SQL Server 2000 broadens its base

It's a long-held notion that if you need an enterprise-grade relational database, you turn to the likes of Oracle Corp. and IBM Corp. for the solution. But agencies that need relational database support on the middle tier have turned to Microsoft Corp.'s SQL Server as a solution that is easy to set up and that offers highly graphical tools that help administrators manage the database more easily.

It's a long-held notion that if you need an enterprise-grade relational database, you turn to the likes of Oracle Corp. and IBM Corp. for the solution. But agencies that need relational database support on the middle tier have turned to Microsoft Corp.'s SQL Server as a solution that is easy to set up and that offers highly graphical tools that help administrators manage the database more easily.

Although SQL Server offers ease of use, it has not been able to deliver the scalability, reliability and availability of the enterprise-grade databases. With the impending release of SQL Server 2000, Microsoft is taking aim at the enterprise-level database market. If the final shipping release of SQL Server 2000 maintains and polishes what is found in this beta version, Microsoft will have taken the right steps, though it may be too little, too late in challenging the high-end market dominance of Oracle and IBM.

What's New

Those test-driving SQL Server 2000 beta 2 will find a slew of additions and improvements that attempt to address administration, accessibility and the needs of Windows developers. For example, support has been added for Extensible Markup Language (XML) English-based natural language queries and data mining and analysis tools, along with new replication functionality.

The beta offers three installation methods — normal, upgrade and multi-instance. I tried all three and completed the installations successfully. The multi-instance installation is particularly interesting because it can be used to maintain public and private databases that can be centrally managed. Oracle's database has offered this type of support for some time.

SQL Server administrators who may be a tad nervous about upgrading to SQL Server 2000 can install both versions on a single server. In case a migration is deemed appropriate, Microsoft has supplied a tool to migrate your data to the new SQL Server 2000.

One of the coolest new features of SQL Server 2000 beta 2 is publish-and- subscribe replication, which lets you distribute database changes to a group of servers in a server farm. However, SQL Server 2000 does not yet support the same type of distributed configurations that rivals such as Oracle do, so the replication enhancements' usefulness is limited.

In a publish-and-subscribe scenario, you'll need to define a distributor — a SQL Server instance that is used to track changes in data. Then you'll need to decide which database instance is the publisher and who will subscribe to what data.

In addition, you can replicate one way or two ways in a push or pull form. You can also replicate in real time or via queues. The SQL Server 2000 replication technology works great, but Microsoft has not yet addressed distributing workload across multiple servers to the same degree that competitors have.

You can use Windows cluster support, which has limitations, or you might use IP-based load balancing. But your best bet for distributing workload at the present time remains custom coding. If Microsoft can expand support for distributing workload, the replication enhancements would be really useful on the middle and back-end layers of agency computing environments.

Administrative Ease

SQL Server 2000 continues to play to Microsoft's strength in the database arena: easy-to-use administration tools. You can still access and use the command line interface, but Microsoft has neatly folded the SQL Server administration functions into its graphical Microsoft Management Console (MMC).

It is very easy to access data and create reports via the MMC interface. Moreover, backing up databases using the tools provided is easier than ever. Die-hard database administrators will still be tempted to hit the command line, but Microsoft is addressing the training needs of new database administrators quite nicely with its graphical tools.

Windows developers will like a lot of the new additions and enhancements in SQL Server 2000 beta 2. Like its database rivals, Microsoft is jumping on the XML bandwagon.

The company has extended Transact-SQL to include XML statements. You might use this new XML support to return the results of a query in an XML form that can be exchanged with another agency.

You can also view SQL Server data in an XML form via the XML Document Object Model view provided. Microsoft expects to offer other XML tools and utilities after SQL Server 2000 reaches production.

The bevy of new additions and enhancements are too numerous to mention here. If your agency is likely to move toward SQL Server 2000, it might be wise to download it and evaluate it for yourself in a test environment. Microsoft may not have caught up to the enterprise databases yet, but it is making good strides in that direction.

—Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center. She has more than 15 years of IT experience, and writes the InfoWorld Enterprise Toolbox column.

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