Why Microsoft needs SQL Server on Linux

Microsoft has announced that it will finally bring its flagship database to the Linux operating system. Here's why that's more than just a trivial option or check box feature.
Written by Andrew Brust, Contributor

As covered by my ZDNet colleague Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft has announced that it is bringing its core, flagship relational database, SQL Server, to the Linux operating system.

The announcement came in the form of a blog post from Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's Executive Vice President for Enterprise and Cloud, with quotes and cooperation from both Red Hat and Canonical. And this looks to be much more than vapor: the product is apparently already available in the form of a private preview, with GA slated for mid-next year.

It's personal
I'm the co-author of a book on SQL Server, the co-chair of a conference focused on SQL Server, and am a Microsoft Data Platform MVP (an award that until recently went under the moniker "SQL Server MVP"). I've worked with every version of Microsoft SQL Server since version 4.2 in 1993.

I also work for Datameer, a Big Data analytics company that has a partnership with Microsoft and whose product is written in Java and runs primarily on Linux. With one leg in each ecosystem, I had hoped and expected that Microsoft would have a native RDBMS (relational database management system) for Linux soon. And I'm glad that hope has come true.

Cloud, containers and ISVs
So why is SQL Server on Linux important, and why is it necessary? The two biggest reasons are the cloud and relevance. Microsoft is betting big on Azure, its cloud platform, and with that shift, an orthodox Windows-only approach no longer makes sense. If Microsoft gets Azure revenue from a version of SQL Server that runs on Linux, then that's a win.

This approach has already been tested and proven advantageous. Just over a year ago, Microsoft announced that it would make available a Linux-based version of Azure HDInsight, its cloud Hadoop offering (check out Mary Jo's coverage here). Almost immediately, that gave Microsoft credibility in the Big Data world that it simply didn't have before.

Fellow Microsoft Data Platform MVP and Regional Director, Simon Sabin, pointed out something else to me: it may also be that a Linux version of SQL Server facilitates a play for Microsoft in the world of containerized applications. Yes, Windows-based containers are a thing, but the Docker community is much more in the Linux world.

Perhaps more important, the HDInsight on Linux offering made possible a number of partnerships with Big Data ISVs (independent software vendors) that were either not possible or much more difficult with a version of Hadoop that ran only on Windows Server. This includes the partnership between Datameer and Microsoft, which has already created business opportunities (read: revenue) for both companies that would not have otherwise existed. Proverbial win-win.

Enterprise and/or developers
Even if the Windows versions of SQL Server continue to have the fuller feature sets, a Linux version of the product brings Microsoft credibility. A huge number of companies, including influential tech startups, and those in the Enterprise, now view Windows-only products as less strategic, even if they are happy to deploy the product on that OS. SQL Server on Linux solves that problem.

Another issue it solves is the developer problem. So many developers now want to develop on a Linux-based stack. Over the years, SQL Server has lost mind share and market share to open source Linux-compatible databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL, despite the fact that Microsoft makes available SQL Server Express Edition, which is free, and SQL Server Developer Edition, which retails at $59.99 (and often has a street price that is even lower). SQL Server on Linux should help here as well.

Not quite home-free
There are still some questions, however. Will there be an Open Source version of SQL Server on Linux? If not, then Microsoft is still creating friction over MySQL and Postgres. And will there be a developer version of SQL Server that runs on Mac OS (itself a UNIX derivative)? If not, that could be a deterrent to the many developers who use Macs and want to be able to run local/offline at times.

SQL Server on *nix isn't really new. The SQL Server product was originally brought to market jointly by Microsoft and Sybase (now part of SAP). The Sybase builds ran on UNIX while the Microsoft builds ran on Windows and OS/2. But when Microsoft and Sybase had their infamous "divorce" and Microsoft came out with SQL Server 2005 (the first version my book covered) the new codebase was all Microsoft and all Windows. So SQL Server on Linux is still a pretty significant undertaking.

And, given the caveats I've outlined here, it's not clear that undertaking will pay off for Redmond. But let's not get too granular. SQL on Linux is the right move, and when taken together with so many of Microsoft's other right moves (e.g. Office and Outlook on iOS and Android; HDInsight on Linux; Linux on Azure) it's a component in an overall strategy that is already paying off and is likely to pay off even more, going forward.

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