FAQ: Microsoft's SQL Server Data Services

How Redmond's SSDS offering could change Web development

Mostly lost among the flock of announcements at Microsoft Corp.'s Mix08 Web developer conference last week was the news that Redmond is starting to test a Web database service based on its popular SQL Server database management software.

For data junkies, however, SQL Server Data Services (SSDS) is a big deal, one that legitimizes -- and may transform -- the nascent market for cloud-based databases while serving as a linchpin of Microsoft's utility computing strategy.

Microsoft has posted more information on SSDS, including a white paper (PDF format). We're here to give you the 1,000ish-word summary.

So what is SSDS? Think of it as Salesforce.com for databases. It's aimed at Web-centric developers, especially those at startups, who don't want to manage their own database because of complexity, cost, or both.

While users will need to know popular Web 2.0 programming interfaces such as REST and SOAP in order to connect SSDS to other applications, they don't need to know traditional SQL to get at their data. Rather, data is queried using LINQ, a component of the .Net framework that is similar to SQL. Using Microsoft Sync Framework, it'll also be possible to synchronize with, for example, mobile devices.

Microsoft is taking applications for the private beta program today, and plans to launch the service in the first half of next year. That company says it will use a subscription pricing model for SSDS, though it hasn't given any details.

So what isn't SSDS? While Microsoft is using SQL Server 2008 (and Windows Server 2008) on the back end, SSDS is nothing like a Web-hosted version of SQL Server. That product has been available for years, though from hosting partners rather than from Microsoft itself. In that scenario, users often still need to manage -- albeit remotely -- a full SQL Server database, and usually to also buy SQL Server licenses and the underlying hardware.

The downside is that SSDS won't initially offer anything close to the features of SQL Server, which, while considered enterprise-grade today, itself still lacks many of the features of an Oracle Database or IBM DB2.

SSDS may also not be the only cloud-based version of SQL Server that Microsoft is working on. Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet claims that Microsoft is readying other hosted versions of SQL Server, including one with the codename 'Blue.' (SSDS' goes by 'Sitka,' for the Alaskan panhandle city.)

I work at a Fortune 500 company that already uses SQL Server. Would this be for me? Maybe. While Microsoft is steering SSDS mainly at startups and Web-focused small to medium-sized companies that want to avoid the hassle of running their own on-premise database, it also says big companies that want to archive their data or share it other parties might consider SSDS. And due to its lower entry-level cost, departments within enterprises that want to start a Web project quickly (and without going through IT) may also like what SSDS offers.

Please don't tell me that Microsoft is actually pioneering this Web database space. Not at all. On the one hand, Redmond is far ahead of the other leading relational database vendors -- meaning Oracle, IBM, MySQL, even Sybase and Teradata -- none of whom have announced any cloud database plans.

But there were already a plethora of companies, mostly startups, operating in what some are calling the Database 2.0 market. TrackVia Inc. is one. Others include CouchDB, DabbleDB, GoogleBase, Zoho Creator, and a fistful of others, according to IT|Redux's list.

But Microsoft views SSDS as not only a cloud database, but as the data foundation for an entire ecosystem. With that scope of mission in mind, there are other incumbents. One is Intuit Inc.'s QuickBase. Available since 2000, Intuit claims more than 225,000 customers of the service, which is aimed at business users looking to easily build and connect to other SaaS applications (in the QuickBase ecosystem) without the need for heavy programming skills.

Trying to grow beyond its CRM-on-demand roots, Salesforce.com unveiled the similar Force.com platform last fall. Force.com lets users store data for retrieval and usage by a small but growing number of apps, including some from third parties.

The best-known platform competitor to Microsoft and SSDS, however, is crosstown rival Amazon.com.

Yeah, I'd heard SSDS is just a belated, 'me-too' offering to compete with Amazon. Sort of, though please disregard any comparisons to Amazon.com's S3 online storage service. Despite being a big hit with the Web 2.0 crowd, S3 is fairly crude and doesn't really offer any database features.

The better comparison is with Amazon's still-in-beta Web-based database, called SimpleDB.

SimpleDB will offer basic, easy-to-use data processing features that don't require users to have DBA skills; easy scalability; a subscription model; and strong ties to other cloud-based infrastructure -- in Amazon's case, its application hosting service, EC2.

Sounds nearly identical to SSDS. For now it does, concedes Microsoft SQL Server architect Soumitra Sengupta, in a Monday posting on the SSDS Team blog.

The difference, writes Sengupta, is that Microsoft "has chosen to expose a very simple slice" of SSDS' potential capabilities -- unlike SimpleDB, with which, he implies, What You See (Now) Is What You Get.

With SSDS, "we will be refreshing the service quite frequently as we understand our user scenarios better. So you can expect to see more capabilities of the Data Platform to start showing up in our service over time. What we announced here is just a starting point, our destination remains the extension of our Data Platform to the cloud... In the meantime, can we agree that SSDS is simple but it is not SimpleDB."

Web 2.0 loves MySQL. So is the open-source database Microsoft's real target with SSDS? Maybe, though Microsoft hasn't said as much. For MySQL's part, it says it has allowed partners to host MySQL for more than three years. But it hasn't waded into cloud databases yet, according to vice-president for marketing, Zack Urlocker.

"We aren't ready to make any new announcements at this time, but it's an area that's being evaluated as we integrate with Sun Microsystems," Urlocker wrote in an e-mail, tantalizingly adding, "Sun certainly has the expertise in massive scale and cloud computing that could make for an interesting story."

Will using SSDS lock me into a Microsoft infrastructure? Not in an obvious way, as SSDS seems to support key, relevant standards, SOAP and REST being the most important. On the other hand, Microsoft does hint that at some favoritism in its FAQ: "We will provide a great experience working with Microsoft products and development tools. In addition, we will provide support for development on other platforms and will invest in a strong development ecosystem around our service." In practice, it's likely SSDS will for a long time mostly be taken up by users who are already heavy into Microsoft.

What are the disadvantages of using SSDS? Since information remains scarce, we can only infer that SSDS will at the least share the typical issues associated with SaaS apps. While startup costs are low, larger users may find the cost of of subscribing to SSDS over time eclipsing the cost of running SQL Server in-house. That's especially true if you include the bandwidth costs associated with relying on SSDS.

Also, sophisticated users may find SSDS' features too sparse. For instance, users can't store videos and other large unstructured data objects (BLOBs) inside SSDS -- a common advantage of relational databases. Finally, there is the lack of control over the security and availability of your data, despite Microsoft's Service Level Agreements (SLAs). However, Microsoft says that it will create an on-premise version of SSDS that can ameliorate those concerns.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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