Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (What's up with Report Builder?)

Hopefully, you have gotten a chance to work with the latest CTP of SQL Server 2008 Reporting Services. But if you have, you may be a bit puzzled by the report design options in the CTP. Specifically:

  • Report Builder looks just like it did in SSRS 2005.
  • Report Designer is hosted in the VS 2005 shell and looks pretty much like it did in SSRS 2005 (i.e. no tablix or Dundas charts).
  • There is a new tool called "Report Designer Preview" with an Office look and feel and support for 2008 RDL. However, it is missing support for several features like shared data sources.

Here is the story behind the current CTP as well as the future roadmap.

As you may know, Report Builder was the result of an acquisition we did in 2004 of a company called ActiveViews. The key piece of technology we acquired was the ability for business users to easily build queries over relational data sources via a semantic model. The original ActiveViews product did not have a layout surface at all - the user simply set a couple of properties and the report layout was generated from a template. After acquiring the product, we decided we needed to add the ability for the user to directly modify their report layout, similar to the report designer in Visual Studio. However, the existing designer layout surface was too tied to the VS infrastructure to be used directly in Report Builder. So we built a new layout surface for RB that was easier to use but did not include support for all of RDL.

After we released SSRS 2005, we got a lot of feedback about Report Builder. The key request from customers was to be able to use the full spectrum of RDL features - including multiple data regions, expression-based styles, and support for all data sources. So, when we built the design-time layout component for the new 2008 Report Definition Language, we built it in a way that could be leveraged in both the Visual Studio environment as well as in a standalone shell. The first appearance of this new layout surface came the form of the "Report Designer Preview" in the SQL Server 2008 July and November CTPs (the main difference between the July and November CTPs is the appearance of a new Office 12 look and feel and ribbon).

Simply put, The Report Designer Preview is an early build of the next version of Report Builder. While all the features are not finished yet, it should give you a good idea about the direction of the product. The most important feature is full access to all RDL features. Unlike in the 2005 version of Report Builder, this means that you can edit any report that is built in Report Designer, including reports built directly against data sources such as SQL Server, DB2, or Oracle. Does this mean that Report Models are deprecated? Absolutely not - they are just not required now. Report Builder will continue to support report model data source to make it easier to build queries. However, for folks building reports against Analysis Services cubes, auto-generating a model is no longer required.

So now that Report Builder is covered, what happened to Report Designer / BIDS? If you are using the current CTP, you will notice that Report Designer is unchanged from RS 2005 and still hosted in the VS 2005 shell. We are in the midst of integrating the RS 2008 layout surface into the VS 2008 shell and expect this to be available in the next CTP. We waited until VS 2008 RTM so that we would have a stable build to work from. In the next CTP, when you install BIDS, you will get the SQL 2008 projects (including AS, IS, and RS) installed into the VS 2008 shell. The actual layout surface and dialogs in Report Designer will be very similar to the ones you see now in Report Designer Preview.

You might ask, once SSRS 2008 is released, will everything will be covered between the new Report Designer and new Report Builder? Unfortunately, this is not quite the case. Since the new version of RB is a complete rewrite, some of the functionality of the existing tool will not be available right away. The following diagram shows the differences between the tools:

Designer Features

Specifically, the key features that will be missing from the initial release of the new version of RB are the integrated query and layout (adding a field to the query automatically adds it to the design surface) and automatic generation of infinite click through report links (you would need to add them via the textbox action properties). To mitigate this feature gap, we will continue to ship the existing version Report Builder in SSRS 2008. This allows users to continue with the existing functionality and migrate to the new Report Builder when they are comfortable doing so. In the next release, we expect that all of the existing RB functionality will migrate into the new shell and we can stop including the 2005 version.

If you would like to see the new design tools in action, you can watch Jason's Webcast from a few weeks ago.