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Inside Microsoft's R2 preview

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Review SQL Server 2008 R2 is a step closer to reality.

On the heels of August's first code drop, Microsoft has released a second, more-fully-featured community technology preview (CTP) of its next database server. It promises a number of things, including improved business intelligence through database changes and integration with Office as well as more scalability at the high end.

What does the CTP offer ahead of the final product, planned for the first-half of 2010? Let’s start at the beginning.

In the early days of software development, the typical approach with testing new software was to issue pre-release betas to a small number of people assumed to be technically competent. Beta software was challenging to install. No, that's too kind. Installation was an initiation process.

The CTP process, introduced by Microsoft a few years back, is designed to make early code available to a much broader community. As such, it should be much easier to install. But Microsoft has been painfully slow on the uptake here, as was the case with the original SQL Server 2008 CTP.

SQL Server 2008 R2 CTP initially shows things have changed. Once unpacked, the download shows two files: one called setup, and the other called setup.exe. Do not choose setup.exe. Choose setup. Why? By default, Windows hides common extensions and what appears to be setup.exe is actually a file called setup.exe.config and setup is actually setup.exe. Anyone with any pretensions towards technical savvy will sidestep that trap intuitively, it does begin to feel horribly familiar.

But from that point on, the process is a revelation. The installation program checks that the machine is capable of running the CTP, checks that all the necessary components are present, installs them if not, and generally behaves in a commendable fashion. Microsoft appears finally to understand that a CTP is not a beta and the installation went like a dream.

OK, so it installs easily, but what features does the CTP have? SQL Server generally comes in a number of editions that include Standard, Enterprise, and Express. The CTP is the Enterprise edition and comes with the full set of planned features - or thereabouts.

Reporting has undergone much change, and SQL Server Reporting Services has finally caught up with the spatial data types that arrived with SQL Server 2008. You can now map spatial data. The missing Dundas features are now present, including a range of extra charts and dials.

Opens the door to Office 2010

Microsoft has made much of the self-service Business Intelligence and integration with Office. In order to make best use of the BI features it is definitely worth upgrading to Office 2010, released to beta last week. A beta version is available for download here. Excel 2010 allows much better slicing and dicing of data, and through the SQL Server PowerPivot add-in for Excel that was known as Gemini, users can investigate data to reveal the information hidden therein.

The Report Builder is also much improved and looks much more like one of the Office 2010 family. It has become much easier to split out various components of a report: If you have a grid, a map and a logo in a report, these can be copied to a Report Part Gallery, effectively a library of elements that can be used time and time again.

Also of note is the fact Standard edition now includes backup compression, which had previously only been available in the Enterprise edition of SQL Server.

Somewhat oddly, a restriction appears in R2. The Enterprise edition of SQL Server 2008 supported an unlimited number of virtual machines. In the SQL Server 2008 R2 CTP that's constrained to four. If you want more you'll have to upgrade to the DataCenter edition, which is unlimited.

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