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SQL Server Denali overshadows the Azure cloud for attendees at Microsoft TechEd

Cloud was the word at Microsoft TechEd, but attendees’ interest was rooted in SQL Server Denali, the upcoming version of the database that will be released in a CTP this summer.

ATLANTA -- Out of the handful of SQL Server-related announcements to come out of Microsoft TechEd this week, what resonated with audiences most was old news: SQL Server Denali.

During a SQL Server educational session Monday, Quentin Clark, corporate vice president in Microsoft’s database systems group, told a packed room of IT pros that the next community technology preview (CTP) of the upcoming release of SQL Server would come out sometime this summer.

The first CTP of Denali, code name for Microsoft’s enterprise database release aimed at high availability, enriched business intelligence (BI) capabilities and lightning-fast query speeds, was released at November’s Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) conference in Seattle. At this week's TechEd North America 2011 show, Microsoft touted enhancements to the cloud database SQL Azure that make it easier for organizations to move to the cloud and manage databases there. However, attendees were really thirsting for more information on Denali -- and a faster schedule.

“It’s not enough,” Geert van Horrik said of Clark’s announcement regarding the next CTP. “I want to know when it is RTM [release to manufacturing].”

Van Horrik, senior developer at a Dutch startup called DreamTeam, said he’s most looking forward to what Microsoft introduced as Project Juneau back in November. The feature, tentatively named SQL Server Development Tools, will let developers work right from a familiar development environment, Visual Studio, and includes enhanced coding and language support.

To van Horrik and a pair of developer colleagues, also at the conference, this makes all the difference. “Because we are not SQL experts,” he said.

Another feature of SQL Server Denali that generated interest at TechEd was Project Crescent, Microsoft’s Web-based reporting and visualization tool first introduced and demoed by Microsoft lead BI architect Amir Netz at the PASS Summit. The feature was not included in the first CTP.

In a keynote presentation promoting the cloud as what’s big and current in efficiently-run IT operations, Netz put the spotlight on SQL Server with a lively presentation of Crescent’s reporting capabilities. It was virtually the same show as at PASS. In seconds, sample box office data took shape as a bubble chart that was then animated to show movie sales over time. And Netz demonstrated the super-fast VertiPaq technology behind Crescent, which allows near-instant querying and importing of more than 2 billion rows of data. “This is beyond wicked fast,” Netz said. “This is the engine of the devil.”

Brand-new or not, Crescent made an impression on attendees.

Donnie Meeks, a programmer and analyst from Tallahassee Community College in Florida, liked Crescent’s simpler way of building BI models, making it easier for less technical users to build reports. This makes it a swift arrow in Microsoft’s quiver of BI tools such as Report Builder and Excel, he said.

“Crescent’s just a slicker look and looks like it’s going to be the easiest one of all.”

And what’s better for the user is better for IT folks like Meeks. “It frees my time to do other things that are less tedious than building reports for users,” he said.

Following a session demonstrating more of Crescent’s capabilities, Vicki Bright, a BI analyst for construction company Fluor Corp. in Greenville, S.C., shared the enthusiasm for the BI tool.

“I can’t wait to see it and put my hands on it,” Bright said, adding that the level of security the tool supports is one thing she will need to evaluate. “You need to have your hands on it before you say to your boss, ‘Buy this.’”

She might not have long to wait. Burley Kawasaki, product management director Microsoft’s business platform division, wouldn’t give specifics on whether Crescent would make the summer CTP, saying only that Microsoft is seeking public opinion on all Denali features.

“Customers’ feedback is the final test to detect how close or far away we are,” Kawasaki said.

Yet Microsoft did have some new things to announce, like Project Austin, which takes SQL Server complex-event processing and lets users look at events as they happen, to SQL Azure.

“You can take real time action and query against it,” Kawasaki said, adding that the action on stock trading floors and in the energy grid could be analyzed using the technology. “It’s exactly the same experience in SQL Azure as in SQL Server.”

The technology will be available in a CTP that will come out later this year.

But the best news of all was buried deep in an expert technical session, according to Andrew Novick, a consultant at Novick Software Inc. It was SQL Azure Federations, a yet-to-be-released technology that addresses the limited size and computational capacity that customers get with SQL Azure and offers scalability options.

Novick said the trick to getting that extra capacity is sharding, a type of partitioning that breaks a database down into pieces, or shards, and distributes them across multiple servers.

SQL Azure Federations, introduced at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) last year, lets you build applications with “unlimited scalability”by scaling out across database nodes in Microsoft’s cluster, according to Cihan Biyikoglu, program manager for SQL Azure. Biyikoglu said the technology enhances the pay-for-what-you-use model, giving a florist that extra database capacity he needs to process all those orders on Mother’s Day, for example.

“This really give you support for scaling out,” Novick said, “for moving your data around.” When that demand levels off, you can put that data into a smaller number of databases.

Biyikoglu said Microsoft plans to release the feature this year.

Other SQL Azure developments were revealed amid a flood of cloud-related announcements during Monday’s keynote speech. One of them is the DAC Framework 1.1 import/export feature, which makes it easier to move databases from solid-ground SQL Server to SQL Azure. It’s used in conjunction with SQL Azure Data Sync, a service that synchronizes on-premises and cloud data.

“It gives DBAs [database administrators a very flexible and portable way for moving data,” Kawasaki said.

Another SQL Azure update allows for managing cloud databases from a web API (application programming interface). Called REST (representational state transfer) API, the technology is designed to configure firewall rules created when new customers sign on to Azure, therefore mitigating management headaches, according to Microsoft.

The new features, which will release in an update this summer, are part of Microsoft’s overall cloud vision of delivering a Platform as a Service, what Kawasaki called a “higher level” of products to customers.

“We’re not just taking existing products and hosting this in the cloud,” he said. “We are actually thinking of these things as true services that are optimized for the cloud.”

And according to Novick, the developments carried weight. The company started from behind a line of cloud competitors, he said, but has done a fine job catching up.

“The Microsoft story is getting better and better,” Novick said. “The difficulty of moving to the cloud is getting less and less.”

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