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Microsoft takes on enterprise - again

Norfolk and Banks watch from the safety of London

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I'm glad that it was our San Francisco correspondent, Gavin Clarke, who got to hear Steve Ballmer in person, challenging his competitors to have any doubts as to whether Microsoft's SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005 (and the latest Beta of Biztalk Server 2006) are "enterprise ready". Ballmer is one of the few IT execs who physically frightens me. However, at the London launch of Microsoft's latest attack on Enterprise Computing -computing, that is, for large multinational companies doing large volumes of business- it was clear that this time it really does mean it. Perhaps it's personal.

Microsoft's prize customer Tesco.com commented that SQL Server 2005 was so much faster than its previous database that it could now move its model of the online shopping experience from too slow to feasible!

This is a notable victory for SQL Server 2005 (Tesco was so impressed it even got permission to use it in Beta), marred only by the fact, elucidated by a question from my co-author Martin Banks, that its previous database was the previous version of SQL Server. So the launch message is really that Microsoft customers, at least, had better upgrade.

No matter, as Microsoft is also targeting hobbyists and the midrange, so it's hedging its bets a bit - it's almost certain that SQL Server 2005 will be a big success.

There are "entry level" versions of SQL Server, eg., which are free downloads for the time being. This may well tempt some of MySQL's customers away from open source, although others will no doubt have religious objections to such a move. Microsoft already sells more database copies for mission critical applications, whatever that means exactly, than Oracle and IBM combined according to IDC, although IBM still gets more revenue from database sales than Microsoft does.

This probably means that enterprise customers believe that DB2 can do something that SQL Server can't and are prepared to pay for whatever this is (and remember that there's more to a database than performance on artificial benchmarks; management tools, third party support, security, resilience etc. are all important to the enterprise).

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that SQL Server 2005 might actually play rather well in the enterprise space, if enterprise users can overlook the inevitable hype. Dell, for example, was boasting of its 99 cent transactions in benchmark tests - but, in an enterprise context, what does that mean, unless you know what else they compromised to keep the costs down and how much real work its 99 cent transactions can accomplish?

Nevertheless, even if SQL Server 2005 can cope with enterprise computing demands, enterprise take up could still be slow. It takes time to convince conservative DBAs that a new database can be trusted; once they are convinced, it takes time to migrate large numbers of users; it takes even longer to regression-test the migrated business services and Oracle and IBM are improving their offerings too (although Bill Miller, general manager, mainframe business unit, of BMC, which already supports SQL Server 2005 with BMC SQL-BackTrack for Microsoft SQL Server and BMC Performance Manager for databases, claims that customer take up of DB2 v8 is slower than IBM hoped, probably for similar reasons).

At which point Martin Banks adds, "Never one to miss a blindingly obvious 'cheap shot' when it's presented on a plate, I did note that, although billed as a database ideal for user migration, all the users brought out for the launch were existing SQL Server users, so it was hardly a stunning demo of migration in action.

"To be fair, Andrew Lees, Microsoft VP of Server and Tools Marketing, did point out to me that, as the database was only just being formally introduced, it wasn't surprising that these early users were existing SQL Server customers. Nevertheless, less fairly, the thing has been out on beta for some time, so a release-candidate migration example might well have been possible. Lees did, however, hint that (while talking pointedly about not making any of those forward looking statements that get US lawyers in such a tizzy) he expected to have some migration stories to talk about within six months or so".

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