SQL Server Denali on its way, Microsoft shares insights on upgrades

With the SQL Server Denali release date still down the road, would it do businesses any good to upgrade? Microsoft’s Mark Kromer gives advice to businesses itching to move up.

All the experts agree -- upgrading your decade-old SQL Server to a new version like SQL Server 2008 R2 offers businesses a diversity of benefits: improved performance, flashier features, more efficient management and control.

But what about times like now, when the air is full of expectation for an even newer edition, namely, SQL Server Denali? In this month’s “SQL in Five,” Microsoft data platform specialist Mark Kromer discusses upgrading in general, whether it’s a good idea to sit and wait for the upcoming version, and the next Denali community technology preview, due out this summer.

With the release of SQL Server Denali due out later this year or early next year, are there reasons organizations running say, SQL Server 2005, would upgrade to SQL Server 2008 or 2008 R2 at this point?

Mark Kromer: Purely from a feature-function perspective, you clearly get more for your money with each subsequent release of SQL Server. But if you are looking at making a practical IT business decision, the factors that you need to take into account when deciding which version of any platform to use entail many other aspects that affect your business and total cost of ownership. You need to take into account training, migrations, upgrading, regression testing, supportability, et cetera. And since a database platform is likely to be the engine driving your line-of-business (LOB) applications, decision support or operational business systems, such a decision needs to have a solid ROI [return on investment] and business case. If you are still running on SQL Server 2005, you should firstly be aware that SQL Server 2005 is now in “extended support.” So if you need new features and updates, you should upgrade now to SQL Server 2008 R2, which is the latest version of SQL Server in the market today.

If you were deciding between SQL Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008 R2, the compelling features in R2 are generally centered around the managed self-service BI [business intelligence] capabilities, complex event processing, master data management, multiserver management, enhanced security and compression that should mean moving from 2005 to 2008 R2 would be the best decision. Since Microsoft’s support life cycle policy is based on a clock that starts running after the release of the product, you get a longer lifecycle in standard support on SQL Server 2008 R2 since it was released in July 2010, whereas SQL Server 2008 was released late in 2008. If you are thinking about making the jump directly to Denali from SQL Server 2005, you need to keep in mind that you have missed the database engine and BI changes from 2005 to 2008, which you need to prepare for in Denali and you would also possibly move your production systems from 2005 to a new release without a service pack [SP]. R2 has SP1 currently in CTP [community technology preview].

But some would be better off just waiting and upgrading to SQL Server Denali?

Kromer: If you are running SQL Server 2005, you are not taking advantage of scale and performance improvements in partitioning, star schema joins, compression, SSIS [SQL Server Integration Services] caching components, self-service BI, PowerPivot, spatial data types, on and on. If you are developing applications on the SQL Server platform, take a look at [Denali’s] CTP1 to see if the HADR [High Availability Disaster Recovery, aka AlwaysOn] features such as active secondaries, geoclustering, availability groups, et cetera, are vital to your business continuity plans. If your requirements are met by database mirroring, clustering, log shipping, replication, then moving to R2 and waiting on Denali probably makes more sense. And if you are more interested in the business intelligence features in SQL Server, then you should definitely move to R2 now to get PowerPivot, Report Builder 3.0 and so on, making a transition to the Denali Crescent [data visualization] and BISM [business intelligence semantic model] tools a much easier and natural transition.

How quickly does Microsoft expect users to upgrade to Denali? What Denali features do you think will push organizations running older versions of SQL Server to skip the others and go straight for the newest version?

Kromer: The compelling features in Denali that I’ve heard from customers thus far in looking at the product roadmap that are not there in SQL Server 2008 R2 [and] may push someone in that direction would be the BISM, AlwaysOn or Crescent. I don’t want to undersell the rest of the product improvements and enhancements like column-store indexes, contained databases, T-SQL [Transact-SQL] enhancements like Sequence objects or SSAS [SQL Server Analysis Services] enhancements around the 4 GB limit in dimensions. But to make a major decision such as leaping over a major database release to upgrade to a brand new version is a decision that should not be made lightly and requires compelling business reasons to do so. And if you are relying on components or LOB applications that use SQL Server, those products should first certify themselves on the Denali version of SQL Server.

There have been two SQL Server Denali CTPs already. One was released with the announcement, at the PASS Summit 2010 in Seattle, and the second was for MVPs only. What can you tell us about the second public CTP due this summer?

Kromer: The best thing you can do is go to the SQL Server Denali site to sign up for notification of the availability of the next CTP (CTP3). I hear a lot of excitement around this next public CTP for a couple of reasons: one is that CTP1 did not have some of the more anticipated functionality in HADR and the other is that customers really want to try some of the new BI capabilities which are not there in CTP1. The updates and timelines for the next public CTP (CTP3) are going to be announced there.

What did users have to say about features in the first two CTPs? What did they like the most? What concerns did they have?

Kromer: Well, I don’t get to see the detailed feedback from customers in the early-adopter or preview programs for Denali. But I can tell you anecdotally about some of the feedback that I’ve heard from customers that have downloaded and played around with CTP1, and it centers around AlwaysOn and contained databases. The use cases for contained databases (being able to remove the server dependency on databases and database users) has shown to be compelling, while AlwaysOn is probably the most talked-about feature thus far. Of course, it is important to note that CTP1 does not have BISM, Crescent, columnar indexes, et cetera, so it’s an early beta and some of the other feature areas haven’t yet been exposed to customers.

Mark Kromer has more than 16 years experience in IT and software engineering and is well-known in the business intelligence (BI), data warehouse and database communities. He is the Microsoft data platform technology specialist for the mid-Atlantic region. Check out his blog at MSSQLDUDE.

This was first published in June 2011

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