When one thinks of Microsoft's platforms, thoughts turn naturally to such products as Windows, Windows Server, .NET (including the Web-based ASP .NET technologies) and perhaps Office. But Microsoft's success as a maker of platforms is based on far more than just the platforms themselves. It includes a developer ecosystem rooted in the Visual Studio tools and .NET development languages. And it includes the related data back-end, which centers around SQL Server.

The next version of SQL Server, dubbed SQL Server 2008, will launch in February 2008 alongside Windows Server 2008 and Visual Studio 2008. This is no coincidence of timing. Indeed, these products will most certainly be completed at varying times, with Visual Studio 2008 scheduled for completion in late 2007 and both Windows 2008 and SQL 2008 not due until after the launch event. (SQL Server will be the last of the three to appear.) Microsoft is launching these products together because they form a cohesive whole, an interconnected uber-platform of sorts in which components of each both rely on and build off of components of the other.

The SQL Server business has done phenomenally well for Microsoft, thanks to a slow and steady product-revision schedule that maps more closely to customer schedules than most Microsoft products and a steady move toward the upper reaches of scalability, capability, and reliability. SQL Server 2005, the most current version of the product at this writing, took five years to come to market and also shipped concurrently with a major Visual Studio refresh. Since then, Microsoft has augmented that product with two major service pack releases, one of which tightened integration with Office 2007 on the desktop. Sales are phenomenal: SQL Server is the fastest growing server product in the database, business intelligence (BI), and data warehouse markets, and is the number three database in market share behind Oracle and IBM, largely because SQL Server's pricing is so much lower and so much more feature inclusive.

Indeed, Microsoft's propensity to ship new functionality in SQL Server rather than ship it as a separate added cost product as would Oracle or IBM is, in my mind, one of its biggest strengths. One only needs to look at BI and OLAP support for a typical example.

SQL Server is also making huge gains in performance and scalability. It's now the owner of the SAP benchmark record, offers the best performance at 1TB TCP-H (ad-hoc queries), and the best price at 3TB. And since the dark days of the Slammer worm in 2002, SQL Server has had zero critical security vulnerabilities, compared with more than 100 for Oracle. And while Oracle users have suffered through more than 300 security vulnerabilities overall in that time period, SQL Server users have had just five. That's astonishing given Microsoft's security record.

As with previous versions, SQL Server 2008 is on a slow burn, and Microsoft says it has settled on a 24- to 36-month development cycle that thus far has been marked by a few public Community Technology Preview (CTP) releases. Expect two more CTP releases before the launch: SQL Server 2008 is due in final form the second quarter of 2008. Here's what you can expect.

Trusted platform. At a 1997 SQL Server 7.0 reviewer workshop, I was astonished by Microsoft's Terra Server, a room full of data refrigerators that contained satellite imagery and was controlled by a custom SQL Server installation. Now, SQL Server can manage a terabyte of data as seamlessly as previous versions did a gigabyte, and scalability is at the forefront of core SQL Server work. Part of this effort involves disk compression routines that reduce the footprint of on-disk storage. Part of it is new indexing mechanisms to speed queries of ever-increasing data sets. And part is an ongoing effort to improve performance across the board. For example, SQL 2008 prioritizes workloads intelligently so that administrators can configure service level agreements (SLAs) in ways that make sense for your organization. So a reporting application can't consume all of a server's resources while payroll is trying to print paychecks, for example.

Abilities. While SQL Server is traditionally thought of as a relational database, the product has been consistently improved over time to work with non-relational data. This happened in SQL Server 7.0 with the introduction of multidimensional OLAP, and continued in SQL Server 2005 with XML support. In SQL Server 2008, Microsoft is expanding these capabilities in the most dramatic fashion yet with support for unstructured data, like documents in the file system, through a new file stream data type. This isn't a replacement for the file system, but rather a replacement for the old BLOB data type, which had no understanding of the underlying data. Microsoft is supporting this feature with native Windows APIs for querying and indexing the data. It is also formalizing the concept of location data, where you can query locations in a spatial way as with a map. I expect this capability to touch off a new era of custom location-aware applications.

There's a lot more, but I'm out of space, so I'll leave you with two thoughts: If you're interested in more information about SQL Server 2008, I will be expanding this overview into a longer article for the SuperSite for Windows in the next few days. And if you're curious about licensing, I've got some good news: Microsoft is keeping the price of SQL Server 2008 consistent with that of SQL Server 2005, despite adding a host of new functionality that other database vendors would likely break out and offer separately at added cost. That's good stuff, and a continuation of Microsoft's aggressive value proposition for this product line.

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