Ahead of the Curve: 'Better together' rings true

From the viewpoint of skeptics, SQL Server 2005 and Microsoft's whole "better together" campaign are clever levers for strong-armed upgrades and whole-catalog purchases. It's clear that Microsoft is targeting Unix competitors with an enterprise portfolio focused on integration and out-of-the-box functionality. Better together. Sounds a lot like "lock yourself in, you'll love it."

And yet slowly, Microsoft is making togetherness valuable for its customers. SQL Server 2005 joins Visual Studio 2005, Virtual Server 2005, and Windows 2003 Server R2 as products that work better together because their requirements were driven by Microsoft's most demanding customer: Microsoft. Maybe you see Microsoft as The Evil Empire, but it is a large enterprise, a massive development shop, a consumer of gigantic high-availability databases, and an outfit whose day-to-day business hinges on its IT infrastructure. I eschew "better together" for its snake oiliness. I prefer "reality based," because that's a measure of the worth of Microsoft's new approach that customers can grasp and judge. Reality is the only design and purchase criteria that matters, and Microsoft is getting hip to that idea. Enlightenment, in this case, is coming from within.

I know, I know. I wouldn't buy it either if I hadn't had frank discussions with Microsoft's IT leaders and chiefs in Microsoft's Tools Group. When Microsoft IT was a separate entity and developers operated in their own universe, it did as all Windows shops do, waving off portions of Microsoft's latest enterprise portfolio and customer-targeted best practices in favor of internally developed total solutions of a variety you'll find familiar: Hacks, workarounds, and older, known-stable versions of Microsoft software. Endless surveys of external customers weren't nearly as revealing as a recent golf-cart ride across Microsoft's campus to the offices of people who bring their dogs to work. You feel reality in Windows 2003 Server R2, Virtual Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005, and now, SQL Server 2005. Microsoft's blogs, open access to Microsoft's issue tracking system, and massive public trials of fully functional software kept Microsoft in touch with the outside world's reality.

Our review of SQL Server 2005 makes it clear, I think, that Microsoft's reality-based product strategy has legs companywide. Nothing lends itself better to isolated, competitive marketing-based development than a DBMS, but for all of those who will depend on SQL Server 2005, Microsoft's database was a known quantity well before it shipped. Practically the whole project was transparent to customers.

Microsoft's faith in the viability of reality-based product development is most apparent in its programs to make many of its most prized enterprise solutions available in fully functional, freely downloadable form with evaluation terms of several months to a full year. At this point, I see the deep "better together" integration only in the software I listed earlier: Windows Server, Visual Studio, and SQL Server. It will take time for the rest of the catalog to get wired into reality-based product design and development. Because Microsoft is giving out free tickets, however, ignore the sales pitch and go see the show yourself. Even if the extended trials don't move you to upgrade, you'll see a palpable, relevant change in Microsoft's approach to enterprise products. And expect IT, DBAs, and developers to march on the executive offices and demand to take over the company. After all, if it worked for Microsoft.

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