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SQL Server 2016, Azure SQL Data Warehouse lead Microsoft cloud hopes

Microsoft is working on yet another computing transformation, and its SQL Server and Azure SQL products are central thereto. But the company faces stiff competition in the cloud from Amazon.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gushed a bit recently as he announced SQL Server 2016 to attendees at Ignite 2015 in Chicago. He'd enthused similarly at another conference the week before when he announced Azure SQL Data Warehouse.

The enduring mission of Microsoft, he told the Chicago crowd, is "to empower every person and organization on the planet." Those words border on what my Midwest friends might call "highfalutin." But Nadella may not be off base with his bold assertion.

Anyone who lived through the dramatic transition from mainframes to servers and PCs can tell you that Microsoft and a handful of others transformed corporate computing, simplifying complex technology and pricing it to move -- in effect making it available to almost everyone. Nadella is new to his job, and his enthusiasm for renewing Microsoft's ''enduring mission" is proper.

The relational database is one of the technologies to which Microsoft applied its simplifying-and-underpricing techniques. During the client-server days, the company bought rights to SQL Server from Sybase (now part of SAP), and began to build it out as the lower-priced alternative to IBM and Oracle relational database offerings.

Features added to SQL Server in recent years have much to do with the cloud, the most recent computer architecture to come and shake up the status quo.

Ignite and Build presage Azure data moves

At Ignite and earlier at Microsoft's Build 2015 event in San Francisco, there was a bounty of SQL Server news, much of it tied to the company's Azure cloud initiative.

The company discussed its upcoming Azure SQL Data Warehouse, which can elastically scale up or down and connects to Microsoft's Azure Machine Learning libraries. It also connects to Azure Data Lake, which integrates with Hadoop systems from Cloudera and Hortonworks while supporting Microsoft Hadoop tooling such as Azure HDInsight, which includes an Apache HBase columnar NoSQL database.

From Microsoft's perspective, the ability to link on-premises data and cloud-based systems is important, said T.K. "Ranga" Rengarajan, corporate vice president for data platforms at Microsoft. Rengarajan said the company's upcoming SQL Server 2016 will include Stretch Database technology that lets users dynamically move transactional data from a data center to the Azure cloud and still query it as needed.

MS seeks to threaten Amazon in cloud

In cloud computing, Microsoft must compete with Amazon. Amazon long ago expanded on its original efforts to disrupt book publishing -- moving on to things such as disrupting the computer industry, and in the process becoming the unquestioned leader in cloud computing.

Amazon has not just made large-scale distributed computing cheaper. It has also brought very advanced data technology to the party. The company offers Amazon RDS relational services, a NoSQL service called Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon ElastiCache and its highly influential Amazon Redshift parallel data warehouse in the cloud.

Microsoft is playing catch-up, but it may be making some inroads. Synergy Research Group estimates that Microsoft had the highest revenue growth rate (96%) among top providers of cloud infrastructure services in the first quarter of this year, besting Salesforce, IBM, Google and Amazon in that competition. Still, Amazon grew in the quarter, too (49%). Its market share alone (29%) surpasses the aforementioned companies' combined share.  

With regard to data, an important discrimination for Microsoft versus Amazon could be on-premises cloud support, said Doug Henschen, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research.

"The success of Amazon Redshift hasn't been lost on traditional database vendors, but with Amazon, you don't ever bring it on-premises," he said. "That is a key differentiator for companies like IBM, HP and Microsoft."

Not surprisingly, Microsoft's initial Azure data warehouse success is likely to come from companies that identify themselves as "Microsoft shops."

Amazon's disruptive cloud services mimic the disruptive effects young Microsoft thrust upon the world.

Such companies "have a comfort level with and an affinity for the Microsoft Azure cloud and .NET development frameworks, access controls, and database deployment and data management tools," said Henschen.

Microsoft's data technology is impressive, but Amazon's broad list of offerings is, too. It stole a march on its competitors when it opened up the gates to Redshift in late 2012. Capabilities, such as the Microsoft's SQL Server 2016 Stretch Database, are potent, but adoption will still take time.

Time may not be an issue to the typical Microsoft shop, one that somewhat relies on Microsoft to do the technology pioneering work. A public community technology preview is due this summer. Microsoft SQL Server 2016's name signals the company's intentions for general availability.

In a way, Amazon's disruptive cloud services mimic the disruptive effects young Microsoft thrust upon the world. Developers now can fire up new data-intensive applications over a weekend, and pay for them with a credit card. They don't have to go to IT to get an OK.

Sounds like the first days of personal computing. Then, spreadsheets crept into companies' departments on someone's PC. Microsoft knows that tune. Many are watching with interest as Nadella and his company try to navigate cloud, tools and data, with the intention to transform yet again.

Jack Vaughan is SearchDataManagement's news and site editor. Email him at [email protected], and follow us on Twitter: @sDataManagement.

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