Microsoft Has Big Plans for SQL Server

Vendor tries to shake database's low-end image

SAN FRANCISCO — SQL Server's roots as a product used by small companies and departments within larger enterprises have left the Microsoft Corp. software with the tag of being the little database that couldn't handle the data center needs of IT managers.

With last week's belated official release of SQL Server 2005, Microsoft is trying to dispel that reputation once and for all. At its launch event here, Microsoft trotted out one enterprise user after another who said they have already adopted SQL Server 2005 to handle their largest, most heavily accessed databases.

For example, AIM Healthcare Services Inc., a Franklin, Tenn.-based company that audits health claims and payment forms for insurers and hospitals, is running a 9TB database on SQL Server 2005. That's the sixth-largest database used for online transaction proc-essing (OLTP) worldwide, according to a September ranking by Winter Corp. in Waltham, Mass.

AIM migrated from a Unix-based Oracle database to SQL Server, which is installed on an IBM xSeries server with eight Intel proc-essors. Adam Solesby, director of strategic development at AIM, said that SQL Server 2005 offers better features at a lower price than Oracle Corp.'s software does.

"Our needs are focused around ... managing the sheer volume of data we have," Solesby said. He pointed to SQL Server 2005's scalability options as a key feature for his company, which plans to eventually support up to 12,000 concurrent users on its database.

Barnes & Noble Inc. is using a 3TB data warehouse running on a 64-bit version of SQL Server 2005 to analyze the sales of its 7.3 million products.

"The raw performance, as well as the price/performance ratio, was incredible," said Chris Troia, CIO at the New York-based bookseller.

Troia added that Barnes & Noble is increasing the amount of information stored in the data warehouse from three years' worth of sales transactions to five.

Nasdaq Stock Market Inc. has replaced aging Tandem mainframes that were used to disseminate market trade data with a Windows-based system that's equipped with SQL Server 2005. The database server can process 5,000 transactions per second and 100,000 queries per day, and it can handle 8 million new rows of data on a daily basis, said Ken Richmond, vice president of engineering at Nasdaq.

Microsoft has long dominated the low-end Windows database market. According to Gartner Inc., the company controlled exactly half of that part of the market last year. But Microsoft's overall market share was about 20%, and it hopes to use SQL Server 2005 to chip away at the high-end strongholds of Oracle's 10g database and IBM's DB2.

To try to attract enterprise users, Microsoft is trumpeting a collection of high-performance features in SQL Server 2005, such as database partitioning, parallel index creation, 64-bit proc-essor support and, by the middle of next year, database mirroring.

Small Market Share

But in a report issued earlier this year, Forrester Research Inc. estimated that out of 2,000 databases larger than 1TB worldwide, only about 80—or 4% of the total—ran SQL Server, with the bulk of the rest running Oracle or DB2.

Philip Howard, a database analyst at Bloor Research in Towcester, England, said Microsoft is making a strong case that SQL Server 2005 can scale enough to handle enterprise-class OLTP databases. But he added that he thinks Oracle, IBM and NCR Corp.'s Teradata unit all continue to hold an edge over Microsoft for large data warehouses.

"I see SQL Server challenging Oracle in areas such as analysis services and data marts, but for big data warehouses? No," Howard said.

A group director of database management at an information provider to the pharmaceutical industry said it's unlikely that his company will move beyond its current strategy of using SQL Server only where it needs a cost-effective database.

The database management director, who asked not to be named, said he's aware that there are some "major-league" data warehouses using SQL Server. But Oracle "was there first" and has more third-party tools supporting its databases, he noted. In addition, Microsoft is still playing catch-up on database partitioning and doesn't have a grid computing option, he said.

Computerworld's Carol Sliwa and Elizabeth Montalbano of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

Database Rankings by Size
The largest SQL Server databases worldwide, as of September:
User Type Size
U.S. Postal Service Data warehouse 19.5TB
AIM Healthcare Services OLTP 8TB
Verizon Communications OLTP 7.8TB

Source: Winter Corp., Waltham, Mass.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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