Testers praise new features in SQL Server upgrade

But whether the additions will be enough to spur widespread upgrades is unclear

A conference being held in Denver this week by the Professional Association for SQL Server user group will provide a forum for the biggest public unveiling to date of Microsoft's SQL Server 2008 database.

But as many as 20,000 users have already been testing the upcoming software, which is scheduled for release by next June. And their reactions, detailed in interviews or via blog postings, have been mostly positive thus far.

For instance, David Smith, CIO at ServiceU said that SQL Server 2008 has improvements in "hundreds of areas. It's exactly what I need."

ServiceU, a provider of event and box-office management services, is a member of Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program (TAP) for SQL Server and is already using an early version of the 2008 release in a number of business intelligence applications. Smith said he also plans to deploy SQL Server 2008 for ServiceU's mission-critical systems before the software's official release.

Gartner Inc. analyst Donald Feinberg said he thinks that SQL Server 2008 will put the Microsoft product on an equal footing with Oracle databases and IBM's DB2 in terms of base functionality.

Microsoft has made four Community Technical Preview (CTP) releases of SQL Server 2008 available for testing, with the most recent version appearing last month. One of the areas that Microsoft has particularly targeted for improvements is security, which was a major Achilles' heel as recently as SQL Server 2000 -- just two releases ago.

Many of the security shortcomings were fixed in the current SQL Server 2005 release, although the cost to Microsoft was an extra two years of development. Company officials say that SQL Server 2008 will add a number of additional security and auditing features, without an accompanying delay.

One of Microsoft's most highly touted new features is a data encryption capability that operates so transparently that users won't need to rewrite applications or suffer any performance hits when it is turned on, according to Ted Kummert, corporate vice president of the vendor's data and storage platform division. "It's important to cover data throughout the entire lifecycle, both when it's at rest and in motion," Kummert said.

First Premier Bank, a credit card issuer in Sioux Falls, S.D., is testing the transparent encryption feature on a 2TB data warehouse, according to Ron Van Zanten, the company's directing officer for business intelligence. So far, "the performance is OK," Van Zanten said, adding that the encryption tool is much simpler to implement than the one in SQL Server 2005 is.

While First Premier is interested in encrypting its core databases, Feinberg said the new feature could also prove useful for protecting mobile users who are running SQL Server on their laptops.

SQL Server 2008 also includes a so-called declarative management framework, which enables database administrators to apply policies to data. For instance, DBAs can set a group policy that all data residing in columns labeled as containing credit card numbers should be automatically encrypted.

That capability and an "All Actions Audited" feature that logs activities inside a database -- even work done by a DBA -- are designed to make it easier for companies to comply with stiffened auditing rules and regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Smith said those two additions to the database are important to ServiceU, which has to maintain all of its database event logs online for three months and off-line for a year in order to comply with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. During a single week, the company generates about 100GB of event logs, he noted.

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