Is SQL Server 2005 an Irresistible Proposition?

For perhaps the first time ever, SQL Server boosters are talking about taking on the other guys’ databases—and winning

As Microsoft Corp shipped its long-awaited SQL Server 2005 database last week, it didn't take long for the superlatives to fly. Perhaps you heard that SQL Server 2005 is Microsoft’s most important database release ever, or that SQL Server 2005 closes the performance gap with database rivals IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. And you might also be aware that SQL Server 2005 isn’t just a relational database, but a one-stop shop for all of your OLAP, ETL, end-user reporting, and data mining needs, too.

To the extent that SQL Server 2005 has been five years in the making and at least a couple of years late to the party, it’s a crucial—if not pivotal—release for Microsoft, says Mike Schiff, a principal with data warehousing and business intelligence (BI) consultancy MAS Strategies. But there’s a more important consequence of Microsoft’s SQL Server 2005 launch event: It could soon be coming to a data center near you.

For perhaps the first time ever, SQL Server boosters are talking about taking on competing databases—and winning. It’s all thanks to SQL Server 2005’s value proposition, which includes a best-of-breed developer environment (Visual Studio 2005), native support for developer-friendly languages such as C, C#, and Visual Basic (in addition to SQL Server’s bread-and-butter T-SQL), and improved integration with Microsoft’s increasingly BI-oriented Office productivity applications.

Then there’s Microsoft’s trump card: price. Though SQL Server 2005 will cost more than its predecessor, but it’s still priced to move—at least relative to the competition.

Add it all up, some SQL Server proponents say, and you’ve got an almost irresistible proposition.

“Having a powerful scriptable Integration Services [an ETL tool], a more powerful scripted Analysis Services [for OLAP and data mining], the unified approach to relational and multidimensional [data], the notification services—all of those things come together to allow me to drive much lower TCO for our customers,” says Clay Young, senior vice-president of strategic marketing with a Microsoft-centric BI vendor. “For just the relational database, you could spend $250,000. For data integration, you could spend another $80,000 or $90,000. For the OLAP technologies, you could spend even more. But this gets very expensive, and I challenge you to prove that SQL Server 2005 is inferior to the relational or OLAP stack of any other vendor on the market.”

What strikes one person as SQL Server’s Achilles’ Heel might strike another as its strongest point—namely, its Windows-only platform support. IBM, Oracle, Sybase, MySQL, and other databases provide at least some degree of flexibility with respect to platform support, but SQL Server runs only on Windows.

In the past, Young concedes, this might have limited SQL Server’s appeal, but with SQL Server 2005’s considerably more robust ETL capabilities and Web services support (including native support for XML and Web services standards), this isn’t necessarily a liability. Besides, he says, almost every organization already has Windows in-house. Chances are the skills are already there—and with ETL and Web services connectivity, SQL Server 2005 can make nice with your other systems, too, including zSeries mainframes and iSeries servers.

“It supports a multitude of platforms, so if you’ve got Oracle running on Linux, you’ve got DB2 running on the mainframe, or you’ve got the Google Web service running, Integration Services can pull from all of those,” said Tom Rizzo, director of product management for SQL Server with Microsoft, in an interview earlier this year.

Organizations can do more than simply extract data from mainframe or iSeries depositories, too. Thanks to SQL Server 2005’s support for value-added services—such as data mining, text mining, and even data quality (via the new SQL Server Integration Services)—officials such as Rizzo position it as a kind of information hub for the heterogeneous enterprise.

“We have transformations in the pipeline, so you can do things like text mining, or analysis of the data as it flows through the pipeline, and then we can put that back out to any data source, like DB2 on the mainframe, so it’s a real Swiss Army knife,” Rizzo explained.

SQL Server 2005: No Free Lunch?

When Microsoft first bundled OLAP and ETL functionality with SQL Server 7.0, it positioned these BI add-ons as icing on the cake: Buy SQL Server and you get the BI tools for free. This has never been quite true, of course. SQL Server 7.0 cost more than its predecessor, SQL Server 6.5—just as SQL Server 2000 cost more when it shipped than SQL Server 7.0.

With SQL Server 2005, that trend continues. In fact, SQL Server 2005 Standard Edition costs 20 percent more per-processor than its predecessor, while SQL Server Enterprise Edition ups the ante by 25 percent per CPU. Of course, there’s only so much that any market can bear, and in the price-sensitive SQL Server arena, is there a danger that Microsoft is pushing too hard? In other words, if SQL Server 2000, with its integrated OLAP, ETL, and reporting capabilities, was a good buy at $5,000 per processor, is SQL Server 2005—even with significantly improved OLAP, ETL, and reporting features—worth $6,000 a processor?

Most users seem to think so. Take Jeffrey Shain, a SQL programmer with a prominent media and entertainment Web site. Interviewed earlier this year, Shain said he didn’t know how his company’s bean counters would respond to Microsoft’s SQL Server 2005 price hike, but speculated that if there was value to be had in upgrading, his company would almost certainly do so. “As a matter of common sense, I doubt any customer with shallow pockets will respond to the price increase favorably,” he observes. “That being said, if the new features allow [them] to expand [or] grow [their] business, I don't see a problem. The upgrade must present a significant value to the client.”

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