First of all, this article is about reporting tools that you, as a software or web developer, can integrate into your application to add reporting functions.
From the user's point of view, reporting functions are meanwhile a natural part of applications. Data should be organized and visualized to make it understandable and to derive information better. For this purpose, the software must provide tables, different charts, or a dashboard.
For you as a software developer
, this leads to the question of whether you want to program reporting functions yourself or add a ready-made component to your software. I'm going for the second case here because there are very good ready-to-use solutions that save you a lot of time and nerves.
When you start from zero, the first hurdle is always to understand your own needs (or rather the needs of your project) and ask yourself the right questions. The following 8 questions will move you forward in your decision-making and show you options. I'll also give you an overview of components you can integrate into your app.
Let’s get started.
How to Find the Best Reporting Component for Your App
With these 8 guiding questions, you will find the best match.
1. Integrated or Out-of-the-Box?
Picking an integrated solution means that it will need to be embedded into your application’s source code. For the most part, a few lines of code are sufficient to do so. This provides you with maximum flexibility to tailor reports, invoices, lists, and labels to your customers’ needs.
If you’re looking for a solution that is ready to go right away and doesn’t require any changes to your application, then a server-based reporting tool would be a good fit. Here, the market offers whatever your heart desires, from sophisticated BI Suites to Open Source software
for the smaller budget. The big advantage is, it works platform independently, is easy to scale, and offers automatic reporting functions.
2. What Kind of IDE Will be Used?
In case you want to integrate the component into your application, it needs to support the programming language and IDE. Just a quick note: if you’re a .NET developer, you’re spoiled for choice. Most components are specialized for the Microsoft Framework. For Delphi, Java, or C++, the choices are considerably smaller.
Therefore, the tools that support different IDEs and programming languages offer great benefits. Even if you switch to a different language, your reporting templates can be taken over – under the condition that you’re using the same data structure.
3. What Kind of Data Sources Need to be Connected?
Do you want to connect the tool to SQL-based data sources like MS SQL Server, MySQL, or Oracle? Are file-based data sources like JSON, XML, or Excel important for you? Your reporting tool of choice should include the right data providers for every database. If this is not granted, you will run exactly into the problem you wanted to avoid from the beginning: you would have to do some coding yourself.
Not to forget the administrative rights. Is every end-user supposed to access all data? Or would you want to pre-configure the constellations? If required, make sure you choose a tool that offers you control over user rights and the selection and combination of data.
4. Freedom of Design – What Do You Want Your Customers to Have?
A reporting tool provides a designer to create the desired reports. Some providers even allow you to forward the designer to your end-users – in some cases, even royalty-free. If you deploy the designer to your end customers, or if you prefer to offer template design and customization as a service, it is completely up to you. In case of redistribution, ask yourself the following:
- Which functions do you want to offer? Would you provide the designer with a simplified version or including the full range of possibilities?
- Do you want to offer different languages for the dialogs? What about special barcode formats or filters?
- What kind of templates do your customers need to reach the best possible end results?
5. Visualization – What About the Looks?
The visual aspect is the most important function a reporting tool has. It strongly determines your reports’ aesthetics and impression. Make sure to compare what different tools have to offer in regards to visual effects. Create a list with must-haves and nice-to-haves in regards to formats. For your information: a powerful reporting tool offers the following possibilities:
- Charts (including Gantt, treemap, gauges….)
- Tables/Cross tables/nested tables
- Interactive functions like drill-down, as well as drop-down areas and sorting options
- Side by side reports
- Royalty-free barcode formats
- Numerous supported image formats
- Support for PDF contents
- Formula functions
There’s a lot more that could be added to this list. For more detailed information, have a look at the reporting tools comparison linked at the end of this post.
6. What’s Your Applications’ Focus?
Do you primarily need printing functions? Enhanced options for export? Or do you rather focus on presentations and redistribution? Usually, a reporting tool covers all of these areas. It’s important, though, to thoroughly compare the manufacturers’ choices regarding export formats since they vary quite a bit, and you would not want to end up having to manually convert your reports.
Another thing to consider is your application’s deployment: a tool providing xcopy-deployment, or a redistribution wizard, guarantees a way easier redistribution process.
7. What About Support Services?
Imagine you’re just finished with the integration of a reporting component into your application, and all of a sudden, you’re running into a problem and don’t know what to do. Quick and qualified support assistance is key, preferably by the manufacturer itself. Wherever you’re planning on buying your tool, make sure the manufacturer offers easily accessible inhouse-support.
Additionally, you will find large and well-established developer communities built around successful products and their manufacturers. It gives you a chance to network with the combit support team, as well as with other developers, to exchange information and to benefit from the community’s knowledge and experience.
8. What About Licensing Conditions and Price-Performance Ratio? How Do I Avoid Hidden Costs?
Sometimes it can be very difficult to get a grip on actual costs for a tool in advance. There might be additional costs for designer runtime fees, for new modules, support, and maintenance. It’s often very difficult to compare licensing models and price structures of different software providers. Be safe. Describe your very individual scenario and receive a quote that is tailored to your needs. This is also a great opportunity to find out about the response times and flexibility of each provider.
Ask for possible hidden or added costs, and balance your benefits against your expenses. One thing is the same for all solutions: the more efficient all functionalities can be used, the faster your expenses will be amortized. Therefore, it makes sense to check if you can use some of the included features to replace other solutions you’re using and paying for – i.e., a PDF generator or a barcode tool.
To Sum it Up:
With the 8 questions above I hopefully have been able to provide helpful hints to start your quest for a suitable reporting solution.
What’s Next in Your Research?
If you want to compare broader or need another overview, I recommend the VS Marketplace
(if it suits your project) or this reporting software list on Wikipedia
(but be careful, it's a mixture of server based BI Tools and integrable components - the difference is explained under point 1 below).
If you don’t mind clicking on my company’s website you can also use this detailed reporting tool comparison
which might help you identify some more key points for your decision.