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Microsoft sticking to 2008 schedule for SQL Server

Development chief Kummert also dismisses MySQL, hints at SaaS version

For veteran database watchers, it may feel oddly early to hear talk of the next version of Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server database.

It seems like it was just yesterday that Microsoft was issuing one of the many mea culpas that marked the development of SQL Server 2005, as delays — primarily to fix security issues — caused the gestation period for that release to drag out for five long years.

But fast-forward two years from the belated shipment of SQL Server 2005, and it appears to be both a technical and financial success. And promises made by Microsoft executives that the company would get back onto a two-to-three-year release cycle for SQL Server look like they will be kept.

In an interview last week, Ted Kummert, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s data and storage platform division, said that SQL Server 2008 will be released to manufacturing in next year’s second quarter. That would be a little more than two and a half years after its predecessor was released.

“We understand that five years between major releases is too long,” said Kummert, an 18-year Microsoft veteran who oversaw terminal services and server-level security software before taking on his current job in January. “We are very committed to delivering SQL Server releases in 24 to 36 months.”

Not that Kummert has much choice with SQL Server 2008: Microsoft has already made plans to hold a marketing blowout on Feb. 27, 2008, in Los Angeles and other locations for the new database release as well as for Windows Server 2008 and Visual Studio 2008.

But Kummert claims that instead of simply scaling back its ambitions, Microsoft is using a revamped development process to inject a significant number of new features into SQL Server 2008 — enough to make the new version a worthy upgrade, even for users that only recently completed their migrations to SQL Server 2005.

Test releases of SQL Server 2008 have already been widely installed by early users (see companion story posted here ). But many of the added features will be demonstrated for the first time this week at the Professional Association for SQL Server user group’s 2007 PASS Community Summit in Denver. “We’ll let the code speak for itself,” said Kummert, who will kick off the conference with a keynote speech on Wednesday.

Donald Feinberg, a database analyst at Gartner Inc., agrees that Microsoft has made its development process for SQL Server more agile. “The bottom line is that they learned a lot from the 2005 release and how long it took to get it out,” Feinberg said. “Now they’re working on lots of new stuff for future releases, and picking them out and freezing development on them as they become ready.”

“I’ve only seen one feature slide. Otherwise, they’ve met their timeline,” said David Smith, CIO at ServiceU Corp., a Cordova, Tenn.-based provider of event and box-office management services that is already running prerelease versions of SQL Server 2008 in production applications.

Microsoft has issued four Community Technical Preview (CTP) releases of SQL Server 2008, including one late last month that can be run in virtualized environments along with the company’s Virtual Server 2005 software.

In contrast to private betas, which are often limited to favored customers, Microsoft’s CTPs can be downloaded by anyone, and as such can be seen as a subtle indication of the vendor’s confidence in its code. According to Kummert, Microsoft plans two more CTP releases of SQL Server 2008 before commercial shipments begin.

Over the past decade, SQL Server has evolved from a workgroup product into an enterprise database that can compete with rivals such as Oracle and DB2. But so have some open-source databases, most prominently MySQL, which has become a legitimate choice for users with large data centers.

“We are understanding all we can understand about MySQL and where it’s doing well for customers, so that we can do a better job,” Kummert said. But he flatly rejected claims that MySQL is nipping at SQL Server’s heels, saying the open-source upstart still has “restricted functionality.”

Kummert also dismissed database appliances, specialized databases and other technologies promising zippier performance than mainstream what relational databases can provide.

“I rarely hear a customer ask for a vertical solution that doesn’t fit within the rest of their manageability framework,” he said. “Yes, customers want the best performance they can for their apps, but they also desire a consistent platform.”

Kummert said that although he disputes database pioneer Michael Stonebraker’s recent contention that relational technology is obsolete, he does agree with Stonebraker that most of the growth in the database market is in business intelligence, analytics and other data warehousing applications. And he hinted that Microsoft is working on radical technologies in those areas, such as column-based storage for faster data retrieval.

“We’re absolutely aware of these approaches,” Kummert said. “We’re looking at these things and how to deliver these capabilities.”

That could involve augmenting the SQL Server lineup through acquisitions, something that Kummert has experience with from building up Microsoft’s Forefront security products, which the company acquired when it bought Sybari Software Inc. in 2005. “We will always evaluate what we see out there in the market,” he said.

In addition, Microsoft has said it is looking at developing a Web-hosted version of SQL Server that would be delivered to users through its managed services division. That would be similar to what the company has done with its Dynamics Live CRM software-as-a-service offering, which was announced in July.

“It’s a place where we are talking to customers and partners and analyzing what the right next steps are,” Kummert said of a possible software-as-a-service offering.