Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 to Support Mainframe, Unix Data Access

There's a chance mainframe and Unix administrators will have to deal with the revamped SQL Server whether they want to or not

Microsoft Corp. is finally putting the finishing touches on its SQL Server 2005 database (formerly code-named “Yukon”). While administrators in mainframe and Unix environments might be tempted to dismiss Microsoft’s revamped database offering, there’s a chance they’ll have to deal with SQL Server 2005 whether they want to or not.

Like its predecessors, SQL Server 2005 runs only on Microsoft’s Windows operating environment, and is closely tied to Microsoft’s other Windows-centric technologies—such as Office, the forthcoming Visual Studio 2005 integrated development environment, Microsoft’s BizTalk application server, and Microsoft’s CRM offering. But unlike its predecessors, SQL Server 2005 boasts what Microsoft officials call a “beyond ETL” data integration facility, the rebranded SQL Server Integration Services (IS).

As IBM Corp.’s purchase of data integration pure-play (and ETL powerhouse) Ascential Software Corp. proves, ETL has become something of a commodity technology. Microsoft kicked things off when it introduced a base-level ETL capability (Data Transformation Services) with its SQL Server 7.0 database almost seven years ago. Oracle Corp. itself also ships an ETL component (Warehouse Builder) with its 10g database. What’s more, many BI vendors—such as Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., Information Builders Inc., and SAS Institute Inc.—offer ETL, or ETL-like, capabilities of their own.

But there’s more to data integration than ETL. That’s the message Big Blue itself sent with the acquisition of Ascential, a company that also markets metadata management, data quality, and real-time data services.

What’s surprising is that Microsoft is singing more or less the same tune, trumpeting SQL Server IS’ ability to reach into a wide variety of data sources—including DB2 residing on both the mainframe and iSeries systems—and support value-added services, such as data mining, text mining, and even data quality (via data and text mining) to boot.

“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,” says Tom Rizzo, director of product management for SQL Server with Microsoft. “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.”

Beyond ETL, Federated Data Access

Big deal, you say? Maybe you already have an ETL tool, or a federated data access solution, or perhaps you use custom FTP scripting, to do the same thing. Even so, there’s a lot more to data integration than just ETL or federated data access.

In Microsoft’s case, SQL Server 2005 is a bona-fide business intelligence (BI) platform in its own right, with integrated OLAP, data mining, ETL, and reporting capabilities—all of which ship free of charge with SQL Server itself. That could factor into the calculus that some organizations use when assessing how large a role SQL Server could (or should) play in their next-generation information infrastructures.

Not that SQL Server is going to replace DB2, IMS, or other mainframe data sources, of course. That would be impossible. But in some organizations, there’s a chance Microsoft’s next-generation database could emerge as an information hub of sorts, pulling data from mainframe, iSeries, and various Unix data sources, consolidating it in a SQL Server data warehouse or operational data store, running analytics or performing data mining on it, and (of course) providing relational and multidimensional reporting capabilities.

What’s more, SQL Server 2005 also boasts an end-user report-authoring environment (which supports both relational and multidimensional report authoring and viewing) and canned integration with Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office productivity stack.

The upshot, some experts say, is that mainframe DB2 administrators could one day find themselves sitting down with DBAs on the SQL Server side of the aisle, just as mainframe system operators may be asked by their counterparts in the Windows world to directly expose their Big Iron data sources to Windows servers running SQL Server 2005.

“It’s going to have some effect, sure. Chances are, almost every [organization] has SQL Server somewhere -- maybe just at the department-level or the business unit. It’s possible, it’s probably even likely, that once [SQL Server 2005] ships, the level of activity in terms of people wanting to do these things with it is going to pick up,” says Mike Schiff, long-time industry watcher and a principal with data warehousing consultancy MAS Strategies.

The Pricing Issue

Notwithstanding the emergence of open source databases such as MySQL, Microsoft has long positioned SQL Server as a cost-effective alternative to Oracle or DB2. It’s true that the software giant charges a fee when its SQL Server add-on technologies (OLAP, ETL, reporting) are used with non-Microsoft platforms, but even with this cost factored into the equation, SQL Server 2005 could prove an attractive alternative.

On top of this, Schiff says, there’s almost certainly pent-up demand for Microsoft’s flagship database. “Imagine you’re an IT manager and you’ve been arguing with your boss, 'I’m not making a purchase, I’m going to wait for the next version of SQL Server because it has all of these unique features,' so there’s this pent-up demand,” he says. “So there’s going to be this pricing pressure, and it’s something that the other vendors will have to work very hard to try to match.”

There are signs that Microsoft’s rivals are planning to do just that. Oracle, for example, hasn’t touted its own Warehouse Builder ETL solution as a tool for accessing data in non-Oracle environments, but one prominent analyst, who spoke under condition of anonymity, says that may soon change.

“Oracle has been quiet about it, but in one of the briefings I had, they swore to me, and it seems to be somewhat general knowledge, that they do plan to let Warehouse Builder populate other databases,” this analyst says. “When they came out with the last Warehouse Builder as part of 10g, they never really spelled that out. It’s almost like common knowledge that isn’t public. But supposedly in a forthcoming release, I think they called it Paris, they will support this.”

Microsoft, for its part, isn’t exactly renowned for its marketing modesty, and true to form, Rizzo suggests that the recent spate of data integration consolidations and partnerships may have been pro-active responses to the forthcoming SQL Server 2005 release.

“We built it from the ground up to compete with the Ascentials and the Informaticas of the world. So I think you’re seeing a lot of consolidations in that space because I think there’s a lot of realization from the other vendors that we’re coming hard and heavy. We’re definitely leading the forefront of developer productivity. But in the business intelligence space, a lot of the things we’re doing with Reporting Services and Integration Services are industry-leading stuff.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.