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Microsoft previews SQL Server on Linux, opens features across editions

Microsoft looks to broaden the horizons of SQL Server, as it moves some Enterprise features to Standard Edition and issues the first public preview of a release supporting SQL Server on Linux.

Microsoft this week made SQL Server 2016 Service Pack 1 generally available, and it released an initial public preview of SQL Server running on Linux. Both moves are intended to promote wider use of the flagship database, as well as its more recent feature additions.

SQL Server 2016 SP1 adds a consistent programming model across the different editions of the software. The programming updates mean several advanced features previously limited to solely the top-of-the-line SQL Server Enterprise Edition are now supported in some form on SQL Server Standard Edition. Even SQL Server Express developers can get in on the action, as the wider programming model encompasses that platform, too.

Meanwhile, the support for SQL Server on Linux now openly available in preview mode moves the database onto an operating system commonly found in the modern enterprise, opening a whole new field for deployment.

Among the features now supported across the Enterprise, Standard and Express versions of the software are data warehouse partitioning and data compression, as well as Always Encrypted, row-level security and dynamic data masking.

All kinds of development shops have grappled with the problem of maintaining different Enterprise and Standard versions of their software, as well as sometimes spotty use of compression and encryption features. However, the effects have been especially felt among independent software vendors (ISVs), according to Mike Walsh, founder and owner of Straight Path IT Solutions, a SQL Server consultancy and managed service provider based in Milton, N.H.

"A lot of vendors were using compression, but their customers had to buy SQL Enterprise to use that feature," he said. "ISVs had to have two versions of their software to deal with it."

But it isn't just ISVs that felt the problem. The split in SQL Server affected users, too -- ones who might have not needed the Enterprise Edition's high scalability, but had to buy it to get features like row-level encryption, an important factor for compliance, said Walsh, who is also a Microsoft SQL Server MVP and a blogger.

Read the SQL Server small print

There are caveats. Still not included across Standard and Express are various high availability, data management and business intelligence features that Microsoft has brought to SQL Server Enterprise, such as its Always On Availability Groups, Master Data Services and Data Quality Services technologies.

It's true that with a common development model across editions, programmers can work with a wider set of SQL Server features. But jobs that need highly scaled processing likely will still remain the province of SQL Server Enterprise.

Developers can program in-database analytics with R, in-memory online transaction processing (OLTP) and column-store data warehousing jobs -- all highly touted features of SQL Server 2016 -- but the maximum number of processor cores supported are four and 24 for Express and Standard, respectively. Meanwhile, SQL Server Enterprise Edition supports an unlimited number of processor cores.

For Walsh and others, however, the support for a common programming model is an important step forward.

"Companies have begun doing column stores and OLTP in memory, and I think adoption will grow. These features allow better data retrieval and analytics," he said. "But I'm actually more excited about the broader use of immediately practical features like encryption and table partitioning, no matter how many cores are used."

Driving new apps on SQL Server

Microsoft's efforts on SQL Server 2016 SP1 will ease use of advanced features and remove obstacles developers now face, according to Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of the company's cloud and enterprise technologies group. Guthrie described the SQL Server enhancements, and a wide array of other product initiatives, at Microsoft's Connect(); 2016 developers conference in New York.

"Cool programming model features, like in-memory database analytics support, as well as Always Encrypted support, have only been available with the enterprise editions of SQL Server," Guthrie said. "This has been a barrier for developers and ISVs because it requires always having the most expensive version of SQL [Server].”

Among the new initiatives Guthrie discussed were Docker support for SQL Server, general availability of Azure Data Lake Analytics and Store, and a preview of Visual Studio for Mac, the latter a clear sign the company is working to fulfill promises for greater openness.

SQL on Linux a nod to openness

But the biggest nod to openness may be the Linux port. At the conference, Microsoft issued the first public preview of its promised SQL Server on Linux offering, which will be part of the next release of the database, currently referred to as SQL Server vNext. "We think it will enable a whole new opportunity to drive new data applications on SQL [Server]," Guthrie said.

SQL Server's entry into Linux opens the database to use in areas Microsoft previously ceded to other players, according to Merv Adrian, a Gartner analyst.

"For users who will not use Windows, for whatever reason, SQL Server is a credible and capable option," he said. "And for those using both environments, it provides an opportunity to leverage existing skills and enhance portability."

For Straight Path's Walsh, SQL Server on Linux is an affordable, feature-rich alternative to other offerings -- and proof Microsoft is ready to adjust to meet wider user needs.

"These moves show that when Microsoft says they will meet you where you are, they mean it," Walsh said.

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