information. Hundreds of thousands of business users and application developers alike have discovered the power and flexibility of Crystal Reports. Not just a tool for application developers, Crystal Reports is also an application for a wide variety of organizational users who need to analyze and interpret important information for better presentation and decision making. Many corporate business users get their information from a variety of legacy mechanisms that are still prevalent today—custom applications, mainframe reports, ASCII files, and so on. But, these mechanisms do very little to maximize the investment that organizations often make in their corporate Information Technology systems, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), and other critical data systems.

Considered to be the world standard for report writing, Crystal Reports has more than seven million licenses distributed worldwide. A contributing factor to this great success is that Crystal Reports is packaged within some of the most predominant software solutions in the world, including Microsoft's .NET platform, SAP, PeopleSoft, and others. As a result, users of these best-in-class solutions also benefit from the tightly integrated and highly powerful Crystal Reports technology. Partnerships such as these are perhaps the biggest endorsement any particular software product could hope for. Figure 1.1 shows an example of a Balance Sheet report created using Crystal Reports.

Figure 1.1 A sample Balance Sheet report created using Crystal Reports.

The proliferation of Crystal Reports as the most common reporting application in the world is in large part because of its intuitive design environment that enables beginners to create simple reports, as well as its capability of empowering more experienced users to design sophisticated reports to satisfy more complex requirements. This hour introduces the concepts of report design and the components of Crystal Reports that aid in the planning and creation of reports. The hour will also cover many of the new features made available in this latest release of Crystal Reports (version 9.0).

In this hour, the following topics are covered:

  • Transforming data into information with Crystal Reports

  • Key benefits of the Crystal Reports application

  • Crystal Reports as a Content Creation application

  • New features and enhancements in Crystal Reports 9

Transforming Data into Information with Crystal Reports

Businesses in every industry now collect and maintain data relevant to their operation. For example, manufacturing companies collect and maintain information about inventories and production, retail shops record sales and order information, health care organizations maintain patient medical records, and publishing companies track book sales and inventories. Nonetheless, storing data is not enough! Businesses, and their management staff, must use this data to make well-informed business decisions on a regular basis. The data collected must be transformed into information, and then it must be properly organized, easily accessible, and shared among various individuals—both internal employees and external affiliates and customers. The transformation and dissemination of this data facilitates analysis that can reveal business-critical information, such as sales trends or potential inventory shortages. To make this possible, corporations and application developers use reporting software, such as Crystal Reports, to enable the presentation of stored data sources. Crystal Reports was the first reporting software in the market to fully recognize this need, and was released in 1992 as a Windows-based report writer.

A common business concern for many organizations is how to effectively report against multiple data source systems simultaneously, merging sales data that resides in an Oracle database with inventory data that resides in an IBM DB2 database. One distinct feature unique to Crystal Reports is that you can easily create reports that connect to such disparate databases, join the data together within your reports, and transform the otherwise isolated data into meaningful information that now displays such items as average days between the sales order entered versus the shipping date and provides dynamic alerting if inventory levels are dangerously low. Whatever industry, business unit, or technological ability of the user, most people seek information that allows them to make more informed decisions. Crystal Reports is the most common tool in the world that provides users with the information they need. Whether these reports include customer invoices, billing statements, account transaction listings, financial statements (as shown in Figure 1.1), or cross-tabular summaries of sales by month, Crystal Reports can service your need.

When thinking about all the various sources of data within most organizations and how diverse the collection of sources can be, it quickly becomes important to consider a common toolset for accessing, analyzing, and sharing the information produced from these sources among a wide audience of organizational users. This is often where the value of spreadsheet applications diminish and where the value of a robust reporting application begins. In this manner, Crystal Reports can access nearly any source of data, interpret and analyze the data to present meaningful information, and share the resulting reports with users throughout the organization. These sources might include sales data, inventory data, customer call center data, and an organizational data warehouse of centralized historical data. Perhaps the most immediate value of using a common reporting tool in conjunction with organizational data sources is that decision makers will be looking at the same information and performance measures across all of their reports. This helps eliminate the concern that one manager might be looking at different performance results than another manager, or that the various managers are defining a commonly used calculated value in slightly different ways, such as variance or margin.

NOTE

It's not unusual for a sales meeting to take place where various sales professionals have different forecast numbers. Each sales manager might use his own spreadsheet to manage and forecast his projections. As a result, discrepancies often exist among these professionals when using independent, unmanaged spreadsheets for reporting purposes, and this can become a very serious concern when it involves financial and performance measurement analysis. Providing these managers with meaningful and accurate reports that access a centralized data source can prevent this scenario.

Crystal Reports also offers greater organizational value than that offered by many of the application-specific reporting tools, such as those offers by database software vendors. Crystal Reports extends the power of reporting well beyond a single database or application environment to allow report designers to access virtually any data source, as well as merging multiple sources of data together in a single report—regardless of where the actual data resides. The remainder of this section discusses the value Crystal Reports offers as a corporate standard for reporting and various system integration issues.

Standardization

Most organizations want one common reporting solution that is able to work with all their data sources and support a broad base of audience-specific reporting requirements. Such standardization also facilitates the acquisition of a consistent skill set across the organization and increases the availability of expertise needed to support the organizational use of the application. Rather than having many different report file formats created from different applications (and of varying versions), an organization that standardizes with a professional reporting solution, such as Crystal Reports, can help ensure that information consumers will receive the right information, in the right format, and at the right time.

Why choose Crystal Reports as the standard for reporting within an organization? It is the most mature and widely accepted reporting application in the market. Crystal Reports supports virtually all data sources, can merge data of differing sources together, and offers advanced technological features that are compatible and forward thinking to support other technological and industry standards (XML, COM, and Java, for example). It is also a solution that is easy to administer and manage after it is deployed. As an example, for much the same reason that corporations use Microsoft Office for common word processing and spreadsheet applications, they also use Crystal Reports for all organizational reporting because it has established itself as the world standard.

System Integration

The topic of integration speaks to how well a product coexists and, ultimately, complements other technology and organizational standards. It's critical that a reporting solution, such as Crystal Reports, integrate into standard solutions already deployed within most organizations. This includes technologies such as Microsoft Office, Lotus Notes, and others.

Crystal Reports offers the flexibility and power to complement virtually any technology deployed within any organization.

This includes

  • Exporting reports to various file formats and destinations

  • A powerful Software Developer's Kit (SDK) that provides developers control over report layout and formatting within custom Web and Windows applications

  • The means to access transitory data streams, such as XML, at runtime to pass information between objects in report applications

A core consideration when planning to create reports for a large audience is what file format the users need and what capabilities various formats can offer. The presence of specific software applications on most corporate workstations can vary from group to group and from user to user. With this in mind, Crystal Reports has been designed to support a wide variety of formats to accommodate any organizational demand, as shown in Figure 1.2. A sample collection of various file formats from which Crystal Reports can export to includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • DOC—Microsoft Word format

  • XLS—Microsoft Excel format

  • PDF—Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format

  • XML—Extensible Markup Language

  • HTML—Hypertext Markup Language

  • RTF—Rich Text Format

  • CSV—Comma Separated Values format

  • Text—Simple text format

  • ODBC sources—ODBC database sources, such as Microsoft Access and SQL Server 2000

NOTE

PDF format is a good delivery format for sharing sensitive information that should not be modified by the user. Unlike Excel, data within PDF files cannot be changed and are most commonly used for formatted data display purposes only.

Thus, Crystal Reports can complement and integrate with most standard corporate applications, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and Acrobat Reader. By combining Crystal Reports with these other best-of-breed applications, organizations can offer a very robust and widely usable reporting solution.

Figure 1.2 The Export window in the Crystal Reports designer provides export capabilities to popular applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

When deciding on the best alternative for sharing report files with other users, it is important to be aware of some distinct advantages of using the Crystal Reports (.RPT) file format in contrast to those listed previously. Crystal Reports files offer highly interactive report navigation and viewing, permitting users to quickly find the information they are looking for in a very intuitive way. For example, let's assume that you are viewing a World Sales report for a large organization that shows a pie chart of aggregated sales figures by country at the top of the report, and you want to find out more about the specific product sales in the city of Chicago. The report can be designed so that all you would need to do to locate Chicago is click on the U.S. slice of the pie chart, which then presents a second-level bar chart showing the national sales numbers for each of the states, where you would then click on the bar representing Illinois. As a result, you have quickly located the Chicago sales figures within a large and comprehensive report. This highly interactive example is often referred to as drilling-down on information, and creating reports that facilitate such simple navigation are very easy. As we explore the Crystal Reports application, Hour 6, "Selecting and Grouping Data," and Hour 11, "Visualizing Your Data with Charts and Maps," will both address this specific example.

Other notable characteristics unique to the Crystal Reports file format include the capability to offer a highly formatted and professional looking report, hyperlinks within reports that can provide for a variety of actions (link to other reports, initiate an email, or navigate the business user to a Web site), and compatibility with the Crystal Enterprise solution (discussed in Hour 23, "Distributing Crystal Reports") for enterprisewide delivery and management of reports. As an example, hyperlinks are often used to create a navigation path for business users between multiple related reports.

After a report is designed and created, organizations then need to distribute this content among the information consumers who need access to the reports. Just as there are a variety of file format options, there are also a wide variety of supported export destination options for sharing Crystal Reports content. Crystal Reports supports report destinations such as disk locations, Microsoft Exchange folders, Lotus Domino databases, and email. In addition to directly exporting report files to these destinations, Crystal Reports content can also be distributed via a variety of Web and Windows (client/server) applications. See Hour 23 for further information.

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