Microsoft Fills Up Database with New Technology

By Mark A. Smith

Microsoft has started its marketing push for the Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 database platform. Despite having the year 2008 in the name (which indicates how lengthy Microsoft’s release cycles are), this is a major release that includes a portfolio of new technologies.

Microsoft has advanced the platform to support more data management and processing capabilities, including master data management and complex event processing, as well as more efficient management and support for business intelligence deployments. Elsewhere in the industry, these capabilities are packaged as separate products. Microsoft acquired most of them in years past, hoping to make the database more appealing by bundling them with it. Microsoft has done this in previous releases also, integrating technologies that go beyond the traditional definition of a database such as reporting and data mining. Now, it describes SQL Server as an “information platform.” That subtle term indicates a move toward the evolving category of information management, which our firm defines as the set of competencies and technologies to advance the utilization of information assets across IT and business.

This release of Microsoft SQL Server has a lot to do with BI, providing both administrative and business analysis capabilities in what the vendor calls “managed self-service BI”. One addition is tight coupling of Microsoft Excel and Microsoft SQL Server through database support for server processing of PowerPivot for Excel 2010 and SharePoint 2010. This capability enables analyzing large volumes of data using pivot tables within the spreadsheet or Web browser. The spreadsheet then becomes what my colleague calls an enterprise spreadsheet. The new release also provides administration and monitoring of this capability to ensure efficiency in the database and analytic processing.

While it’s a first for Microsoft to provide enterprise-class support for Excel, others such as IBM and Oracle have had spreadsheet server technologies for analytics for some time. Microsoft has also released Report Builder version 3, which enables IT and business analysts to put together interactive reports. All of this works best with Microsoft SharePoint Services where the access and delivery of information from BI are brought together with other content and collaborative capabilities.

Microsoft acknowledged the importance of MDM in 2007 by acquiring Stratature’s tools and server technology for lines of business and departmental needs. Since then, Microsoft has adapted the technology into a component of Microsoft SQL Server called Master Data Services. Available in the enterprise release of the database, it includes versioning, workflow, hierarchy management and role security, all of which are required for supporting MDM. Of course, MDM is essential for data warehousing and BI, but it also enhances operational business processes. Now Microsoft will be able compete more strongly with IBM and Oracle, as well as Informatica, which recently acquired Siperian (See: “Informatica is a New Master in MDM with Siperian Acquisition“). However, reserving this technology for the enterprise edition will limit its use by smaller businesses or departments unable to afford that price and scale.

In the new SQL Server, Microsoft also has brought forward its support for CEP in StreamInsight, and it can be used to identify and process business and technology events for BI and business process insight. Deployment of CEP is increasing as enterprises find new uses for events to address business issues. Our firm has been observing and commenting on business use of CEP in what is called operational intelligence for some time, and our benchmark research on the topic (See: “Operational Intelligence and CEP“) confirms the need for more efficient technology to support it. I am not sure if Microsoft is ready for CEP.

It requires engagement of business with IT, and it is not clear that Microsoft has spent enough time and effort to develop predefined connectors to its own portfolio of technologies, let alone other large-scale sources from the likes of HP or IBM. Microsoft has a predominantly channel-based distribution approach, and it will need to educate those partners to configure and deploy CEP in order to compete against IBM, Oracle, Vitria and others. On the positive side, Microsoft is making the technology available in both standard and enterprise releases; it can process up to 5,000 events per second, which will meet the majority of needs. Customers wanting CEP on a higher scale can purchase the Datacenter edition of SQL Server; acquiring that capability appears to be a matter of licensing rather than configuration and computing power of the underlying server technology.

Microsoft realizes the importance of distributed management of its technology for a broad range of activities such as data warehousing and BI. In SQL Server 2008 R2, it is easy to manage multiple servers and to optimize resources based on policies. It is also simpler to upgrade from one instance to another of larger-scale computing power. Microsoft invested in methods for platform scalability, which has now resulted in a parallel data warehouse version that embraces massively parallel processing (MPP) in an appliance package that simplifies implementation and deployment. The technology is rooted from its acquisition of DATAllegro in 2008 and is now Microsoft data warehouse appliance. This step is a response to the success of data warehouse appliances from HP, Netezza, Teradata and others that it competes with while Microsoft also partners with many of them at the same time.

Overall this version of the database with its variety of new capabilities will ensure that Microsoft is not left behind in the market. This is important as Microsoft transition with Microsoft PerformancePoint in early 2009 did not go well (See: “Microsoft PerformancePoint – Eliminated and Integrated“) as they exited having a dedicated product division and direct engagement model with enterprise customers. Though the packaging and pricing for Microsoft SQL Server R2 have been disclosed, Microsoft is still coordinating with other activities before it releases version 2008 R2 sometime in the near future. I think it will help current Microsoft SQL Server customers advance, but new evaluators should look closely to determine whether this is the right approach for their organization. Having the year 2008 on the package doesn’t help Microsoft convince those prospects that this is the latest thing; eventually it will have to synchronize its development cycles with names that make more sense to customers. Until then Microsoft will need to get some good proof points in customer deployments on the new technologies in Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 to ensure the market that they are ready to take on the highly competitive CEP, MDM and data warehouse appliance markets.


About Andy Painter

A passionate Information and Data Architect with experience of the financial services industry, Andy’s background spans pharmaceuticals, publishing, e-commerce, retail banking and insurance, but always with a focus on data. One of Andy’s principle philosophies is that data is a key business asset.
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