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Review of ApexSQL Report v4.3

By Mike Pearson,

Introduction

ApexSQL Report is designed for flexibility and fast turnaround of reporting in a dynamic Rapid Application Development environment.  The current version (v4.3) is ASP based, with v5 coming out soon in ASP.NET.

The key with ApexSQL Report is that it utilizes existing stored procedures by analyzing the procedure's meta data to create filters to select user criteria and automatically create report tables. This is useful in a busy development environment as it provides immediate access the result-sets from those stored procedures.  Reports are delivered in HTML so there is no need to know any HTML, as well Excel. More output formats are in the works. The Report tool makes it easy to build graphs, tables, charts and spreadsheets. ApexSQL Report comes with a copy of Fusion Charts, and has a powerful Admin console to enable the creation of reports, users, groups and managing which stored procedures used for the reports. 

Installation

Installation was fairly painless.  I unzipped the file provided into directory (in my case I put it straight into C:\InetPub on my laptop, but in a proper environment no doubt you manage it location easily enough through IIS and virtual directories).  There are a few other steps to do such as configuring the globals file, etc - but if you follow the directions provided you can't go wrong.  If you do fluff it, maybe IT is not your game after all...

There is a script which needs to be run into the database you which to report from which will create a few tables (11) and stored procedures (9) which it needs to drive it's objects.  These are easy to spot as the tables all have a 'asprpt_tbl_' prefix and the procs have 'asprpt_prc_'.

Using ApexSQL Report

I found the product very easy and intuitive to use.  I purposefully avoided the using the (rather good) help documentation in order to get an idea of how "easy it was to figure out" - and it was.  Any developer familiar with creating web based reports should have no problems figuring their way around what I found to be a very intuitive interface.  Having said that, once I did read the documentation I found it was clear and useful.

There is a login screen with takes a default password to get you started, but from there you can easily navigate around the menu system as shown:

Setting up the reports for use was easy and straight-forward. From the administration menu the user navigates to a maintenance page which allows you to see a list of the stored procedures in the database which the user can then choose for their reports:

There are similar maintenance pages for creating user groups and managing the users allocated to those groups.  Once user groups have been setup and configured, reports can also be added to these groups providing a sort of role-based security model for the reports.  I say "sort of" because all user details are stored in clear text in the database, and I have seen too many organizations where database security is pretty sloppy and users could potentially have access to this information.  This is clearly not Lockwood's fault, and there is little they can do if DBA's are sloppy about security protocols, however it is something to be borne in mind if you choose to go down this road.

Once ApexSQL Report has been "made aware" of the stored procedures these can then be used to create the reports. The next image shows the maintenance screen which one uses to create and categorize the reports.  Again, like most things about the product, I found this to be intuitive and very easy to figure out.  For my sample I just created some stored procedures that read the Category Sales and Product Sales views in Northwind.

The next image (below) shows the output from a stored procedure, and as you can see the report is clean and well formatted.  There is a function list at the top of the column to sum, average, count, etc the values in each column.  I guess this has good and bad connotations.  I liked the idea of being able to choose a function (sum, average, count, etc) on the fly, but I was a bit bugged by the fact that there was no ability to add any Totals to the reports (unless I toyed around with the stored procedure to get a total).  The same thing is there when exporting to Excel, so this is where I found the usefulness of the reports to be a bit limiting.

The next image shows a sample report with a graph attached.  ApexSQL Report produces a good, clean graph, and there are a number of options which can be set to give the developer a fair bit of control over the formatting of the chart. I did feel a little cheated however because the chart page still displays a 'Create Excel' button, which simply copies the dataset (not the graph) into Excel.

Another useful option which I found (especially in a development environment!) is a 'diagnostic' option (which essentially does a scan of the stored procedures used to make "all is well." If there are any issues (such as a stored procedure getting deleted or renamed, etc) then this can be managed accordingly.

Technical Support

When using ApexSQL Report I did not need any technical assistance, but I did have some questions which were answered promptly.  The website has a support section on it which appears well used, and answers to queries seem quick and efficient.  As far as the product goes, there are no support costs and Lockwood offer free upgrades for life.

Conclusions

ApexSQL Report is very easy in intuitive to use, and as long as your stored procedures return good data, your reports will be quick, clean and well formatted.  There are a lot of features which make a very useful for RAD developments. There are a number of features which would be useful to have such as grouping, subtotal/totaling etc - but perhaps these will be addressed in subsequent versions.  I know that version 5.0 will include an XML interface for better performance and integration with XSL style sheets for custom reporting, which would probably address some of the issues I raised above.

Ratings

Ease of Use 5 Intuitive and self-explanatory.
Feature Set 3 Does what it sets out to do, but I do think that the reports need to provide some sort of 'extended features' such as grouping and totaling, drill-down, etc if the product is going to stay relevant on the future.
Technical Support NA Not tested, but from the way it looks at the support site I think it would easily rate a 4 or even 5 if needed.
Documentation 5 Standard documentation format (.chm), was complete and covered all my needs.
Installation 5 Absolutely no problems at all.
Learning Curve 4 No problem starting to work with the application directly without reading any documentation.
Overall 4 Overall a good product that solves the problems it sets out to do. There some issues and features which I've come expect seeing some of the other reporting tools out there which will need to be addressed (as per the feature set comments above) but most of these will probably be solved in future version, and lifetime upgrades are included! 

Product Information

Web:http://www.apexsql.com/index_sqlwebreports.htm
Developer: ApexSQL
Pricing: $995 (1 Developer License) There are no support costs and this includes free upgrades for life.
 
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