The next release of Microsoft SQL Server, code-named Denali, is right around the corner. Microsoft has just released Denali CTP3, and the final release is expected by the end of the year. Denali continues SQL Server's climb into the enterprise with a number of important features. Here are the top 10 most significant new features in the SQL Server Denali release.

10. SQL Server Developer Tools—One of the most obvious improvements in SQL Server Denali is the new development environment, SQL Server Developer Tools, coded-named Juneau. Juneau uses the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF)–based Visual Studio 2010 shell, and it unifies development for Business Intelligence Development Studio (BIDS) and Visual Studio. One goal for Juneau is to make the development environment consistent for both SQL Azure and the on-premises version of SQL Server.

9. Contained databases—Contained databases make it easy to move databases between different instances of SQL Server. With Denali, login credentials are included with contained databases. Users don't need logins for the SQL Server instance because all authentications are handled by the contained database. Contained databases have no configuration dependencies on the instance of SQL Server that they're hosted on and can be moved between on-premises SQL Server instances and SQL Azure.

8. Project "Crescent"—The new data visualization tool, code-named Project "Crescent," is Closely integrated with SharePoint 2010 and Silverlight. Microsoft has called the Crescent feature "PowerPoint for your data." Crescent makes it easy for users to create great-looking data pages and dashboards by using data models that are built using PowerPivot or from tabular data from SQL Server Analysis Services.

7. Data Quality Services—Valid data is critical for making effective business intelligence (BI) decisions. Data Quality Services lets you set up a knowledge base that defines your metadata rules. You can then run Data Quality Services projects to apply those rules to data stored in a SQL Server data source. The Data Quality Services projects cleanse the data and allow viewing of good, invalid, and corrected rows.

6. User-defined server roles—An important security-related feature in Denali is the addition of user-defined severs roles. Earlier releases had fixed server roles that were predefined by Microsoft. These roles covered most situations, but they weren't as flexible or granular as some organizations wanted. The new user-defined server roles give organizations more control and customization ability over SQL Server's server roles.

5. Change data capture (CDC) for Oracle—
CDC lets you keep large tables in sync by initially moving a snapshot to a target server, then moving just the captured changes between the databases. With the SQL Server 2008 release, CDC was limited to SQL Server, but many organizations also have other database platforms they want to use CDC with. A big improvement in the Denali release is the addition of CDC for Oracle.

4. T-SQL enhancements—Two of the most important T-SQL enhancements in Denali are the addition of the Sequence object and the window functions. Unlike the similar Identity column, Sequence lets you tie unique row identifiers across multiple tables. The new window functions apply to sets of rows using the new OVER clause. You can read more about window functions in "Window Functions (OVER Clause)—Help Make a Difference."

3. Columnar store index—The columnar store index or, as it is sometimes called, the column-based query accelerator, uses the same high performance/high compression technology that Microsoft uses in PowerPivot, and it brings that technology into the database engine. Indexed data is stored according to the data of each column rather than by the rows, and only necessary columns are returned as query results for columnar indexes. Microsoft states this technology can provide up to 100 times improvement in query performance in some cases.

2. Support for Windows Server Core—The ability to run SQL Server on Windows Server Core has been missing from previous releases of SQL Server. Server Core is designed for infrastructure applications such as SQL Server that provide back-end services but don't really need a GUI on the same server. Denali's support for Server Core enables leaner and more efficient SQL Server installations and at the same time reduces potential attack vectors and the need for patching.

1. AlwaysOn—Without a doubt, the most important new feature in SQL Server Denali is the new SQL Server AlwaysOn feature. AlwaysOn is essentially the next evolution of database mirroring. AlwaysOn supports up to four replicas, the data in the replicas can be queried, and backups can be performed from the replicas. Although it's still early, AlwaysOn seems more complicated to set up than database mirroring because it requires Windows Failover Clustering, but the advantages appear to make it well worth the extra effort.