SQL Server Launch Tests Microsoft

Microsoft Corp.’s launch of SQL Server 7.0 this week at Comdex in Las Vegas is more than a major upgrade to its flagship database. The launch has broad ramifications for the data warehousing industry, where vendors have been fretting for months about how Microsoft’s entry -- with its free bundling of products such as OLAP tools -- will affect their bottom lines. Some observers say Microsoft’s reputation in the enterprise is also on the line.

Microsoft Corp.’s launch of SQL Server 7.0 this week at Comdex in Las Vegas is more than a major upgrade to its flagship database. The launch has broad ramifications for the data warehousing industry, where vendors have been fretting for months about how Microsoft’s entry -- with its free bundling of products such as OLAP tools -- will affect their bottom lines.

But Microsoft’s reputation in the enterprise also is on the line, observers say.

"It’s not since Exchange release 5 or NT release 3.5 that we’ve seen such interest in a BackOffice-related product," says Sam Jadallah, vice president of Microsoft’s organization customer unit. The first major upgrade to SQL Server since version 6.5 came out in April 1996, version 7.0 has been in beta testing since June 1997. "We shipped over 100,000 betas of SQL 7, which makes us the largest beta test cycle in the relational database market," Jadallah says.

Analyst Dwight Davis of Summit Strategies (Boston) agrees with Jadallah that version 7.0 is a breakthrough product, but he says that brings special pressures. "The database sector is one where Microsoft really needs to prove it’s bona fide," Davis says. "This is a critical product in part for Microsoft in terms of the timing, just for the fact that it hasn’t been able to deliver Windows 2000/NT 5. [Microsoft] is certainly marshalling all of its resources to present SQL 7 as an enterprise-grade product."

There is no question SQL Server 7.0 is an order of magnitude above version 6.5 in features and functionality. What Microsoft must show is that the improvements put it on par with the offerings from competitors such as Oracle Corp. and IBM Corp.

One example comes in the area of locking. Large-scale business applications from enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors, such as SAP AG, Baan Co. and PeopleSoft, require row-level locking, which allows users to work concurrently on different records in a table. Many of Microsoft’s competitors have supported row-level locking for some time.

SQL Server 6.5 supported only page-level locking. With 7.0, Microsoft is claiming to go a step better with "dynamic locking," which company officials describe as a hybrid of page-level and row-level locking controlled by the storage engine. "You get the enhanced concurrency of row level and the efficiency of page level, determined by an optimizer," asserts Doug Leland, Microsoft's lead product manager for SQL Server.

Among the features that drew the most attention early on were Microsoft OLAP Services, code-named Plato during Beta testing, and the Microsoft Repository for storing metadata. Improvements to the database generally follow four main themes, Leland says: OLTP, data warehousing, mobile computing and e-commerce. The changes range widely from boosts in page sizes to support for new types of joins to integration with BackOffice components such as IIS and Proxy Server.

Aside from features, Leland says Microsoft has a "fundamentally different strategy" in its approach to databases. "We focus on ease of use at the same time as we’re focusing on building up functionality," he says. SQL Server 7.0 ships with many wizards to make the database simpler to administer.

A corollary to the "ease of use" approach is a sizable training budget to teach people how to use SQL Server 7.0. Microsoft plans to spend about $20 million this year to train an estimated 50,000 people on SQL Server 7.0. Among the trainees are database administrators (DBAs) that already run SQL Server 6.0 or 6.5, DBAs that run competing systems and Windows NT administrators.

Already Microsoft’s database competitors in the Windows NT space are ready with the barbs they believe will discourage end users from taking the new SQL Server seriously.

"Microsoft has successfully just delivered a database that will compete with Oracle [Corp.’s] version 6," which was released in 1989, says Mark Jarvis, senior vice president of worldwide marketing for Oracle, which recently announced Oracle8i. "It’s a database that locks people out of the Internet. It doesn’t support Internet standards such as HTTP and HTML, it can’t be accessed by a browser, it doesn’t support Java."

Summit Strategies’ Davis says such arguments will help Oracle and IBM retain the most demanding customers. "SQL Server still won’t hit the top 5 percent or top 10 percent of data warehouse environments, but that’s still a pretty good bargain from Microsoft’s perspective," Davis says. "Building from the bottom up, going with the volume sale, using that to build upward into more demanding environments."