I had a call this morning from my accounts software vendor (Intuit Quickbooks Pro since you ask). They were trying to sell me the upgrade to their latest release. Nothing exceptional in that, and little to do with Crystal Server, but it did get me thinking about upgrades in general, which led me to thinking about Crystal Server 2011.
I’m mostly happy with Quickbooks. I generate invoices, monitor payments, bank accounts, sales etc. The difficulty for Intuit, is that my happiness means that I’m not about to switch to Sage or another competitor, but it also means that I’m not ready to upgrade to the newer release. It doesn’t cost much, but there’s the time involved, and an element of risk – if it messes up my data file, I can revert to backup, but if I don’t notice for a couple of months, what then? So, I carry on with 4 year old software running on a Windows XP Virtual Machine. Invoices go out, payments come in, life goes on.
Then I got to thinking about my relationship with Microsoft. I subscribe to the Partner Action Pack from them for about £300 per year. This gives me everything I need (plus more) to run my business. My PCs and laptops always have the latest release of Windows and Office – why not, I can install at my leisure and there’s no risk. However, my main server is still running Windows Small Business Server 2008 – one release behind the current SBS 2011. The difference? Risk. Upgrading SBS is not a trivial task as it involved not only your entire domain, but also your Exchange Server (Blackberry Server too in my case). It’s a lot to mess up.
Finally, we get to Crystal Server! Hand on heart, I consider Crystal Server 2011 to be the best solution to small/medium company and departmental reporting currently on the market. Anyone running the XI release or earlier needs to upgrade sharpish – the 2011 release really is that good. However, that question mark is in the title for a reason!
Let’s look at the good stuff first (this isn’t a review, plenty of other places to find one of those):
- BI Launch Pad. New release, so a new name for the user web site. It still has the same failing as every previous release – when you login for the first time, it really isn’t obvious where you’re supposed to go next. That’s a training issue. However, once you’re past that first login, the ease of use is far better than any of the previous releases, with no more guessing about where right click may or may not work.
- Lifecycle Management. The improved ability to publish reports across multiple servers is great for installations with separate development, test & live servers. (Hang on, we’re talking about small companies here!)
- 64 bit, so can handle bigger data sets (Hang on, we’re talking about small companies here!)
- There’s so much good stuff in number 1, that there’s no need for more! I could have created a long list including the alerts, improved dashboards, but this isn’t a review.
Before we look at the bad stuff, let’s look at the typical usage of Crystal Reports Server 2008 (remember, we’re talking small/medium companies):
- The typical user needs the information in the reports to do their job, they’re not data analysts.
- There are a handful of office/home based workers who view reports through InfoView.
- There are a few more using SharePoint.
- The rest just receive a report in pdf format as an attachment in an email.
Now, the bad stuff:
- Minimum system requirements of 6GB RAM. That compares to 2GB for the 2008 release. From experience to date, 6GB really is the absolute minimum. I’d be more comfortable with double that, which would compare well with a typical 2008 installation with 4GB.
- 64 bit only. Yes, I know I mentioned this in the good stuff too, but every silver lining has a cloud. If you have an obscure ODBC driver, it’s not going to work as only 64 bit ODBC drivers will work.
- New hardware. Combining 1 & 2, chances are you’ll need new hardware. A lot of small companies reuse an old server for their reporting server (lots of overnight scheduling), not this time.
- No support for IIS (Microsoft’s web server). Not a bad thing in it’s own right, but it does make configuring security with Active Directory more long winded and more complex – Kerberos isn’t for the faint hearted. My understanding is that this isn’t a temporary situation as in the previous two releases where the initial release had no IIS support.
- Nothing new in Crystal Reports 2011. OK, not quite true, but near enough. The effort has gone into the new Crystal Reports for Enterprise, which isn’t as functional yet. For a typical installation it will remain unused.
So what does all this mean for our typical users mentioned above?
For the user with InfoView, they’ll need training and it’s change. In the end, they view the same reports. For the SharePoint user, they probably won’t notice the difference either. For those receiving reports by email, no difference at all.
Before coming to any decision, you need to consider my two friends from the start of this article; risk & cost. If you currently have a support contract, the ‘only’ cost is installation and training. Risk should be low, unless you do an in-place upgrade (just don’t).
To upgrade or not then. Doesn’t sound too positive so far, does it? It really depends upon how well you fit into my typical user description, and whether or not upgrade should be the only question:
- If you use InfoView a lot, are happy to train your users in the new BI Launch Pad, and have budget for a new server, just upgrade now.
- If you use mostly SharePoint or a similar portal, find out what more can be done. This is the advert bit – give me a call to discuss improving SharePoint integration, you can manage licenses better and have a seamless interface.
- If you’re just emailing reports as pdf, you’re really not going to notice any difference. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything though! Get some training or consultancy to see how much more you could be doing – you could surprise yourself and even improve the way you do business. At the very least, you’ll get better value out of your existing software investment.
Perhaps I’ll even attend a Quickbooks training course and work out how to get profit by rep rather than just by customer. I may even find something I should have been using before! I hope the Quickbooks salesman isn’t reading this.