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Microsoft on Tuesday announced the first service pack for SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services, the BI (business intelligence) tool the company released in January.

Reporting Services SP1 is available here for free download to SQL Server 2000 customers.

Enhancements include support for Excel 97 and 2000, more robust PDF rendering with better performance for pagination and matrix, more control over chart-display styles and the ability to reference external URLs from within a report.

Terry Sorrows, director of technology development at Ruby Tuesday Inc., said the added Excel version support would be welcome. Ruby Tuesday is a chain of 700 company-owned and franchised restaurants located both within and outside of the United States.

“Most of our stores are not on the current version of Excel, so that was a limitation we had,” said Sorrows, in Maryville, Tenn. “We took [older versions of Excel] away from the stores, but now we can give it back to them.”

Sorrows said the PDF rendering enhancements will come into play once Ruby Tuesday starts doing heavy batch runs of reports.

As far as SP1’s control over series and data-point styles in charts, such enhancements will likely matter once the company gets Reporting Services and SharePoint working together to deliver “some fancy, on-the-fly graphs and stuff like that,” Sorrows said.

To date, there have been more than 75,000 downloads of Reporting Services, according to Alex Payne, senior product manager for BI on the Redmond, Wash., company’s SQL Server team.

The free tool, although limited in comparison with such full-featured tools as those in, say, Business Objects SA’s newly acquired Crystal family, has other attributes that make even bigger, more established BI vendors than Microsoft wince. First of those attributes is Reporting Services’ price of zero for SQL Server 2000 customers.

Columnist Lisa Vaas talked to some BI experts about how much of a threat Microsoft’s freebie BI tools are. Click here to read more.

Other Reporting Services attributes that are winning over customers include its simplicity. “If you can write a report in Access, you can write one in Reporting Services,” Sorrows said.

Indeed, David L. Terrie, managing director of IT at Axiom & Centration, a consultancy with offices in Sacramento, Calif., and Ontario, said Microsoft’s design team should get kudos for its work on the tool.

“Clearly, Microsoft took a high-level view of enterprise-reporting requirements and used a clean slate to build a framework to handle the requirements,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Thus, the integration with SQL Server—subscriptions, snapshots, triggers, etc. —and the restated, XML-based design paradigm.”

Click here to read Microsoft partners’ take on how Reporting Services will cut costs.

But SP1 or no, users still want more from Reporting Services. “I’d like to see extensions to report layouts that provide better ability to ‘float’ images and tables with wrap-around text,” as can be done with other BI tools, Terrie said. “I’d also love to see snaking columns of the kind you can achieve in a program like Adobe [Systems Inc.’s] InDesign.

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