Reporting is a necessity within every organization and virtually
within every business application. Your
project stakeholders will define some requirements that are best implemented as
operational functionality, such as the definition and maintenance of customer
information, and other requirements that are best implemented as reports.
explores critical report implementation issues.
How should you architect your database to
Should you build reports within your application
or separately within another specialized reporting facility?
Should you implement using object technology or with reporting tools?
For our purposes a report is the read-only output of information,
potentially including both “raw” base data and calculated/summarized values.
Reports can be rendered in a variety of manners – printed, displayed on
a screen, or an electronic file. Reports can be created in batch or in real
A customer invoice is a report and so is a quarterly sales
summary by division. In this article I
- Database deployment architecture
- Reporting within your
- Reporting outside your
- Database design strategies
- Implementation strategies
- Challenges that make reporting hard
Most business applications, particularly those that edit and
update data contained in a relational database, require relatively normalized
data. This basic manipulation of
data is often referred to as the operational features of an application.
Data normalization is a design process where
the goal is to ensure that data is stored in one and one place only.
This results in cohesive tables and a database schema that is
very flexible. Because reports
often require a wide range of data, resulting in the need to join many
normalized tables, a highly normalized database can be difficult to report from.
This problem is exacerbated when a report needs “crunch” a large
amount of data. The implication is
that you need a database architecture that supports the operational needs of
your application as well as its reporting needs.
My experience is that because the operational needs of an
application are best served by a highly normalized schema, and that because
reporting needs are best served by a denormalized data schema, that you want to
consider implementing two separate schemas.
So far the focus of this book has been on the operational needs of an
application, not on reporting, and therefore I have not discussed the idea of
separate data schemas until now.
1 depicts a logical database deployment architecture, depicting the idea
that your application will read and update information from an operational
database. Data from the operational
database will be used to load data marts, if any, as well as your corporate
warehouse. An operational database
transaction processing and analytical reporting.
A data mart is a department/application specific database used for
reporting. A data warehouse is
collection of subject-oriented databases where each unit of data is relevant to
a given moment in time. Table
1 compares and contrasts these types of databases.
Figure 1. Separate operational and
Table 1. Comparing Database Types.
Figure 1 depicts a logical
architecture because a large organization is likely to have many physical
operational databases, many physical data marts, and even several physical
warehouses. A small company may
have a single database that is used for all three purposes.
Regardless of your physical implementation of this architecture, the
basics still hold.
(2002) describes a process where the data from operational databases,
databases, is denormalized and fed into the appropriate data marts.
This data is loaded on a regular basis into the data marts, typically on
a daily basis although periods of a few hours or even a few minutes is common.
The data is also removed on a regular basis from the database to keep the data
marts are a relatively stable size. Data
is also loaded into your corporate
data warehouse, although now this data will
be highly denormalized and may need to be transformed to fit corporate data
standards. The implication is that when an Agile DBA evolves the
data schema of your operational database, perhaps through database
refactoring, they should always strive to ensure that the schema follows the
enterprise data standards. This
means they will need access to the standards, perhaps stored online in a meta
data repository, and will need to work with the enterprise administrators to
evolve the standards over time.
Some summary data for online reporting
Supports read/write access by applications
Specific to one or more applications
Operational applications typically work with this type of
Specific to a single department and/or collection of
Contains a snapshot of near-term information, typically
less than a year old
Supports read-only access by applications
Often uses multi-dimensional database management system
Supports very flexible and unpredictable access to data
Ad-hoc reporting facilities typically work with this type of
May some summary data
Flexible design which stores granular data
Supports read-only access by applications
Not specific to any application or department
Driven by enterprise-level requirements
Contains massive amounts of data, typically an order of
magnitude greater than a data mart or operational database
Often includes several (upwards to ten) years worth of data
“Standard” reports are developed and run on a regular
basis against this type of database
|An advantage of separating operational databases from data marts and data
warehouses is that it provides your team with the option to decouple your
application from reporting-based data schemas. Although
1 shows your application, via your encapsulation
layer, accessing all three types of database you could choose to only
interact directly with the operational database. This works when your
application implements reports that are based only on data contained in the
operational database. A better strategy is to externalize
reports from your application and implement them via data mart or data
warehouse-based reporting tools.
Like any other functionality within your application, a report needs to be
based on requirements. Project stakeholders
should be working with application programmers and Agile DBAs to develop reports; the
project stakeholders provide the requirements and feedback on the work of the
My implementation strategy for including reports in an application
changes based on the development platform.
When I’m building a fat-client application, perhaps building it with a
Java Swing user interface or with Visual Basic, my preferred approach is to separate
most if not all reports into their own application.
In other words I build two applications, one that implements the
operational logic and one that implements the reports.
The operational application is typically implemented with an
object-oriented language such as Java, C#, or Visual Basic and the reporting
application is developed using a reporting tool (see Table
2). The reason for this is simple – I prefer to use the right development
environment for the job. Sometimes
I will invoke the reporting tool from the operational application so I can
deploy a single, integrated application. Other
times my stakeholders already have an existing reporting facility and they want
the new reports to be added to it.
When I’m building a browser-based application I typically prefer
to include reports in the operational application, although once again if my
stakeholders want the reports to appear in a separate reporting application then
that’s what I’ll do. My
experience is that users of browser applications tend to want links to all
related functionality within the application whereas users of fat client
applications don’t mind having a separate application.
I’ll implement a report as an HTML page that displays read-only
information, or better it is implemented as an XML data structure than is then
converted to HTML via XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation).
Larry Greenfield presents a comprehensive
list of reporting and query
Representative reporting frameworks.
ActiveReports includes a report wizard that steps you
through creating simple reports without writing any code.
Visual Basic and .NET versions of the product exist.
A reporting facility that can be integrated into
Visual Studio .NET to create reports that can be invoked by .NET platform
applications. It can also be integrated into Java applications via
it’s Java reporting SDK (software development kit), or use Java beans as
data sources for reports.
A Java-based, open source report-generating tool that
can deliver content onto the screen or printer, or into PDF, HTML, XLS,
CSV and XML files.
Microsoft Access and Excel
A common approach to implementing reports within Microsoft applications is
to simply invoke either Access or Excel.
A reporting tool for Oracle databases. A Java framework exists so
that reports can be included in operation applications.
A report-building IDE for Borland Delphi.
The logic to implement a report within your application code is
fairly straightforward. You
identify the selection rules for the information to appear in the report, for
example “all employees with 5 or more years seniority that work in a Canadian
subsidiary”. You then obtain the
data using one of the strategies – brute force, query objects, or persistent
search criteria – described in
Best Practices for
Objects from Relational Databases. This
data is then converted into a format that your report generation strategy can
work with. If you are not using a
reporting framework then you will need to code the report yourself.
A good strategy is the Report Objects design pattern (Brant
& Yoder 2000) which implement a report with objects that obtain the
data, known as query objects, and with objects that output the data, known as
viewing objects. Figure 2 depicts a
UML Sequence diagram that overviews this strategy.
The report object collaborates with the query object to obtain the data,
marshalling the results into the format required by the viewing object.
The viewing object works with the marshaled results to produce the
design rule of thumb is that reports that appear as part of your operational
application should be based on your operational data and should answer a “what
is happening right now” type of question.
Examples of this type of question include “what is the current
inventory levels of Blink 182 CDs?”, “who is currently on call to answer
Level 4 customer questions”, and “when is a customer’s order scheduled to
be shipped?” When these two
factors aren’t true you should consider building the report as part of an external
2. Report objects.
A common strategy is to implement reports outside of your
application, typically using a reporting facility design for exactly that
purpose. This strategy is often
referred to as business intelligence reporting.
Figure 1 depicts this
concept, showing how an ad-hoc reporting facility is often used against data
marts whereas pre-defined reports are often run against data warehouses.
Ad-hoc reporting is typically performed for the specific purposes of a
small group of users where it is common that the users write the report(s)
themselves. Pre-defined reports are
typically developed by the IT department in response to user request, sometimes
within the scope of an application and sometimes as a small project in its own
Why separate ad-hoc reports from pre-defined reports?
As you saw in Table 1 data
marts are designed to support flexible, unpredictable access to data whereas
data warehouses are not designed this way.
So, we don’t really need to separate the reports per se, just the
databases. Representative vendors
in the business intelligence reporting tool market include Cognos,
The implication is that your organization may already have a reporting
strategy in place. This strategy
will be reflected in your enterprise’s technical architecture and will
encompass standard reporting tools, frameworks, and database technologies.
What can you do design a database to be “performance
friendly” to reports? In an ideal
world you would like to have a perfectly normalized database, but it isn’t an
ideal world. To support reports you
often need to consider the following changes to your database design:
There are other strategies that a good DBA can implement to
improve reporting performance, strategies that Larry
Greenfield nicely summarizes.
Take advantage of database features.
Each database implements joins, indices, SQL Select statement
execution, and access paths in slightly different ways.
All of these things influence the performance of your queries and
thus your reports. This sort of basic knowledge is taught in database
certification courses and I highly recommend that all Agile DBAs become
certified on the database technologies that they work with.
The disadvantage is that this approach helps to lock you into your
database vendor because you come to rely on the unique features that they
Introduce aggregate tables.
An aggregate table stores denormalized copies of data.
For example, a CustomerOrders aggregate table would store
summary totals of the orders for customers.
There would be one row for each customer which records the number of
orders placed, the number of shipments made, the grand total of the orders
for that customer, and so on. The
primary disadvantage is that you need to maintain the aggregate table.
Remove unnecessary data.
The smaller the amount of data to process, the faster your
queries will run. By removing
unnecessary data, either by archiving it or simply deleting it, you can
improve the performance of your reports.
The disadvantages are that you need to develop an archiving/deletion
strategy and in the case of archiving you also need to develop a date
recovery process to support retrieval of archived data.
Caches, either of data or of objects, can
dramatically improve your system performance by replacing relatively slow
disk accesses with memory accesses. The
disadvantages are the increased complexity and the increased chances of
cross schema referential integrity problems introduced by caches.
Partition a table.
The goal is to take a large table, which results in poor performance,
and reorganize it into several smaller tables.
Tables can be partitioned vertically by storing different columns in
each table as well as horizontally by storing collections of rows in
different tables. Combinations
are also possible. The primary
disadvantages are that partitioning will complicate your mapping efforts
(Chapter 11) and queries can become more complex because you need to work
with several tables to support a single concept.
Disallow real-time reports. Many organizations
choose to only support batch reporting against databases to ensure that
report queries do not interfere with operational applications, to ensure
consistent performance levels within data marts and data warehouses, and to
reserve update windows for those databases.
If a report needs to obtain data in a different order in which it is
stored a common way to support this is to introduce an index that access the
data in the required order. The
disadvantage is that this slows down run-time performance due to the need to
update the additional index.
When implementing reports, and the data extracts to support
them, there are several implementation strategies you should adopt:
Follow report design guidelines.
Your organization likely has report design guidelines, either
formally documented ones which should be available from your enterprise
administrators or informal ones which you will need to derive from existing
reports. These design
guidelines will describe mundane issues such as standard headers and footers
to critical report layout conventions.
Although it may seem boring, and your “creative juices” may
motivate you to take your own approach, if you do in fact have a reasonable
set of guidelines in place you should follow them.
If all reports within your organization follow the same set of
conventions they will be easier for your stakeholders to work with.
Follow data design standards for extracted data.
A primary goal of your enterprise administrators is to maintain and
support common data definitions and standards for your organization’s
data. Although you should be
applying these conventions when you are designing your database schema it is
critical that extracted data does so because it will be shared throughout
Add database views to support common reporting needs.
Reporting data can be easier to extract with the addition of database
views that perform common joins and projections within your database.
Be prepared to work with imperfect data.
There are many potential
problems, a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that the data in data
marts and data warehouses come from many sources.
Even if all of the data conforms to corporate standards there is very
likely differences in the timeliness of data.
Some extractions may run daily whereas others run hourly and some
daily extractions may run several hours after others.
These timing issues will impact your reports.
Treat data extraction requests as new requirements.
Agile software developers typically work from a
prioritized stack of
requirements. When a new
requirement is proposed by a project stakeholders the developers estimate it
and ask the stakeholders to prioritize it, and if the stakeholders don’t
like the estimate (What do you mean this will cost $50,000?) to rework and
resubmit the requirement. The
requirements are pulled off the stack and implemented in priority order.
When an external database owner requests data elements from you,
perhaps to fulfill the requirements of other project teams, the request
should be treated exactly like any other requirement – it should be
estimated, prioritized, put on the stack, and eventually implemented.
Investigate printing facilities and supplies.
Your organization may have a printing framework, or perhaps a
standard approach to printing, that your team can take advantage of.
This is particularly true for any reports that are sent to your
customers, such as invoices. The
type of paper and envelopes will affect your report design.
For example, does your organization have a standard envelope that
requires you to print the address in a specific spot so that it lines up
with the envelope window? Folding
and envelope capacity are issues that may you need to be aware of as well.
The point is that you need to work closely with your operations
staff, people who are also considered to be project stakeholders.
7. Challenges That Make Reporting Hard
Object technology doesn’t readily lend itself to
reporting. Although you have
several implementation strategies available to you none of them are ideal. A “pure” object-oriented approach would be solely based
on object, but because many reports require information from thousands and
sometimes millions of object the database access and marshalling alone can be
performance inhibitive. Luckily
“non-pure” solutions exist, such as developing report objects or integrating
with reporting tools, but they will most likely require you to break your database
When reports are printed physical issues are brought
into your design. Simple things such as aligning your output with the fields on
pre-printed forms can be tedious when you don’t have printer drivers
specifically designed for those forms.
A more difficult issue to address is the fact that the owners of
the data marts and your corporate data warehouse likely do not work in an agile
manner, although this
clearly does not need to be the case. You will need to find ways
to work with them, perhaps a combination of helping them to become more agile
and of learning to tolerate a little bit of bureaucracy. They may not be able to tolerate your team refactoring the
layout of the data extract schema on a rapid basis, and may in fact require you
to release on a much slower basis (quarterly instead of weekly).
Furthermore they may not be able to respond quickly to your requests for
schema changes within their databases. You’ll
need to find ways to work together effectively, something that can be
particularly hard if your project is the first one in your organization to take
an agile approach to development.
Similarly your operations department, who likely control access to
your corporate printing facilities, may not work in an agile manner.
Once again you’ll need to find ways to work together.
Finally, don't allow your project to drift into analysis paralysis
because of some misguided goal to ascertain
This article focused on a basic but critical aspect of
software-based systems – reporting. Your
organization likely has a database architecture that takes reporting into
consideration. This architecture
may involve separate reporting databases, such as data marts and data
warehouses, which you will need to export data too and then report from it.
You learned that existing reporting tools and frameworks may exist for
you to reuse on your project.
A fundamental decision that you need to make is whether reports
are included as part of your application, if they are to be implemented in a
separate reporting application/facility, or a combination thereof.
When you are building them into your application you may choose to code
them yourself or to use an integrated reporting tool.
My final word of advice is this: Don’t underestimate the
difficulties implementing reports. The
technical issues are straightforward to overcome but the people-oriented issues
can prove to be your downfall. Work
closely with all of your project stakeholders, not just the business