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SQL Server 2012 features: Weighing the benefits, limitations

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SQL Server 2012, cloud, ‘big data’ driving momentum in 2012

With SQL Server 2012 coming out and the growing influence of the SQL Azure cloud and “big data,” the SQL Server landscape could see some major changes in the coming months.

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SQL Server has a lot riding on 2012. For one, Microsoft’s flagship database is due for a major overhaul this year -- and then there are the megatrends, influential forces that may shape the way SQL Server is developed and managed in years to come.

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Organizations are being deluged by waves of information from multiplying numbers of sources, and industry experts say this “big data” explosion is going to be a transformational force on SQL Server. It will affect everything from how data is moved around -- speedy solid-state storage devices seeing a spike in usage -- to the new scalability features in SQL Server 2012 that can accommodate massive amounts of structured and unstructured information.

But the trend that will have the most immediate impact on the future of SQL Server is the rising popularity of cloud computing, said consultant and developer Nuno Filipe Godinho.

For example, SQL Azure, the cloud-based version of Microsoft SQL Server,  will likely “receive lots of great updates that will make it better,” Godinho said. For one thing, the cloud version will offer users a way to test high-availability features. Other new technologies and features will likely be delivered first onto the cloud, where they will be tested and refined, and then made available in the on-premises version of SQL Server.

“The cloud will matter greatly in terms of the increase of knowledge about SQL Server and the way it is built and architected, making people more confident when using it,” he said.

As more data is moved to and stored in the cloud, speed is the ultimate necessity, Godinho said, pointing to wider adoption of solid-state storage drives. Without solid-state, which can process read and write requests up to 250 times faster than mechanical drives, hosting large databases in a cloud environment or copying all that data into local servers is “just not doable,” he said.

And with costs dropping rapidly and sizes stretching into the terabytes, Godinho said solid-state technology will edge into the mainstream among SQL Server users in 2012.

“When we look at the amount of data that is normally deployed and join that with the incredible amount of time that we need to run all the scripts, batches and so on in order to have the databases correctly deployed, [solid-state deployment] would make things a lot smoother and faster,” he said.

Looking at SQL Server’s year ahead from more of a business perspective than an IT one, Lucian Mocanasu, product manager at GFI Software in Cary, N.C., also sees cloud strengthening the pull of the database management system.

“As the telecommuting trend continues to rise and the consumerization of IT enables employees to become increasingly mobile, access to this data will become crucial anytime, anywhere -- in the office, on the road or at home,” he said. To support this mobility, Mocanasu said SQL Server shops will take advantage of cloud computing to provide easier access to data and analytical capabilities.

Big data’s big sway
And with the era of big data dawning, Mocanasu said database engines will need to handle colossal files -- holding billions of records -- with ease and at a reasonable cost. He predicted that Microsoft would further ratchet up the scalability of the databases while keeping costs attractive and affordable.

To handle the unwieldy size and multiple data types associated with big data, Microsoft is promoting improved scalability support and better development tools in several SQL Server projects, including the coming SQL Server 2012, which is scheduled for a “virtual launch” March 7. The release will be packaged with connectors to Apache Hadoop, an open source distributed computing framework used for processing and storing big data.

But big data isn’t only big -- it’s wildly various. “The large volume of information stored in databases is increasingly coming from multiple sources and in a variety of different formats,” Mocanasu said. As a consequence, the information is difficult to analyze. Data analytics, especially for data in heterogeneous databases, will become more important than ever, he said, and Microsoft will focus on tools that analyze data regardless of its structure or format.

BI the SQL Server 2012 way
Some of those technologies are already in the works. Take Power View, SQL Server 2012's data visualization technology, a signature part of Microsoft’s “self-service business intelligence (BI)” strategy. The data discovery tool, which can scan millions of rows of data from multiple sources, makes analytics more easily presentable and more accessible, said Dan Keating, director of technology at Catalyst, a marketing agency in Rochester, N.Y.

“To take the data access out of the hands of the development group or the DBAs out of the hands of the data jockeys, and give it to the data analyst is a really powerful prospect,” he explains. Plus, Keating said, the integration of Power View with end-user tools like Excel and PowerPoint makes BI more tangible and useful to the business users.

Then there’s PowerPivot, the data analysis tool Power View is based on. Tweaked for SQL Server 2012, PowerPivot will be another go-to tool for non-IT folks, said Dave Hatter, principal of Libertas Technologies, a software development and consulting company based in Cincinnati. The beefed-up add-in for Excel gives people the ability to, for example, use key performance indicators in reports and choose department-specific “perspectives” of data -- so someone from sales can see information on products and demographics, while a human resources manager will see data on employees and benefits.

“In the past, many people in the BI space haven’t understood how to use all the information available in SQL Server. The improved tools will help,” Hatter said.

They might even liberate IT from building reports for users, and that could lead many organizations to upgrade to SQL Server 2012, he said. But for large businesses tempted by all the flashy new stuff, Hatter has a word of warning: “They have to move slowly to ensure that they don’t break existing applications.”

Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology.

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Essential Guide

SQL Server 2012 features: Weighing the benefits, limitations

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