In keeping with its major/minor release cadence with Windows Server, Microsoft will soon deliver an interim update to Microsoft SQL Server 2008 called SQL Server 2008 R2. (A CTP release is now available for public testing.) SQL Server 2008 R2 builds on the solid foundation of its predecessor and provides access to the underlying improvements of the Windows Server 2008 R2 platform to achieve better-than-ever scalability, reliability, and performance. Here's what you need to know about SQL Server 2008 R2.

New Capabilities
A new self-service Business Intelligence (BI) capability lets Excel 2010 (and SharePoint 2010) users create their own BI solutions using the new PowerPivot feature (formerly code-named Gemini). This provides a way to aggregate a huge variety of data sources and data types, analyze them in memory, and work on millions of rows of data, even on a laptop. (This requires a 64-bit version of Excel; PowerPivot results can be published to SharePoint 2010 and shared with others.)

SQL Server 2008 R2 also provides for the central management of multiple SQL Server instances. The servers must be on the same network, but they don't need to be part of the same domain, and management is performed via Windows PowerShell or a new GUI tool.

Also, thanks to underlying platform improvements in Windows Server 2008 R2, SQL Server 2008 R2 offers stunning new scalability (both scale up and scale out) improvements. The server supports up to 256 processor cores now, and Microsoft has already published new industry benchmark records on 192 core systems. For data warehouses, SQL Server 2008 R2 supports massive parallel processing capabilities via "Project Madison," resulting in a new SQL Server product edition (see below). This functionality lets admins run queries over tens of billions of rows of data across multiple nodes in just seconds. Microsoft says that the scalability improvements in R2 make SQL Server relevant to 100 percent of any enterprise needs, up from about 99 percent in the original shipping version of SQL Server.

SQL Server 2008 R2 also provides "stream insight," a way to algorithmically query and process thousands of complex events simultaneously, providing actionable results in almost real time. This functionality can be used in places as diverse as web sites—where multiple users are navigating around and you wish to target task- or user-specific advertising—and oil refineries, where various levels need to be monitored and responded to in real time.

Finally, it adds Master Data Services (MDS), a portal and scorecard of sorts that provides a single view of customers, products, suppliers, or other data, all of which is aggregated across multiple systems. MDS (formerly code-named Bulldog) is the result of Microsoft's 2007 acquisition of Stratature, a provider of master data management software.

New Product Editions
SQL Server 2008 R2 will ship with a similar product lineup to its predecessor, with some changes. Microsoft is adding SQL Server 2008 R2 Datacenter and SQL Server 2008 R2 Parallel Data Warehouse editions to address high-end datacenter and data warehousing needs, respectively. And the previously available editions, SQL Server 2008 R2 Standard and Enterprise, gain a few new capabilities as well.

Recommendations
Like Windows Server 2008 R2, SQL Server 2008 R2 appears to be a very rich update with massive scalability improvements and useful functional enhancements, both of which belie the R2 moniker. SQL Server 2008 R2 will interest the largest enterprises with mission-critical data needs or data warehouses. With SQL Server 2008 R2, Microsoft finally blows past any remaining concerns about this product's ability to compete in the upper end of the market.