Duelling databases: Four apps tested

Summary:Databases are by no means an easy product category to understand. Many of the big players now offer free or "light" versions of their databases, but comparing them all is no easy task -- as we found out.

SQL Server Express Edition (Beta2)
SQL Server Express is one of two free databases we tested and is actually Microsoft's replacement for its earlier free offering the Microsoft Desktop Engine (MSDE) which was based on the old Access technology. Express is a complete redesign and meets HIPA requirements with robust security features. There is one particular advantage over MSDE that should be noted and that is Express no longer has a "governor" that would kick in with MSDE and throttle back performance.

Product Microsoft SQL Server Express (Beta2)
Price SQL Server Express is free to use and redistribute. End users must agree to the Go Live licensing to distribute this release of SQL Server Express Edition.
Vendor Microsoft
Phone 13 20 58
Web www.microsoft.com.au
Limited to one CPU and single user thread, good features set, very good user interface, solutions only for Windows.
Very limited capacity when compared to the other solutions straight out of the box. However, scaling up to Enterprise versions of SQL Server is straighforward.
Admittedly free but has limited features compared to the other offerings.
Support includes e-mail with a one day turn around and Mon-Fri 9am to 5pm telephone support. Extended support plans are available.
Express has very modest hardware requirements -- its recommended system is a single 1GHz CPU with 512MB of memory and 170MB of disk space for the install. If you need more grunt for your server, then adding a second CPU is not going to cut it as the application runs a single-user scheduler thread and so will only use the first CPU; more grunt simply requires a faster CPU. Bearing in mind our scenario company, this puts a limitation on scalability for our proposed e-commerce site -- initially the 1GB maximum buffer pool size and 4GB database size limit would fit the bill but as the company grows there may well be a problem.

Perhaps the biggest limitation is that Express only scales to several dozen users, at which point Microsoft recommends upgrading to SQL Server Standard Edition. That said, you could support up to 1000 users as long as they did not place too much load on the database. What Express does not include when compared to SQL Server SE and above is Analysis Services, Reporting Services, Data Transformation Services, and Notification Services but some users would argue that these features are crippleware anyway.

Then, of course, there is the database size limit of 4GB. Now this does sound quite large, and for a pure text-based database it would be massive when compared to the requirements of our fledgling company scenario. However, we are talking online purchasing and purchasers are going to want to see pictures and specs of what they are buying, which in turn can bloat out a database severely.

In other ways the database competes quite well with the competition in terms of index lengths, 32 nested procedure levels, 1024 columns per table, triggers, and no limit on the table row length. To log into the database you can choose to simply go with Windows Authentication or "Mixed Mode" which is a mix of Windows and SQL Server Authentication. Express supports data encryption and provides audit trails. We found we were unable to connect at all with the database when we tried to use Windows Authentication, so we reinstalled with the Mixed Mode option and all was fine.

Express has Native XML support, integrates with Visual Studio so that developers can add data and query databases within Visual Studio -- it is through Visual Studio that users are able to create reports with tables and charts. A neat feature is "Xcopy" that makes it simple to move databases from one location to another.

The format of SQL supported is Transact-SQL and Express utilises "Snapshot Isolation Level" to ensure users only read consistent and committed data.

There is no denying that SQL Server Express is the weakest of the databases in this group but it is free and if funds are particularly tight it may just help your start-up company get off the ground. It should cope with the early days of a small e-commerce site and when the company begins to hit the limits of Express it is a simple matter, although more costly to migrate the database over to SQL Server Standard Edition for example. As is expected, it only runs on a Windows platform.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Big Data, Reviews

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