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Microsoft bulks up SQL Server scalability to rival buff competition

Better SQL Server scalability and lower costs have furthered Microsoft’s reach in recent years, industry observers say, and that’s good, because the competition is big and knows the turf well.

Small may be beautiful, but in the world of data management, big is the reality. And for many SQL Server watchers, the growing scalability of Microsoft’s enterprise database --combined with its lower costs -- fits that reality nicely.

SQL Server scalability -- how big it can expand in terms of volume, transactions and how many users it can handle -- has ballooned in recent years, said Don Feinberg, an analyst at Connecticut-based Gartner Inc. Traditionally, SQL Server has been relegated to departmental use, he said; however, since the release of the 2005 version, scalability has magnified and SQL Server can handle thousands of users.

“We have many clients who run their whole company on SQL Server. And yes, it can do it and it does it just fine,” Feinberg said.

Among Microsoft scalability assets is its Parallel Data Warehouse, the high-performance appliance for business intelligence environments, according to Gavin Payne, an independent SQL Server consultant in the U.K. Once businesses do the initial hardware upgrade, he said, they can scale out to support applications of colossal proportions. “SQL Server scales and Windows will scale,” Payne said.

But Microsoft’s efforts at providing such levels of scalability are by no means unique, said Mark Beyer, another Gartner analyst. Parallel Data Warehouse, he said, is a “me-too” strategy, pointing out that Exadata, Netezza, Teradata, IBM and others have similar applications. “There is not a distinct advantage except that it is SQL Server,” he said. “If you already had SQL Server and you like it you can keep it,” he said.

Plus, he said, Microsoft is too late in entering the market to attract much migration from other vendors. And because it is late, “it is more of a perimeter defense for Microsoft,” he said, Redmond’s way of saying it has a way for small and midsize companies to grow to a bigger warehouse.

“It is legitimate for that, and any perimeter defense for a vendor is appreciated by the stockholders. It will keep people from migrating off of SQL Server,” he said.

But Payne said lower-cost Microsoft gives companies more for their dollar than the Intel-fueled competition. An Oracle database running on Sun hardware could probably provide higher performance, he said, but the cost would make it inaccessible for most. 

One option that bargain-hunting companies are going for is SQL Server Fast Track, said Brian Knight, president and founder of Pragmatic Works, a SQL Server-focused consultancy in Middleburg, Fla. Fast Track is a lower cost data warehouse appliance that comes with a reference architecture, an arrangement of components and guidelines designed for particular business situations. “With Fast Track, Microsoft has commoditized SQL Server so it is one of the cheapest costs per transaction you can get with SQL,” he said.

There’s another feature with the potential to boost SQL Server scalability, Feinberg said -- AlwaysOn, a high-availability feature that will be packaged with the upcoming SQL Server 2012. First announced at the Professional Association for SQL Server’s PASS Summit in 2010, the technology is designed to keep clusters of computers working toward high availability while scaling out, and it lets IT send backups to a secondary replica, lightening I/O and processing loads on the main servers. “That is a much anticipated version of high availability for SQL Server 2012,” he said.

“Microsoft has been testing and Microsoft expects people to switch because of that,” Feinberg said. “So effectively with 2012, a mission-critical workload that requires high availability is going to be totally doable with SQL Server,” he said.

But Feinberg has yet to hear from anyone who has used beta versions of AlwaysOn. All the hype, he said, “is all according to Microsoft. It isn’t proven yet with references.”

Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology.

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