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-- by James E. Powell
For sharing data and reports across an enterprise, Seagate's Crystal Info 5.0 is a gem. When we last looked at it (see Reviews, April 1996), we were amazed at the ease and flexibility with which we could schedule, run and examine the results of queries and reports. Long-overdue interface improvements and added features make Crystal Info 5.0 an even better client/server tool.
The program has a three-tiered client/server architecture. Info Desktop is the client software. The middle layer consists of Automated Process Schedulers (APS) that manage user requests and rights. On the back end, Info Servers accesses data sources and runs the reports. All three pieces have major enhancements in this version.
The biggest news in version 5.0 is that you can cluster the middle APS tier, which renders Crystal Info a fault-tolerant, scalable application. You can use TCP/IP, NetBEUI, IPX/SPX or Crystal's own CIMP (Crystal Info Message Protocol) to communicate between clusters and specify the protocol hierarchy.
In addition, administrators have more control over this middle layer, which acts like the traffic cop for Crystal Info. Administrators can better tune and load-balance Crystal Info by tweaking parameters such as the maximum number of threads and jobs you can submit to one Info Server. Version 5 lets you set runtime periods for Info Servers, so you can get better performance by running jobs at low-usage hours.
If you're seeking better security, version 5.0 includes the concept of groups, which allows administrators to assign a collection of rights to multiple users based on their inclusion in a group. Info Viewers, which are akin to views in some SQL databases, allow you to restrict the data a group can use. As a result, you can define a report to run against all divisional data, while permitting, for example, accounting users to view only a particular division's data.
The client tier, the Desktop, is where users define, schedule, run and view reports. Version 5.0's Desktop is dramatically different from version 4.5's. Desktop functions can run under a Java-compliant browser, such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, which makes Crystal Info a cross-platform product. By entering a special URL that points to a network file created by Crystal Info, we saw a Web page that is remarkably similar to the program's original Desktop. We got a Windows Explorer-like outline of the folder hierarchy displayed in the left half of the screen; the new version can display multiple levels (version 4.5 was limited to one). On the screen's right is another hierarchy of folders, one for each user group to which we belonged. With the multiple levels, we could access all the reports we were permitted to see by drilling down to expose each report name and all scheduled instances.
Version 5.0 includes several much-needed user-interface improvements, such as right-mouse support and the ability to drag and drop reports into folders. Seagate also eliminated some of the last version's clunky workflow. For example, you can now select the Design option to modify or create a report instead of backtracking to a separate module.
Info Servers, the last component of the program, performs the database work and typically runs on NT servers. This tier off-loads user requests for processing. Crystal Info is flexible about which machines can be Info Servers. You can use some machines as workstations during the day and as Info Servers during off-peak hours.
New native drivers should boost performance for Sybase System 10 and 11, Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle. Info Servers can also use the NT Event log and Microsoft Internet Information Server's Web Activity log as input sources for reports.
For Windows-based client/server reporting and analysis with security and administrative control, Seagate Crystal Info delivers the goods.