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SQL Server 2005 end of life is closing in: Are you ready?

Extended support for SQL Server 2005 ends in April. That's it. It's done. If your organization isn't prepared, your data could be at risk, cautions expert Robert Sheldon.

Come April 12, SQL Server 2005 end of life becomes official. Microsoft is ending extended support, which means no feature updates. No application fixes. No security patches. Nothing. Anyone still running SQL Server 2005 will be risking compromised data and broken systems. Either they upgrade to a newer version of SQL Server, move to a different platform, or do nothing and face the consequences.

Since SQL Server 2005 was released 10 years ago, much has changed across the information landscape. Data has gotten big -- really big -- and comes in a wide range of shapes and sizes, much of it unstructured, much of it moving at lightning speeds. Add to this mix the criminal element, with attacks on data becoming more sophisticated and better orchestrated. The features and protections that were appropriate in 2005 can seem like child's play in the face of such monumental changes.

SQL Server 2005 end of life is the end of an era

Product support at Microsoft consists of two phases: mainstream and extended. During the mainstream phase -- which generally runs around five years -- Microsoft updates features, addresses bugs, provides security hot fixes and offers no-charge incident support.

Extended support adds about five more years to the product lifecycle. During this phase, Microsoft stops implementing design changes and taking feature requests. The company also stops processing warranty claims and providing no-charge incident support, offering non-security hot fixes only with a purchase agreement. However, Microsoft still provides security updates and the ability to purchase a paid support agreement.

When extended support ends, Microsoft no longer does anything to maintain the product, unless an organization has a custom support contract. Such an agreement can extend support for as much as three years, but these contracts are the exception -- and the support offered is not full-fledged, hold-your-hand support. Rather, it's more of a short-term approach that helps smooth out the bumps while nudging you toward a more permanent migration.

Organizations still relying on SQL Server 2005 are under threat from cybercriminals who have spent 10 years poking holes into the system.

For most organizations, the April 2016 deadline signals SQL Server 2005 end of life, which could have serious consequences. Although SQL Server will continue to run (at least, that is the hope), the lack of any type of support -- particularly security updates -- is a significant enough concern that just about anyone running SQL Server 2005 better have a plan. They also better be ready to act on that plan quickly.

Not only will the databases themselves be at risk, but so, too, will every application relying on those databases, with performance, reliability, compliance and SQL Server security on the frontlines. Organizations still relying on SQL Server 2005, even with extended support in place, are already under threat from a community of hackers and cybercriminals who have spent 10 years poking holes into the system. Once those systems no longer receive security patches, every application and service that touches them is susceptible to data theft and corruption.

Microsoft's solution to the end of SQL Server 2005 support

Not surprisingly, Microsoft's answer to the dilemma of SQL Server 2005 end of life is to move everyone to Azure SQL Database or SQL Server 2014 (or SQL Server 2016, whenever that's released). The Microsoft guard has issued a call to arms, touting the benefits in both performance and security when migrating to the newer systems. Customers also can choose a hybrid approach, splitting operations between on-premises systems and the cloud.

According to Microsoft, "SQL Server 2014 has been benchmarked to be 13 times faster than SQL Server 2005," in no small part due to the new in-memory online transaction processing capabilities. Plus, SQL Server 2014 offers the AlwaysOn Availability features, also missing in SQL Server 2005. Microsoft is also quick to point out other new components in SQL Server 2014, such as Data Quality Services and Master Data Services, as well as the more robust Integration Services and the Analysis Services tabular mode.

But Microsoft is clever. Rather than proselytizing only about performance and security and added features, the company also waves the cost-saving flag, insisting that an upgrade can save an organization gobs of cash when taking into account reliability, performance and resource allocation.

To support its argument, the company often references a Microsoft-sponsored Forrester study, The Total Economic Impact of Microsoft SQL Server, which suggests that an organization can realize a three-year net present value (NPV) of $8,728,150. "For the representative organization with 300 Microsoft SQL Servers connected to mission-critical applications, this translates to annual net benefits of more than $29,000 per server, per year; initial costs of $13,615 per server; and a three-year NPV of $15,695 per server."

When conducting the study, Forrester interviewed six customers and collected nearly 50 survey responses from other organizations.

To provide further incentive for customers to transition to the newer products in light of the looming SQL Server 2005 end-of-life deadline, Microsoft also offers tools to ease the migration process. The Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit, for example, can tell you what SQL Server instances are running on a network, and the SQL Server 2014 Upgrade Advisor can provide a detailed analysis of the SQL Server instances and components installed on a network so you can identify issues that might affect an upgrade.

You also can refer to the SQL Server 2014 Upgrade Technical Guide for specific details on how to upgrade SQL Server 2005 in different circumstances. There's even the Azure SQL Database Migration Wizard to ease the pain of a SQL Server 2005/SQL Database transition.

Is upgrading from SQL Server 2005 the right answer?

One detail that Microsoft tends to underplay when focusing on upgrade strategies is the cost of making such a move. The Forrester study states that a company with 30,000 employees would have to shell out $1.5 million in initial software licensing fees and $600,000 per year after that, plus another $1.8 million for training, planning and carrying out the migration.

The study suggests that, over the long haul, such a company should come out ahead, but you cannot assume that the savings realized by the sample companies will necessarily translate to your circumstances. Much depends on the type of data you're working with, the equipment used to support your environment, your organization's in-house expertise and a number of other factors.

Although migrating from one Microsoft product to another may be your easiest strategy, you might want to consider whether this is a good time to move away from the platform altogether. Would a non-Microsoft cloud service be a reasonable alternative? There are many more services out there than SQL Database -- certainly enough to warrant a thorough comparison. Or what about moving to an open source product such as MySQL? It might even be time to consider a different model altogether, at least for some of your data, away from the relational approach to systems such as NoSQL or Hadoop clusters.

In some cases, you might be able to continue with SQL Server 2005 beyond the April deadline. If you're running your systems in a secure environment, supporting only in-house operations on servers safely ensconced behind firewalls, you could probably limp along for a while. But this, likely, will be a temporary move at best.

SQL Server 2005 has had a good 10-year run, but that run is about to end. Organizations still operating the system will be up against their fair share of challenges, but they might also find this to be a time of opportunity -- as long as they don't wait too long to make their decisions.

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