Test Center Rx: Choosing an SQL Server

SAN MATEO (04/18/2000) - I am in the process of putting forward a recommendation for which SQL server our company should buy. I'm not a SQL person myself, and I'm confused by a lot of what I'm hearing. Our company has only one full-time developer; he has never worked with a SQL server, but he thinks Oracle Corp. is the best solution for us. We run entirely on Microsoft Corp. products, and I'm worried that Microsoft SQL Server might actually be a better solution (or at least easier for me to administer because it looks like it'll end up being my job). We are on a limited budget, and it looks as if the Microsoft solution would be cheaper, too.

Much of our data is already in an Access database, but it's become a mess; so we need to revalidate the data. I've also heard that it's easy to move a database from Access to Microsoft SQL Server.

Can you give me some advice about choosing a SQL server and how well Oracle runs on Windows NT? (We haven't upgraded to Windows 2000 yet.) Am I going to be in over my head with either one of these products?

Brian Mehl

Brooks: The answer to your last question is "yes." No matter what you choose, you've got a learning period ahead of you.

It's hard to make a blanket recommendation here without understanding your situation and what you're trying to accomplish. And the question is more than just "How big will the database get?"

I've worked with both Oracle and Microsoft SQL servers a fair amount, and they're both first-rate products. If you go with Oracle, you'll have the advantage of robust cross-platform support should you decide to migrate your back end to something other than Windows NT.

The downside is that Oracle is less friendly to the novice administrator, and that sounds like you. SQL Server has loads of wizards, and in typical Microsoft style, the admin tools are straightforward and easy to use.

As for the Access to SQL Server conversion, don't do it. I've been involved in two projects that used the converter, and in both cases the so-called Upsizing Tool set us back days, if not weeks. It's got a penchant for renaming objects and breaking referential integrity.

So, in true columnist fashion, I'll have to equivocate here. Oracle is the more solid, mature, robust, serious platform. If you get good at it, Oracle skills are more marketable (or at least higher paying) than SQL Server skills. But if you're looking for the easiest, simplest solution, I think you're probably best off with SQL Server. What do you think, Lori?

Lori: Whichever product you choose, you will have to learn more about SQL. You will most likely come up to speed quicker on SQL Server because you are already familiar with their products and it is easier to use and get started. If you work for a strictly Microsoft shop, you may want to continue in this direction.

However, it is important to listen to your developer as to why he believes Oracle is the better bet. You'll have to consider the long-term goals of your database design and direction. Brooks makes many good points regarding the advantages of Oracle, which has the more robust platform.

Both SQL Server and Oracle are strong products and are widely used. I believe that Oracle is found in large and heavy-use environments such as e-commerce. To make the best decision, I suggest finding out exactly what you want to accomplish and what your company's future goals are.

As far as saving the data that you already have in Access, you should be able to import the data into either system by using an import utility. As Brooks mentions, Microsoft has tools for moving your Access 97 data into SQL Server 7 with Microsoft's upsizing wizard tools. But I don't have the personal experience that Brooks has in using this feature. There are white papers available on the Microsoft Web site that discuss using these tools.

My bottom line is that if you want to make a rapid change and get up to speed on SQL relatively quickly, go with the Microsoft solution. If this is not the case and you are not locked in to the Microsoft platform, then carefully consider how far each solution can take you, and match that with what you and your company want to accomplish.

Brooks Talley is senior business and technology architect for InfoWorld.com.

Lori Mitchell is a senior analyst in the Test Center. Send your questions for them to testcenter_rx@infoworld.com.

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