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Five SQL Server database trends to be prepared for in 2018

Here's a list of notable trends related to SQL Server that IT teams should be ready for over the next 12 months. Among them: increased use of the cloud, AI, Linux and containers.

The pace of change in IT seems to accelerate every year, and that's certainly the case for SQL Server. This year saw the release of SQL Server 2017, which followed on the heels of the 2016 version with added support for Linux, Python and more.

But there's no time to relax: SQL Server database administrators need to be ready for a host of additional changes and new technologies in 2018. Let's take a look at five major SQL Server database trends that database administrators (DBAs), developers and IT managers should be on top of as we head into the next 12 months.

Security threats and adoption of SQL Server 2016/2017. If it wasn't already squarely a top priority for IT organizations, data security should have been pushed there by the recent rash of ransomware attacks, like Petya, and high-profile data breaches at companies such as Equifax, which exposed the personal data of as many as 143 million U.S. residents, and Uber, which allowed hackers to access 57 million user accounts.

SQL Server 2016 introduced several new security features, including Always Encrypted, row-level security and dynamic data masking, and SQL Server 2017 further boosted the database engine's security capabilities with expanded administrative credentials and new configuration options for .NET common language runtime assemblies.

Adoption of new SQL Server releases is typically slow because users are wary of changing systems that are working smoothly, but these continued threats and hacks give businesses good reasons to increase their security measures throughout all the levels of the application stack, including the database stack.

Continued cloud growth. If you went to the PASS Summit 2017 user group conference in the fall, or if you heard from anyone who did, you know that Microsoft is all about the cloud. The Azure platform is Microsoft's future, and it's clear that cloud usage is growing fast, and it will continue to do so in 2018.

It's clear that cloud usage is growing fast, and it will continue to do so in 2018.

SQL Server database trends also point toward the cloud: Azure SQL Database has now reached programming parity with the on-premises version of SQL Server. At PASS Summit, Rohan Kumar, general manager of Microsoft's database systems group, told the audience about Microsoft's cloud-first release cadence, in which new features and innovations are tested and implemented in the cloud database before making it into the on-premises product.

While DBAs usually aren't first in line to embrace the cloud, the benefits of doing so continue to grow, and the barriers to adoption continue to shrink. Keeping up with Azure SQL Database and the related cloud data management services is becoming more important than ever.

AI-infused databases. There's no doubt that AI is now the hottest buzzword in IT. It seems like almost every IT product is now suddenly AI-enabled, and SQL Server is no exception. In an April 2017 blog post, Joseph Sirosh, now corporate vice president in charge of Microsoft's cloud AI platform group, touted SQL Server as "the first RDBMS [relational database management system] with built-in AI."

What does built-in AI for an RDBMS really mean? In essence, Microsoft is referring to the fact that AI functionality provided by the Machine Learning Services component of SQL Server 2017 enables users to incorporate machine learning and AI libraries written in R or Python into routines that can run on SQL Server systems; this enables analytics applications to be executed where the data is hosted rather than needing to first surface it to another application layer. SQL Server DBAs and developers need to understand how these AI design patterns can work with the database platform.

SQL Server on Linux and in containers. Clearly, two of the biggest changes with SQL Server 2017 are its support for Linux and Docker containers, both of which could have a big impact on future database trends. The SQL Server 2017 release on Linux has proven to be a high-performing platform, already having set some TPC benchmark records.

While the addition of Linux support opens up SQL Server for open source implementations, it also means that SQL Server DBAs who once only needed to deal with Windows may now need to get some basic Linux skills under their belts.

Likewise, while still in its infancy, container support helps SQL Server move toward a continuous integration and continuous deployment cycle that fits better into the growing DevOps development paradigm. While it may still be a bit early to bring SQL Server containers into production, they're great for developers and testers.

Containers can turn SQL Server into a component that is easy and quick to deploy, with no lengthy installation needed. You also have the option of combining a SQL Server instance and its data into a single package, making your SQL Server development environment easy to recreate and share with different teams.

The new SQL Server software update cycle. One of the biggest pain points in IT today is keeping up with security patches and software updates -- and one of the biggest new database trends that DBAs will need to cope with in 2018 is the changing update cycle for SQL Server.

Starting with SQL Server 2017, Microsoft is no longer using the old model under which cumulative updates (CUs) were released every two months and service packs (SPs) containing all the fixes from the preceding CUs were released once a year.

The company won't deliver SPs anymore -- there will only be CUs, which will be delivered more often at first, and then less frequently. At this point, Microsoft plans to issue a CU every month for the first 12 months after a major version of SQL Server is released, and then once per quarter for the remainder of the five-year product lifecycle. For older releases, the last SP establishes a new product baseline; CUs will then be provided every 12 months or so.

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