Microsoft made a big deal about the Big Data and business intelligence capabilities built into Microsoft SQL Server 12 during last month’s launch, touting changes to the main SQL Server 2012 database engine for improved programmability, manageability, scalability and security. In addition, Microsoft introduced components for integration, analysis and better reporting.
Features such as AlwaysOn provide greater available within any SQL Server infrastructure, and the In-Memory Column Store dramatically improves query response. Microsoft claims SQL 2012 query execution is up to 100 times faster than previous versions.
SQL Server 2012 also facilitates cloud deployments. SQL Server databases can be distributed between cloud and on-premise environments. The new system also does a better job of visually representing data. And it incorporates Apache Hadoop to be able to analyze unstructured data, too.
SQL Server 2012 Strengths
So is this a game changer? It depends on who you ask. Boris Evelson, an analyst with Forrester Research, feels it is important that Microsoft is offering a BI-specific version of SQL Server which is tuned and optimized for business intelligence.
“It comes with the latest versions of PowerPivot and PowerViewer, which are among the top products addressing key BI trends such as data exploration and discovery, enablement of business users and data visualization,” said Evelson.
As many organizations already have either SQL Server, Microsoft SharePoint or both, by upgrading to the latest versions, they gain all Microsoft business intelligence tools, including PowerPivot, PowerViewer and others, at no additional cost.
“The question then should be asked: why do we need anything else for BI? That’s what gets Microsoft competitors worried,” said Evelson.
The release also gives Microsoft a leg up on the overall trend toward agile business intelligence. Evelson explained that mainstream relational databases are often an awkward fit for BI. While usable, they require tuning, customization and constant fiddling. Relational database management systems (RDBMS) such as IBM’s DB2, Oracle and Sybase ASE were built with a row-based structure that performs well with transaction processing, but doesn’t fare so well with the heavy reporting and analysis demands of business intelligence.
Thus the old school isn’t agile enough to cope with the surge in interest in self-service business intelligence, mobile business intelligence and social networking analysis. Evelson sees Microsoft’s SQL Server 2012 platform as a move in the right direction toward an alternative database management system that facilities greater business intelligence agility.
Noel Yuhanna, another Forrester Analyst specializing in SQL Server, agrees. He noted that many organizations already have SQL Server even though it may not be their primary database or warehouse.
“With tighter integration of the BI platform with SQL Server 2012, customers can now take advantage of improved performance, scale and reliability,” said Yuhanna. “If you add PowerPivot to the list, it definitely becomes more cost effective than others.”
SQL Server 2012 Challenges
But it isn’t all roses, clover or a lifetime supply of Wonka Bars.
Yuhanna is under no misconception that Microsoft is suddenly going to own the entire business intelligence landscape due to a few changes to SQL Server. The release is more likely to impact those already committed to the Microsoft vision for the enterprise, or those newly adopting business intelligence.
“As long as you are on the Windows stack and have data in SQL server, going the Microsoft way for the BI platform is definitely beneficial and economical,” said Yuhanna. “But the moment you start using data from non- Microsoft sources or outside of the Windows platform, that’s where Microsoft’s competitors such as Oracle, SAP, IBM or Teradata continue to have an advantage. Although, Microsoft competitors are worried, I believe they are not too worried because Microsoft SQL Server BI platform still has a ways to go to become a real threat.”
In particular, Yuhanna said, Microsoft’s business intelligence platform is still challenged in the areas of in-memory analysis, very large business implementations and deployments that require stronger integration with non-Microsoft data.
Forrester analyst John Rymer offered a different perspective. He noted a definite trend in how Microsoft addresses any market it seeks to own. Instead of becoming the master of certain niches, it seeks to become the overarching generalist and offer its wares at a highly competitive price point.
“Microsoft’s approach to BI and most every other market is to find the high-volume products in that space,” said Rymer. “Microsoft doesn’t ever go deep into a functional area – it tries to provide the 20 percent of features that 80 percent of the customers are willing to pay for. It lets its partners fill the gaps.”
Additional Takes on SQL Server 2012
Panorama Software is one of many Microsoft partners on the bandwagon. Its socially-enabled business intelligence platform known as Necto has already been upgraded to support SQL Server 2012. Necto can combine data from multiple sources, including the cloud, applications, flat files, financial reporting and others.
Rony Ross, founder of Panorama Software, listed some of the bonuses of the new Microsoft product. “Necto users can now utilize in-memory technology, which allows them to build new BI models on the fly for a more agile business analysis,” said Ross. “In addition, SQL 2012 is much faster in many of its operations both around BI and overall operations.”
She puts this down to new in-memory features which allows for acceleration of the business intelligence engine. Necto takes advantage of how SQL Server 2012 promotes several metadata layers. These metadata layers are added into Necto’s contextual discovery engine to aid in analysis, she explained.
“With these capabilities, coupled with its support for Big Data and overall improved capabilities, we see SQL 2012 as the leading BI engine offering in the market giving customers both the best cost/ benefit capabilities as well as the overall capabilities for a BI engine,” Ross said.
Those enticed by the new promise of the upgraded database do have a few barriers standing in their way, however. Geoff Ballard, chief technology officer with UK-based system integrator Ballard Chalmers Group, advises users to prepare carefully for any upgrade to SQL Server 2012.
“Making the move to the latest version of the SQL relational database management system can be daunting in its complexity,” he said. “Code and stored procedures may have to be re-written, applications updated and other processes may need to be modified.”
Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).