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Microsoft SQL Azure just pie in the sky? Think again

There’s been a lot of talk about Microsoft SQL Azure lately -- its cost-effectiveness, its mobility, its ease of use -- but is it worth the hype?

Here’s a fun joke heard at a recent conference: “What color is the sky when you have no clouds? Azure.” Cue big laughs at Microsoft’s expense.

The reality, though, is that SQL Azure -- the version of SQL Server that lives in Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service -- is a pretty important product.

Especially for organizations that only use SQL Server to support third-party applications, cloud-based databases promise less overhead, more turnkey operations and other advantages. There are potential downsides, of course, but this column isn’t about whether Microsoft SQL Azure (or any cloud service) is right for you; it’s about what the “reluctant DBA” needs to know if his organization wants to push their data into Azure.

The neat thing about Microsoft SQL Azure is that, by and large, you manage it a lot like you would a local SQL Server installation, only you don’t worry at all about the actual hardware. You still create logins; you still have databases; you still rebuild indexes. Azure isn’t like the “shared hosted SQL Server” that hosting providers have offered for years; with Azure, it doesn’t look like you’re sharing anything with anyone. In many respects, it’s as if some Microsoft ninjas broke into your data center, picked up your SQL Server computers, and carried them off to some other data center. Apart from the location of the hardware, not much changes.

That said, the Azure team -- like most of Microsoft these days -- is buying into Windows PowerShell in a big way, and the SQL Server technology teams are continuing to expand their support for, and reliance on, this task automation framework. So if you’re planning to automate any of your SQL Server tasks, start wrapping your head around PowerShell now.

If, however, you’re only looking to manage and maintain a few Azure-based databases from time to time, then the graphical user interface tools you know and love can continue to do the job. The allure of Azure, aside from moving the computing activity out of your own data center, is that it can make your data available anywhere in the world through the back-end magic of the platform itself.

What Microsoft SQL Azure doesn’t do is change how you plan, secure, maintain or troubleshoot your databases. Backups don’t even become less critical: You’re not likely to face a disaster recovery scenario with Azure, but you still may want the ability to roll a table back to a specific point in time to undo some unwanted change. Backups are still the key to that.

From a DBA perspective, you’ll face the following tasks:

  • Rebuilding and reorganizing indexed on a regular basis. Azure doesn’t change the way indexes work or how SQL Server uses them.
  • Grabbing backups with whatever frequency is appropriate for your organization.
  • Managing logins and database users, as well as database roles, application roles and other security principals within SQL Server itself.

If you’re already used to performing these tasks in a local SQL Server installation, then performing them in an Azure-based database won’t be too much of a challenge. That’s actually one of the biggest selling points of Microsoft SQL Azure compared with other companies’ cloud offerings: It works (more or less) just like the SQL Server product you’re already used to.


Don Jones is a senior partner and principal technologist at strategic consulting firm Concentrated Technology. Contact him via

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