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A Visit to Microsoft and SQL Server 2016

By Andy Warren,

Today we have a guest editorial from Andy Warren as Steve is on vacation. 

Back in May I was invited to attend a press event for the SQL Server 2016 launch. Press events tend to be like keynotes; well scripted and focused on educating industry analysts who will reach the C level audience. I attended one a few years ago, and it was interesting but not exciting, perhaps mostly from me wanting it to be something other than what it was. I decided that this time I'd listen more for the message(s) they were trying to send to the C­ suite and then assess afterward how that aligned or not with the realities of someone working with SQL Server.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the event formatted as an all day workshop. A small classroom was set up and there were a series of lab exercises throughout the day. All started with a good introduction to the feature, then some labs were self-paced and others were instructor led. I imagine that for the true analysts the experience had to be especially interesting. It's one thing to hear "we have great new feature X", something else to actually use the feature, then be able to ask better questions based on that experience and finally find a way to explain that to readers. We looked at stretch databases, Availability Groups, R, security and a handful more. Good stuff, but no amazing reveals.

There was a thread of excitement that I heard from all of speakers during the day. SQL 2016 is the first version where the development team released all new features to Azure first (commonly described as 'cloud first'), and that has had a big and positive impact on the development cycle and the resulting product. Hearing "cloud first" may sound like the latest marketing buzz phrase or incite a bit of fear if you still work with phsycial servers, but what it really means is that Microsoft has gone from releasing SQL Server every 2 years to releasing features when they are ready (to the cloud, for now). Does that matter? If you ship software, you know it does!

It's not just releasing faster, though that's certainly valuable. It's faster feedback and more feedback. Imagine working on a few feature for months or more, then waiting for it to be "boxed" and shipped months later before you get real user feedback. With the new model developers release new features with a feature flag that lets them turn it on for a limited number of users to get early feedback, then add more users as confidence grows. Telemetry lets them determine whether those users are truly using the new feature and how it's responding. It's a common pattern in software development and perhaps the only thing surprising about it is that Microsoft is doing it at scale. The core message to the C Suite was "ready on day one", based on all the cloud first testing and releasing, with the subtext of ending the mantra of 'wait for SP1'. I wonder if that will resonate.

CIO's aren't risk takers in general and few are going to plan for an upgrade until the release is generally available. I think what remains to be seen is whether the bug count (and the type of bugs) is lower for SQL 2016 than earlier versions. If its significantly lower that will validate the 'cloud first' aspect and should make it easier to support upgrading sooner to future versions. I expect that for SQL 2016 the upgrade cycle will still be driven by the need for a particular feature more than a 'just do it' approach.

As a working DBA I heard two things that seemed very positive (not counting the new features and improvements of course). One was that Microsoft sees the ability to offer both cloud and physical options as a differentiator ­ not even a glimmer that the physical (boxed) product was being deprecated, down played or ignored. The other was R. It's been added to SQL Server as a value add, much like SSIS or SSRS, and that reinforces the view that SQL Server is the hub for all of things data. Rather than seeing the product splinter, it feels more like it's coalescing.

It was a day well spent for me ­ a chance to see behind the curtain just a bit. Now that SQL 2016 has been released put some time on your calendar to look at the new features (see the resource list here on SSCa>). It's time well spent even if you're going to be upgrading immediately.

Note: Microsoft paid for my travel to the press event.

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