Microsoft's SQL enterprise play faces challenges

Microsoft says the next release of its database software SQL Server 2005 puts to rest the notion that the product isn't meant for enterprise-sized businesses, but one industry observer says the program provider might have some trouble convincing large companies of that.

During his keynote speech Wednesday at TechEd, Microsoft's technology education conference being held in Orlando from June 5 to 10, Paul Flessner, senior vice-president of server applications, said the new SQL Server provides better failover functions to help keep databases up and running, and easier maintenance. For instance, SQL Server 2005 lets database administrators target specific data for offline fixes. In the past, SQL operators would have to take the entire database offline to fix data, he said. Microsoft has built upon the harsh lessons it learned about SQL security and uptime when the "Slammer" worm went wild a few years ago. This digital ne'er-do-well caused many a SQL shop to shut down its database. At Microsoft Slammer was "an unbelievable wake-up call" that security needed improvement, Flessner said.

He said Microsoft now has the security demon licked. Flessner presented a chart indicating that in 2004 there was just one critical update for SQL Server. There were 74 such patches required for Oracle's database, according to the chart. Oracle is a Microsoft competitor that claims its database is unbreakable, Flessner noted.

SQL Server 2005 offers "opt-in" features -- administrators must turn on the functions if they want to use them, Flessner said. Such active participation in server management is said to make the IT environment more secure, because there are no services running that the tech team didn't invoke itself.

The new SQL also provides password-policy enforcement for enhanced access security, and it has a best-practices analyzer, Flessner said. This tool takes insights that Microsoft collected from SQL forums and newsgroups, and applies them to the SQL install at hand for a solid, best-practice-enhanced implementation.

Michelle Warren, IT industry analyst at Evans Research in Toronto, said that despite the improvements, Microsoft faces an uphill battle to convince large companies that its database platform is ready for an enterprise audience. "That's their challenge today and tomorrow."

But she also said Microsoft would probably find a substantial SQL fan base among Canadian companies. The country's full of small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs), which tend to use Microsoft's wares.

One company using SQL Server 2005 (beta) is the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, a federal government operation that provides funding for new businesses in the Atlantic provinces. William Bembridge, the organization's senior systems integrator, said he's fond of SQL Server 2005's using XML as its native file format. It makes database info easier to parse and process. The agency has 1,000 user-employees, he said.

Business intelligence provider and Microsoft partner ThinkNet in Toronto also uses SQL Server 2005 in beta form. Hans Leuschner, the firm's vice-president of sales and marketing, said the reporting and analytic capabilities built into the SQL product make BI development atop the database software simpler. "That's a great feature for us."

Warren Shiau, an IT analyst at The Strategic Counsel in Toronto, noted that enterprises tended to shun SQL Server as an SMB product, but as Microsoft boosts the software's security and management capabilities, "it will be interesting to see how Oracle reacts to that," he said. Oracle's wares are considered to be best suited for big corporations.

Tom Rizzo, Microsoft's director, SQL Server product management, said Barnes & Noble, the book retailer, uses the 2005 version of the software for a 2TB database.

"We're continuing to move up in the enterprise," he said, adding that some large companies using Oracle or IBM's databases at the core of their information systems use SQL Server for branch and department deployments. "We will surround and starve out our competitors."

Microsoft said it plans to launch SQL Server 2005 officially on Nov. 7, alongside the latest edition of its IDE Visual Studio and its enterprise application integration subsystem BizTalk Server.

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Stefan Dubowski

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