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What do new SQL Server Standard Edition features mean for IT?

Which SQL Server edition is right for you? After Microsoft upgraded the Standard Edition with features from the Enterprise one, a lower cost choice might be possible in some cases.

For many years, Microsoft has offered multiple editions of SQL Server to meet varying customer needs. Suddenly, though, the differences between the editions aren't as great as they were before -- and that could save SQL Server users some money.

The lineup is still the same. There's Express, a free, lightweight edition of SQL Server that can only be used for really small jobs -- its maximum database size is 10 GB. There's Developer, also free; as the name implies, it's for development environments, with all of SQL Server's features included. And for production deployments, Microsoft offers SQL Server Standard Edition and Enterprise Edition; the former offers a partial set of features, while the latter is a fully feature-rich edition that comes at a premium cost.

However, things have started to change within that simple, cut-and-dried licensing model. With SQL Server 2016 Service Pack 1, Microsoft has blurred the lines between the Standard and Enterprise editions, as well as the Express one.

As part of the SP1 release, Microsoft has upgraded the SQL Server 2016 Standard and Express editions to include some of the features that have historically been available only to Enterprise Edition customers. That's of particularly interest to Standard Edition users, and it raises two questions. First, which features are now available in Standard Edition? And second, why would Microsoft do this?

More than a token gesture

Microsoft hasn't just added one or two Enterprise Edition features to SQL Server Standard Edition. According to Microsoft, the added features include:

  • Its in-memory online transaction processing and columnstore index technologies, designed to boost transaction processing and analytical querying performance and to enable real-time operational analytics against transactional databases;
  • Partitioning, data compression and other data warehousing features;
  • Support for PolyBase, a technology that lets users run queries across sets of structured and unstructured data; and
  • Security features, such as Always Encrypted, which keeps sensitive data encrypted from database administrators who aren't authorized to view it, and fine-grained auditing, which collects detailed information on database usage for regulatory compliance reporting.

Microsoft's official explanation for the enhancements to SQL Server 2016 Standard Edition is that it wants "to make it easier than ever for developers and partners to build and upgrade applications that take advantage of advanced performance, security and data mart capabilities." Although that seems plausible, there are at least a couple of other equally viable explanations.

One is that Microsoft is aiming to sell more SQL Server 2016 licenses. It hasn't been that long since SQL Server 2014 was released, and, initially, there might not have been enough of a difference between that version and SQL Server 2016 to entice many Standard Edition customers to upgrade. By adding some of the Enterprise Edition features to SQL Server 2016 Standard Edition, Microsoft can effectively create a substantial difference between it and SQL Server 2014 Standard Edition.

In addition to driving some SQL Server 2014 customers to upgrade, the added features will also almost certainly be enough to make many of Microsoft's customers who still run even older versions of SQL Server give serious consideration to an upgrade.

Scalability as a licensing differentiator

Another plausible reason for the changes is that Microsoft is trying to simplify its SQL Server licensing. Rather than separate its SQL Server licenses by the underlying feature set, Microsoft may base the edition choice primarily on scalability in the future.

Just as there are SQL Server Standard and Enterprise editions, Microsoft offers two principal editions of Windows Server. In Windows Server 2016, both the Standard and Datacenter editions provide the core operating system functionality. Some advanced features, such as software-defined networking, are available only in the latter offering. But the biggest difference is one of scale: The Datacenter Edition supports an unlimited number of operating system environments or Hyper-V containers, while the Standard Edition only supports two.

Similarly, the Standard Edition of SQL Server 2016 is limited to 24 processor cores, while the Enterprise Edition can handle an unlimited number of cores. Standard Edition also has memory capacity limitations that aren't an issue with Enterprise Edition.

The two editions still aren't completely identical to one another in terms of features -- some advanced functionality remains available in SQL Server Enterprise Edition only. But things may be headed in that direction.

Microsoft has already indicated that SQL Server developers "can now build to a common programming surface across all editions … and use the edition which scales to the application's needs."

In cases where SQL Server Standard Edition will now suffice, that could mean significant savings for users that might have been forced to buy Enterprise Edition before. Per-core licenses for the two editions list for $3,717 and $14,256, respectively.

No matter Microsoft's intentions, the inclusion of more Enterprise Edition features in the Standard Edition of SQL Server 2016 SP1 is a clear win for customers. More users may be able to get by with Standard Edition now, and IT shops that are running older versions of SQL Server should consider whether an upgrade to SQL Server 2016 might be beneficial to their applications.

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