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Project Houston offers cloud alternative for SSMS

Microsoft’s new Silverlight-based app provides database management from a browser, a convenience that could be extended to non-cloud databases in time.

Microsoft continues to add to its cloud platform with a new tool designed to provide SQL Azure database management – without SQL Server.

Currently dubbed Project Houston, the software is a free Microsoft Silverlight-based application that developers and DBAs can use to connect directly to SQL Azure from a browser. The company released a community technical preview (CTP) for the app in late July.

Before Houston, users were required to run SQL Server Management Studio (SSMS) 2008 R2 to connect to SQL Azure. This was fine for machines already running SQL Server 2008 R2 where SQL Azure support comes built in. Otherwise, users were forced to download and install SSMS 2008 R2 Express to access their SQL Azure databases, a process that Microsoft program manager Dan Jones recently described as a less-than-practical solution.

Project Houston, on the other hand, requires only Microsoft Silverlight to connect to SQL Azure. From there, users can create database objects and tables, write and edit stored procedures, run queries and perform other tasks similar to what they can do with SQL Server Management Studio Express.

Roger Jennings, principal consultant with California-based OakLeaf Systems, said he was impressed with Houston’s functionality, but added that its only real benefit seems to be the lack of SSMS requirement.

“I was able to do everything they advertised that you could do, but of course you can do the same thing with SSMS,” he said. “I think that Houston was basically an exercise in hardcore Silverlight programming -- a demonstration that it was relatively easy to write a front end for a SQL Azure cloud database.”

The value of Project Houston could expand over time. Mark Kromer, a data platform technology specialist with Microsoft, said that the long-term plan is for Houston to support SQL Server Express and other databases in the enterprise.

“A lot of people use tools similar to Houston today to manage their off-premise SQL Server databases, so there is more and more pressure [for Microsoft] to do that,” he said.

The timetable for enterprise functionality beyond SQL Azure is unclear. For now, Kromer said that some organizations have already begun to test Houston for development databases. The idea is to allow for in-and-out testing and development through SQL Azure, without requiring developers to “get dangerous with SSMS,” he said.

Houston could potentially expand to non-IT scenarios, as well. Jennings noted that the Silverlight-based interface could make the app a good fit for in-house demos and presentations. “It might be a good demo for C-level executives,” he said. “People would probably use that rather than SSMS for executive briefings because it’s a little flashier.”

Originally hosted in Microsoft’s North Central U.S. data center, Houston was recently added to all Microsoft data centers for SQL Azure. The CTP is currently available at the SQL Azure Labs site, and Oakleaf Systems’ Jennings said he’d be surprised if Microsoft made any major changes before its official release.

“I think this CTP is it,” he said. “For now, I don’t think you could justify investing a lot more money into that app when you consider the limited benefits it provides.”

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