Over the next few months we will be bringing you a number of articles on the new capabilities found in Cognos 10 (last month: IBM Cognos 10: Initial Thoughts and Reactions) with a goal towards providing our fellow developers, implementers and users with our impressions and the associated benefits and drawbacks of the new tool.

One of the most discussed features of IBM Cognos 10 is the availability of Active reports, which has been billed as an ideal solution for managed dashboards aimed at Business Managers, Executives and Front Line users. As with all tools, there are a number of pros and cons that should be considered before making any strategic decisions around the implementation of new functionality.

What are IBM Cognos 10 Active Reports?

The fundamental purpose of this relatively intuitive application is to allow end users to consume highly formatted, stand-alone dashboard style reports with limited training and a focus on efficient and ,perhaps most importantly, offline consumption. While the expectation remains that the reports will be developed by IT or Power Users within Report Studio, allowing for the creation of professional looking, pixel perfect reports, the end user is no longer tied to static offline reports or interactive reports rendered through Cognos Viewer. All of the existing report distribution channels, including scheduling and bursting, can be employed to circulate Active reports across large user communities.

In order to allow for consumption outside of Cognos Viewer, the reports are rendered in a MHTML (sometimes referred to MHT) format consumable by all standard browsers (Firefox will require an extension to be installed). In order to allow for offline interactivity by the end user, all the data that may be viewed by the end user through report prompts must be stored in the output file.

IBM Cognos 10 Active Reports make life easier!

As mentioned above, there are a number of benefits to both the end user community and the IT department. Active reports open in a standard browser window there by eliminating the need for Cognos Connection, third party or programmatic access to Cognos viewer. In addition, the entire data set needed to support the report is published in the self contained MHT file. This eliminates the need to interact with larger and potentially slower data sources and provides rapid performance for small and medium sized reports (more on this later). The development of these reports leverages the existing skill sets of your organizations Report Studio developers. There are no limitations on the quantity or type of data sources in your report, as this functionality is unchanged from that of any standard report developed in Report Studio. Many of the capabilities that were available to developers through report studio remain, so the ability to meet strict business requirements, calculations, and layouts is still available. From an end user perspective, there are no additional skills needed to begin consuming and working with active reports. Provided with all the existing capabilities to schedule and burst reports that current Report Studio reports enjoy, the ability to distribute Active reports to large audiences can be controlled and monitored in the same manner currently being used by your organization. Finally, the capability remains to add drill through (not drill down or up) functionality thereby allowing your dashboards to continue to efficiently provide a snapshot of your organization while still allowing users to dive further into the data for a more in-depth review. It is important to note that report drill through capability is only available when the user is connected to the network and can access the targeted reports.

Are there any Red Flags with IBM Cognos 10 Active Reports?

As with all technologies, the most important step is to understand the limitations of the application or tool you are using. Active Reports are just one of the Cognos suite of tools available to the IT department when trying to fulfill user requests and as can be expected has a number of areas of caution that should be considered by the developer before proceeding down this path. The first point of consideration should be that of security. These reports are intended to be consumed as individual stand alone files thereby eliminating the security that is applied to reports consumed through the Cognos Connection interface or with data driven security. In addition, it should be remembered that this tool was developed with a focus on efficient, off-line dashboards which means that it is not intended to as a distribution channel for detailed reports. This is based in the fact that all the data necessary to support user interactivity within the report is stored in the MHT file. Therefore as the amount of data necessary to support the report grows, there will be a corresponding increase in the file size and a decrease in the responsiveness of the report. The inclusion of chart based objects, not an unusual requirement for dashboard centric reports, is another area to monitor closely during the creation of Active reports. Due to the fact that there is no charting engine available once the report has been saved as an MHT file, it is necessary for the report to hold a pre-rendered view of each chart view a user may request. This can of course lead to very large report files again impacting performance. The IBM Cognos development team is reviewing options, perhaps through the use of Flash, to eliminate this bottleneck in the future. One of the last considerations a developer should review is the need to render Active reports on mobile devices. At this point, this capability is not supported within this version of Cognos 10.

So is IBM Cognos 10 Active Reports the answer for my organization?

As with so many questions there is no definitive answer. There are certainly specific cases where Active reports will meet a distinct need for your organization, but a clear understanding of the advantages and limitations of this tool is critical. In addition, IT organizations must take into consideration other tools that are available within the IBM Cognos 10 BI suite. For example, Business Insight, which we will review next month, is a more appropriate tool for self-service type dashboards. The type and amount of licenses you organization has or is willing to purchase will also play a factor. Professional Report Author license or above is required to create active reports while enhanced consumer licenses are required for all consumers of the report. Active reports can be a critical part of your organizations BI solution, but all the factors should be considered before making a decision on the direction your organization should take.