After five long years in development, after delay upon delay, after the Blaster worm threw the SQL Server team for a paradigm-shifting tizzy, after the miraculously rubbery feature list contracted and expanded like Gumby on a rabid bronco, it's here: SQL Server 2005.

After five long years in development, after delay upon delay, after the Blaster worm threw the SQL Server team for a paradigm-shifting tizzy, after the miraculously rubbery feature list contracted and expanded like Gumby on a rabid bronco, it's here: SQL Server 2005.

Microsoft will launch officially on Monday the three products that together compose its "application platform" for the future: its SQL Server 2005 database, Visual Studio 2005 tool suite, and its BizTalk Server 2006 integration server.

SQL Server 2005 (code-named Yukon) and Visual Studio 2005 (code-named Whidbey) are shipping now.

BizTalk Server 2006 is on tap to ship in the early part of 2006, as will the Team Server edition of Visual Studio 2005.

Of the triumvirate, SQL Server 2005, Microsoft's next-generation database, is the beating heart.

It's the encapsulation of Microsoft's plans to bust out of the departmental closet.

It's Microsoft's attempt to expand beyond the humble ranks of the inexpensive, easy-to-use database used on the departmental level but rarely in the aristocracies of high-end data centers, where databases have to scale like mad to earn their place at the end of a power cord.

Here's how it now stands: Gartner Group's database market stats from May showed Microsoft in third place, with a 20 percent share of the overall relational DBMS (database management system) market.

IBM and Oracle Corp., in contrast, were neck-and-neck, with both holding about 34 percent of the market.

Microsoft owns the low end of the database market, with the SMB market neatly tied up.

The only place to go, the only place to change its third-place status, is up the food chain, into the realm of the enterprise.

How's it getting there? This database release comes packed with enterprise goodies.

Feature breakthroughs include scalability and performance boosts such as 64-bit support and partitioning; high-availability features include database mirroring and failover clustering; security enhancements will bring data encryption and key management; programmability benefits include T-SQL enhancements and integration with CLR (Common Language Runtime) and .Net, along with XQuery, native XML and Web services integration; and one of the tastiest slices of the pie, the BI (Business Intelligence) capabilities and integration with Office 12.

When it comes to scaling the enterprise walls, the BI piece of the puzzle is crucial. Much of the 10.3 percent growth in the 2004 database market came from BI, data warehousing and data analysis.

Hence we see Microsoft responding to the increasing hunger to analyze geometrically expanding data stores by tying in powerful tools to its overall BI platform, including data integration, analysis, reporting and Report Builder, the end user ad hoc reporting tool that, Microsoft says, is its customers' most frequently requested BI functionality.

Microsoft's BI plans don't stop there.

The company is set to revolutionize use of the insanely popular Excel spreadsheet, setting it up so that Office 12 has new server-side Excel capabilities called Excel Services.

Click here to read more about Microsoft's business intelligence plans.

With Excel Services, Excel will be able to be used as a BI interface sitting on top of SQL Server.

What will that do? For the first time, it will give administrators the power to centrally secure, share and manage spreadsheets on the server, as opposed to the all-too-familiar scenario of having knowledge walk out the door when employees with mission-critical data stored on their desktops leave the company.

Understandably, when it comes to SQL Server 2005, BI vendors are none too pleased.

Hardware vendors, on the other hand, are ecstatic.

SQL Server 2000 has supported a 64-bit version for Itanium for some time. That's nice, but Itanium serves a high-end, niche server market.

The majority of databases Microsoft sells are on X86-based platforms, not Itanium.

SQL Server 2005, on the other hand, is plugging into AMD's Opteron. SQL Server 2005 running on top of Opteron-based servers are benchmarking at comparable performance to proprietary, RISC-based platforms.

That means that for comparable performance, businesses will now be able to pay about half the amount of money.

Next Page: Addressing customers' worries.

Margaret Lewis, AMD's commercial software strategist, said this addresses something data center customers are particularly worried about: bringing in powerful servers that need a lot of power and cooling.

For the financial community in Manhattan, for example, it's simply not doable, given the astronomical costs associated with bringing additional power lines into buildings.

"They need to fill computing centers with very efficient power platforms that still give performance they need but fit within the power envelope," she said.

Whereas people have in the past bought high-end, large SMP servers for running critical databases, there's now an alternative in terms of performance, reliability and availability.

As Lewis pointed out, it's not often that big advancements happen in the database world, but this is one of them.

"What I think it will do is make people think about the underlying architecture in data centers," she said.

Put that thought on top of the fact that BI has become a crucial part of the enterprise-level database.

"What we're seeing is the major database vendors such as Oracle and Microsoft are understanding that it isn't just data management anymore," Lewis said. "That users are looking for more than just a backend database. So you're seeing [the vendors] responding."

Users stand to benefit with more analysis tools that are easier to use and more tightly packaged with databases.

The new, more affordable chips will form an infrastructure to handle data very well, but will also have the CPU power for doing the advanced, now more widely available data analysis.

It's the launch of a radically new application platform. It's the launch of Microsoft's raid on the enterprise.

It's the convergence of high-performance, low-cost chips, a plethora of BI, new manageability features, and plenty more.

Finally, it's here, and after enterprises have a chance to plug it into production, time will tell if SQL Server 2005 was worth the wait and if it lives up to its heady promise.

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