Microsoft Bets the Farm on SQL Server 7.0

Ask any database administrator confidentially over a drink or two about the suitability of Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server 6.5 database for enterprise environments and you may get a laugh. SQL Server 6.5 has never been considered an enterprise database of the same mettle as DB/2 from IBM Corp. or Oracle 8 from Oracle Corp. However, while both competitors have developed ever bigger, more powerful versions of their already capable RDBMSs, SQL Server 6.5 has chugged along relatively unchanged since its introduction in April 1996. With the forthcoming introduction of SQL Server 7.0, Microsoft Corp. hopes to field a relational database product that can challenge seasoned competitors such as IBM and Oracle.

"We're definitely looking at DB/2 and Oracle; they're good databases, but we think we can do a lot better," says Microsoft product manager of SQL Server marketing John Nordlinger at the time of SQL Server 7.0’s second beta release.

Enterprise customers will soon get an opportunity to discover for themselves just how much Microsoft thinks it can improve upon the capabilities of seasoned RDBMSs like DB/2 and Oracle 8. The third and final beta of SQL Server 7.0 was distributed to more than 50,000 customers in early July, an event that -- according to Microsoft -- marked the largest beta distribution ever done by an RDBMS vendor. As it now stands, SQL Server 7.0 could even be slated for delivery by the end of 1998.

SQL Server 6.5 has long lacked capabilities that many database administrators take for granted, such as query processing that supports parallel execution, the ability to query both ODBC and OLE DB sources and increased size limits for pages, rows and tables. All such technologies will be included in SQL Server 7.0, but perhaps most importantly, SQL Server 7.0 will provide support for row-level locking, a technology required by many ERP suites, such as R/3 from SAP America (Wayne, Pa.,

SQL Server 7.0 will also feature an integrated management console, in addition to improved replication technology that allows SQL Server to replicate to other databases.

Microsoft will also bundle its Plato OLAP Server with SQL Server 7.0, a decision that Robert Craig, director of data warehousing research with analyst firm Hurwitz Group (Newton, Mass., believes could drive acceptance for OLAP on a broad scale. "My perception is that Microsoft is going to have a big impact on this marketplace when Plato becomes available later this year," Craig acknowledges. "The key strategy is that Microsoft is going to bring OLAP to the masses, so we’ll see how that works out."

Feature rich or not, SQL Server 7.0 will likely have its work cut out for it. For much of the last year, Microsoft has steadily been losing share to Oracle on its Windows NT platform, with Oracle capturing 41.5 percent of market share and Microsoft netting only 38.8 percent, according to market research firm Dataquest (San Jose, Calif.). Still more importantly, while SQL Server 7.0 may ship with its new Plato OLAP Server, it offers little help in the way of handling the non-traditional geo-spatial and other object types supported by the DB/2 and Oracle 8 universal servers from IBM and Oracle.

Microsoft must also contend with a less-than-stellar enterprise reputation that could harm acceptance of an otherwise first rate RDBMS, analysts say.