Q&A: Staying aloft in SQL Azure development

It’s been an eventful year for SQL Azure. In the wake of big announcements at the recent Professional Developers Conference (PDC) and the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) Summit, Microsoft data platform specialist Mark Kromer discusses how recent developments will affect those turning to the cloud.

It's been an eventful year for SQL Azure. In fact, with announcements regarding Windows Azure and SQL Azure at last month's 2010 Professional Developers Conference (PDC) on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., and at last week's Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) Summit in Seattle, it's been an eventful few weeks. In this edition of our “SQL in Five” series, SearchSQLServer.com asks Mark Kromer, a data platform technology specialist at Microsoft, how recent developments such as new reporting services for SQL Azure and the upcoming SQL Server release, code-named Denali, might affect who will next turn to the cloud.

Do Microsoft’s new reporting services for SQL Azure bring the company closer to getting SQL Azure to function like on-premises SQL Server? How?

Mark Kromer: It is probably more accurate to say that SQL Azure and SQL Server have a lot of similarities today. Microsoft is adding more of the traditional on-premise SQL Server capabilities into SQL Azure, as announced earlier this month at the PDC, and there were similar announcements last week at the PASS Summit. Capabilities being added to SQL Azure include the (limited CTP [community technology preview]) reporting feature, similar to SSRS' [SQL Server Reporting Services'] capability and data synchronization updates to provide SQL data replication, Data Sync CTP2. But I still suggest to customers that they carefully assess which workloads to prototype and then move into the cloud with SQL Azure. For example, if you have applications on SQL Server today that make large use of CLR [Common Language Runtime] functions or table partitioning, you will need to look at modifying those database applications or look at starting your migration into the cloud by starting with development, test, staging or other smaller workload databases to SQL Azure.

How does SQL Azure Data Sync, which enables tables in SQL Azure to be synchronized with tables in SQL Server, fit in to that objective?


Mark KromerMark Kromer

Kromer: I think this is best described with an example. With SQL Azure Data Sync (CTP2), you could use the sync technology to implement a scaled-out read/write SQL Server architecture by using your local on-premises SQL Server instances and syncing those up to multiple SQL Azure databases that can be geographically dispersed and contain different or replicated data sets. The previous CTP1 of Data Sync did not have these native capabilities to sync on-premises to cloud SQL Azure databases. This way, you can scale-out your application with multiple SQL Server databases without needing to stand up multiple SQL Servers in geographically dispersed data centers and instead rely on the Microsoft Azure data centers and infrastructure to do that work for you. The CTP2 of Data Sync provides that ability to create sync groups from our data center SQL Servers to the cloud.

What’s still missing in terms of on-premises functionality in SQL Azure? And what’s on the burner for improvements?

Kromer: With the announcements at PDC and PASS of the SQL Azure reporting infrastructure, it is clear that Microsoft's cloud BI [business intelligence] story is going to be a big part of the data management story and will continue to grow with Denali (SQL Server 2011) and beyond. The Microsoft self-service BI features have been a huge success with SQL Server 2008 R2, and the current SQL Azure functionality is very much aligned to BI workloads in the cloud. Even without the SQL Azure Reporting CTP, you can still build cloud-based BI solutions with SQL Azure by utilizing SSIS [SQL Server Integration Services], SSRS and SSAS [SQL Server Analysis Services] on-premises using SQL Azure connection strings. SQL Azure databases in that scenario act just like an on-premises SQL Server 2008 R2 database. But it is important to keep in mind the database-as-a-service approach of SQL Azure. DBAs [database administrators] will not need to have to have the worries or responsibilities around maintaining the core infrastructure required for SQL Server instances, high-availability, patching, etc. So the functionality in SQL Azure will always have different lifecycles than the features required for on-premises SQL Server infrastructures.

IT managers still stress over trusting an outside entity with their data. How is Microsoft addressing that concern in regards to SQL Azure? Will Azure’s new Enhanced Access Control, which lets a company’s customers use their own Active Directory systems instead of log in to the company’s system, affect SQL Azure?

Kromer: Yes, I do think that the ability to federate identities in Azure with your company’s identity system like Active Directory will be helpful in that regard. But overall, the mindset of platform as a service with Azure requires a modification and a realization that giving patching, infrastructure and other controlling mechanisms to Microsoft data center teams is the understanding that businesses need to contend with. Doing so will result in increased ROI through reduced cap-ex expenditures from IT and data centers, and I am hopeful that such federated identity mechanisms can help in that regard.

Two other new Azure offerings are its VM role, which lets end users set policies to govern the operations of a virtual machine, and Azure Caching Service, which lets applications store used data in RAM for quicker access. Will SQL Azure users make use of these new features? If not, are there plans to make these available in SQL Azure?

Kromer: Certainly Windows Azure applications will want to use features like the Windows Azure AppFabric caching, and Windows Azure Storage provides developers with a very efficient and easy mechanism to use, store and retrieve blobs [binary large objects]. But SQL Azure is very much a leader in the market of cloud databases, much unlike the classic Amazon model of generating VMs in the cloud that run your company’s databases. With SQL Azure, the product line is likely to continue to evolve as a service-based platform for data management and BI and become a much stronger platform as more and more businesses realize the cost savings, reliability and security of the SQL Azure platform. That is really providing a different service than Windows Azure and AppFabric offerings.

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.

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