Redmond Review

Can SQL Server Punch Through the Clouds to No. 1?

SQL Azure has become a major pillar in Microsoft's cloud-based strategy.

At the end of August, while everyone was enjoying a last blast of summer, Microsoft announced a last blast of its own: Redmond told us that the next version of SQL Server, code-named "Denali," will be the final version to support the OLE DB data-access API. Microsoft says that SQL Server will now be aligned with ODBC. Considering that OLE DB was introduced roughly 15 years ago as a replacement for ODBC, there's a modicum of irony here.

But it's not a crazy move: Throughout the OLE DB era, ODBC has continued to enjoy the industry's broad support. Maybe this decision is just Redmond's belated recognition of a market preference. Microsoft has had a succession of database APIs over the last 20 years, and killing OLE DB may be just one more twist to the tale. But the decision seems to go beyond mere API support issues, extending to SQL Server's status as a cross-platform standard, and the status of SQL Azure as a major pillar in the Microsoft cloud strategy.

It's All About the Interop
Fundamental to my thinking are the blog posts announcing the OLE DB decision (bit.ly/pLpvRC and bit.ly/oYWm2f). They discuss not just the favored status of ODBC, but also SQL Server support for Java and PHP. At first I saw this as a non sequitur -- even a deliberate distraction, meant to quell criticism. But after further reflection, it started to make sense: Microsoft is decoupling SQL Server from Windows-centric OLE DB to broaden the flagship database's appeal across different developer stacks.

Of course, SQL Server has long been usable from non-Windows platforms. Support for Java developers isn't new, and explicit support for PHP developers goes back to 2009 (see my May column from that year). But supporting and evangelizing SQL Server on these platforms has been more of a gesture than a market-altering initiative. So why the renewed interop focus? Why deprecate OLE DB now?

Two words: the cloud. SQL Server may have worked with Java and PHP before, but applications written in those languages often run on OSes other than Windows. Bringing a Windows server into the mix just for the database, in many cases, has simply been a deal-breaker. But as developers warm up to cloud computing, especially for database management, the underlying OS is an abstract matter; the database box is black. For developers using cloud databases, the API matters most. And for developers on non-Microsoft platforms, the call-level interface of ODBC works better than the COM-based interface of OLE DB. So SQL Server becomes more palatable, ODBC wins, and so do Java and PHP developers. For Microsoft to beat its competitors, sometimes it needs to help them.

Looking to Precedent
We've seen this before. Another Microsoft enterprise product, Exchange Server, provides support for the effectiveness of this "coopetition" approach. When Exchange ActiveSync was introduced, it provided push e-mail service to Windows Mobile devices. At the time, that Windows Mobile-Exchange combination was a breakthrough, meant to challenge the dominance of RIM BlackBerry devices and BlackBerry Enterprise Server in push e-mail. But the Windows Mobile market share challenges constrained the success of Exchange in this arena. Microsoft's response? License Exchange ActiveSync to its smartphone competitors, including Apple and Google.

Licensing Exchange ActiveSync helped make iPhone much more compelling than it was upon introduction, and it made Android 2.x handsets acceptable to business users, too. This probably hurt Windows Mobile, which lasted for only one more major update and one subsequent dot release. But it consolidated Microsoft's dominant position in the enterprise e-mail space; has likely contributed to the success of Exchange Online and Office 365; inflicted at least 10 of the 1,000 cuts now plaguing RIM; and hammered another nail in the IBM Lotus Notes coffin.

That takes us right back to the database world: According to the product Web site, SQL Server had overtaken another IBM product -- DB2 -- for the No. 2 spot in relational database license revenue by 2009. You can bet that Microsoft Server & Tools Business President Satya Nadella has his eyes on No. 1. And knowing Nadella, he'll want to use the cloud to get Microsoft over the top.

Interoperability helps server market share. Server market share begets cloud momentum. If the cloud is SQL's road to No. 1 in the database world, then maybe SQL is Windows Azure's ticket to No. 1 in the cloud world. Exchange ActiveSync brought e-mail interop and Microsoft's enterprise e-mail leadership. Maybe the renaissance of ODBC, one of Microsoft's first 1990s client/server salvos, can lead to similar leadership in this decade for Microsoft in the cloud.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Founder and CEO of Blue Badge Insights, an analysis, strategy and advisory firm serving Microsoft customers and partners. Brust is also a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; an advisor to the New York Technology Council; and co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press, 2012). A frequent speaker at industry events, Brust is co-chair of the Visual Studio Live! family of conferences and a contributing editor to Visual Studio Magazine. Brust has been a participant in the Microsoft ecosystem for over 20 years, and has worked closely with both Microsoft's Redmond-based corporate team and its field organization for much of the last 15. He is a member of several "insiders" groups that supply him with insight around important technologies out of Redmond. Follow Brust on Twitter @andrewbrust.

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