SQL Server scalability, BI features succeed

Early-access customers of Microsoft SQL Server 2005 give the new database high marks for scalability and business intelligence features

Microsoft's launch of SQL Server 2005 this week will provide customers with the company's most scalable, business-intelligence-friendly database to date, said early-access customers of the product.

The latest version of SQL Server, the first update to Microsoft's database in five years, has been a long time coming. The product, which Microsoft first planned to release in spring 2004, was delayed several times. It finally will be launched Monday, along with Visual Studio 2005, at events in San Francisco and London.

Microsoft developed the next versions of its database and developer tools in tandem so they would have complementary interfaces and processes. The company aimed to make it easier for application developers unfamiliar with database development to work with SQL Server, and for business users building database applications to use Visual Studio.

Microsoft also aimed to better equip SQL Server to handle large data loads and make data more accessible for mining, two features that are key for enterprise customers.

For the most part, Microsoft has achieved its goals to create a database that scales well and gives users real-time access to data and business analytics they can use to make better business decisions, said customers that have been working with SQL Server 2005 ahead of its general availability.

Adam Solesby, director of strategic development for AIM Healthcare Services in Tennessee, said a new snapshot isolation feature in SQL Server 2005 makes it easier to mine large quantities of data. The feature enables a database to keep track of data in large quantities without giving up high performance, he said.

This is important for AIM Healthcare, which audits insurance claims for both health-care providers and patients to ensure correct payment is made, Solesby said. "We receive mass data feeds and mine that data," he said. The company used to do this work on an Oracle database but migrated to SQL Server last year. It is currently in the process of its upgrade to SQL Server 2005 from SQL Server 2000.

SQL Server 2005 also has better methods for connecting to back-end servers to give customers the most up-to-date information about data stored in a large enterprise system, said Gerry Salm, systems and technology manager of operation systems for PCL Constructors. The Denver-based construction company is working with systems integrator Avanade, a Microsoft and Accenture joint venture, to build a repository of all the company's documents on SQL Server 2005.

The repository is connected to smart clients in offices and on sites across North America, and documents can be updated on the fly through SQL Server because of a new XML (Extensible Markup Language) data type in the database that allows XML code to be manipulated inside SQL Server, he said.

"Now that it's an XML field [in the database], we can store changes about the information in the field and query that info out," Salm said. "For people using the application, they get more timely updates."

New support for XML in SQL Server also enhances the ability to add business intelligence to applications through SQL Server, said Rex Parker, senior product manager for ProClarity, a Boise, Idaho-based independent software vendor that builds business intelligence software.

A new XML-based data connection protocol in SQL Server Analysis Services, called XMLA (Extensible Markup Language for Analysis) makes it easier to push applications built on SQL Server outside the firewall without risking the security or performance of enterprise data, he said.

"XMLA is a Web-based protocol, so people can access data structures from outside the firewall," he said. "Before, you would have to open up ports on your firewall, or you would have to implement HTTP-enabled cubes, which would slow down performance queries. So usually, doing extranet applications would cause a security risk or slow down performance. By using XMLA, we don't have either of those problems."

AIM Healthcare's Solesby said SQL Server Integration Services, a revamped version of what used to be called Data Transformation Services, also has improved the efficiency and speed with which his company can mine data from SQL Server for business analytics.

SQL Server Integration Services provide data translation, allowing customers to pull data that is stored in disparate data formats into the database without developers having to transform the data with code, he said. This gives them quicker and easier access to data for analytical purposes, he said.

"Microsoft has drastically improved these services," he said. "We can now take large quantities of disparate data from different sources into our database, with increased flexibility and a lot of runtime improvements. This allows us to create new business processes faster."

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