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Q&A: Microsoft surveys horizon as cloud computing providers mount

Salesforce.com’s upcoming cloud offering Database.com will widen the pantheon of cloud computing providers, but Microsoft's Mark Kromer says SQL Azure can handle the competition. Read on for Kromer’s thoughts on the expanding market, what makes customers turn to the cloud and how it will affect the role of the database administrator.

Everyone wants a piece of the cloud these days, it seems. Microsoft, Amazon, Google and soon, with its upcoming Database.com, Salesforce.com. And it’s no wonder; the cloud’s no muss-no fuss setup and maintenance means free resources and lower costs. So, what does the changing cloudscape mean for SQL Azure? In this edition of “SQL in Five,” Microsoft data platform technology specialist Mark Kromer discusses the expanding market and what it means for SQL Azure, what brings business to the cloud in the first place and how the new platform changes the role of the database administrator.

How concerned is Microsoft about Database.com?

Mark Kromer: The Database.com announcement from Salesforce was very recently announced. But in general, Microsoft has done a good job of being a leader in terms of utility cloud-based computing with SQL Azure. We’ve been competing already in the market with Amazon’s cloud-based database offerings and now with Salesforce.com entering the market with Database.com, we’ll continue to have the advantages of a nearly seamless transition for developers and DBAs [database administrators] from traditional SQL Server to SQL Azure. Compared to those other competitors in cloud databases, Microsoft has a strong position particularly in terms of having an established offering and a clear roadmap, which was discussed at the recent Microsoft PDC and PASS [Professional Association for SQL Server] conferences. Much more database and BI [business intelligence] functionality as well as data replication and synchronization capabilities are coming in the next release of SQL Azure with several CTPs [community technology previews] already available [on the SQL Azure CTP site].

What will customers get with SQL Azure that they won’t with Database.com?

Kromer: It’s very early to comment on comparisons with Database.com at this time. But when I think about what a lot of our customers tell us in terms of their experience when using or trialing SQL Azure, a few things seem to resonate with DBAs and developers: The experience is nearly identical to SQL Server, the transition to cloud is very easy and their applications and users will not notice any changes or difference. For Microsoft, those points are very important. The ability to use existing application SQL code and application programming code with no changes, just swapping in new connection strings and credentials, was a necessary requirement since SQL Server is already the most popular database in IT. With SQL Azure, there are no developer changes to T-SQL commands and you can use your existing programming languages and data connectors to move from your on-premises SQL Server to SQL Azure. Database.com, as I understand it, has been used at Salesforce.com for some time. But as a new database back end for applications and developers, this is a new platform that they will need to learn, understand, try out and configure new data connectors.

These are still early days for the cloud in general. What do you think the players, Microsoft included, need to do to stay competitive?

Kromer: There are two areas that I receive the most inquiries about from customers when discussing a move to cloud computing these days. Now, granted, I spend my days and nights working with database administrators and developers, so this doesn’t necessarily translate to all other IT areas of cloud computing. But I would say that cloud vendors need to continue to focus on providing transparency to their data center infrastructure. Many businesses do not like the idea of giving up command and control of their data centers to someone else. Additionally, businesses generally feel more comfortable about security and disaster recovery when you open up and provide details about your infrastructure. Another area is consistency with current on-premises traditional solutions. In the case of SQL Server, the fact that SQL Azure is so similar to SQL Server makes it easy to move to a cloud platform.

Under what scenarios do you see companies using cloud databases and how do you see that evolving?

Kromer: The most common include utilizing SQL Azure as part of the development lifecycle and taking advantage of the quick stand-up and tear-down times of cloud computing with SQL Azure. The ideal production use cases will leverage the elasticity of cloud computing to take advantage of those scaling capabilities. This is starting to become more of a reality as businesses feel comfortable with cloud computing. But to get started in cloud, I see customers going to sql.azure.com to fire up a couple of small SQL Azure databases to use for development. With tools like the new Data Sync and the CodePlex Azure Migrator, they can move the databases around and even utilize the SQL Server 2008 R2 data-tier application capabilities in Visual Studio and Management Studio. And since it is very easy and quick to stand-up a database, the SQL Server classic use case of serving a departmental application is very useful. A department that needs SQL Server but does not have infrastructure or resources to maintain a database server can utilize SQL Azure instead and not worry about the administration of a server. It is then as easy as disabling that database when you are done, and just as you pay your electric utility bill at home, your business then is no longer charged for the database because billing is based on utilization.

How do cloud databases impact the role of the DBA? Will it be harder, easier for them?

Kromer: A little bit of both. It is definitely different. If you are a DBA who is used to having full control of all the knobs and levers, backup and recovery and other infrastructure, you have to be prepared to leave that part of the Azure cloud infrastructure up to Microsoft. The database is replicated [times three] for [high availability] and backup. You create database logins, but you do not control the instances. Developers see much less of an impact although some features like CLR [Common Language Runtime] objects and partitioning are not there yet in the current version of SQL Azure. That being said, the DBA can monitor and manage the SQL Azure databases right from SSMS while the developer will access the SQL Azure databases through a new cloud-based Web tool for database development and management called Database Manager, which is based on Silverlight.

Editor’s note: For more from Mark, check out his blog at MSSQLDUDE

Mark Kromer has over 16 years experience in IT and software engineering and is a leader in the business intelligence, data warehouse and database communities. Currently, he is the Microsoft data platform technology specialist for the mid-Atlantic region, having previously been the Microsoft Services senior product manager for BI solutions and the Oracle principal product manager for project performance analytics.

 

This was last published in December 2010

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