Microsoft Launches SQL Server R2

Published by: InformationWeek
Written by: Doug Henschen

Fast, in-memory analysis and centralized management are highlights, but will it make BI more accessible to business users?

Few surprises were contained in today's official announcement on Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2, but the occasion did give the company a chance to stoke interest in SQL Azure cloud services and anticipation of the Parallel Data Warehouse edition of SQL Server expected to launch later this year.

Plans for an upgrade of SQL Server 2008 were first announced in October of 2008, and the community technical preview (beta) became available last November. Thus, customers know what to expect.

Highlights include in-memory analysis capabilities provided by PowerPivot add-ins for Excel and SharePoint, and master data management and complex event processing capabilities aimed at ISVs and developers. The PowerPivot add-ins will enable desktop users to do rapid analysis on up to millions of rows of data with the aid of "slicer" controls used to cut across multiple dimensions. These analyses can then be published for others to see through SharePoint. That combination ensures managed self service, according to Microsoft.

"It's self-service because companies can empower end users to do more analyses on their own in the familiar Microsoft Office environment," said Tom Casey, Microsoft's general manager of business intelligence. "It's managed because IT professionals can easily make data available for reports and analyses while governing who has access to data and monitoring who is using which analyses."

One drawback of the PowerPivot add-ins is that they only work with Excel 2010 and SharePoint 2010, which are currently available in community technical preview releases but won't formally launch until next month. Critics describe PowerPivot for Excel as little more than an in-memory upgrade of the pivot-table capabilities already available in the spreadsheet tool. As such, the add-ins will enable power users to quickly crunch more data, but it won't make developing BI insight any easier or more accessible to spreadsheet novices. For that, developers and Microsoft partners must still create business-process-specific applications and interfaces in Excel.

"There's no doubt PowerPivot is useful and will be successful, but it's not a revolution in BI," said Anthony Deighton, senior vice president of products at QlikTech, a Microsoft rival that introduced in-memory analysis capabilities several years ago. "Microsoft BI still requires application-style development, but many companies just don't like deploying Excel applications."

Microsoft SQL Server R2 also includes several upgrades aimed at streamlining administration. New application and multi-server management capabilities, for example, enable database administrators (DBAs) to centrally manage all instances of applications running on any number of servers. Artifacts such as tables, views, and stored procedures can be grouped, deployed, and managed using unified policies and procedures.

"Our four DBAs are now going to spend less time going to individual servers because we'll be able to centralize management and the policies for all of our SQL Server instances," said Microsoft customer Ron Van Zanten during today's announcement conference call. Director of business intelligence at Premier Bankcard, Van Zanten said the credit card issuer started testing R2 in January. The company is managing 40 terabytes of data with SQL Server, including a 20 terabyte data warehouse and 150 instances of the database.

The Parallel Data Warehouse edition of SQL Server mentioned by Microsoft Executives Wednesday is based on the scale-out, massively parallel processing technology Microsoft acquired in 2008 with the purchase of DATAllegro. Casey announced that a private technical preview of the edition is now being tested by selected customers, but he stopped short of forecasting a launch date.

Once the software becomes available, it will be installed in the field by Microsoft teams on pre-configured, industry-standard hardware from partners including HP, Dell, IBM and Bull. The edition is Microsoft's answer to the many appliances that are taking over the large-scale data warehousing market.

SQL Azure is Microsoft's cloud-based version of the SQL Server platform. The service currently includes only a subset of platform capabilities, but Microsoft Senior Vice President Ted Kummert said the company will expose broader capabilities and foresees great possibilities for hybrid on-premise and cloud-based deployments. He cited the example of Tickets Direct, an online ticket seller in Australia that has added a SQL Azure-based tier to its ticketing platform so it can handle spikes in demand around popular events.

"Many of our enterprise customers have applications that are used only periodically," Kummert said. "Performance review tools, for example, may be used only once or twice a year, so imagine that as an application that could be deployed on this kind of infrastructure."

Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 has been released to manufacturing, but it won't be available for download worldwide until May 13. SQL Azure is available as an online service. The Parallel Data Warehouse edition of SQL Server is slated to debut in the second half of 2010.

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