Archive for January, 2008

MS SQL Server Express: a good choice?

technology02.pngMicrosoft SQL Server comes in many editions, ranging from completely free to use and distribute to versions costing tens of thousands of dollars.
For small businesses, or when you can live with the limits imposed, the Express edition is one option to consider.

SQL Server logoHere are some reasons why SQL Server Express may be a good choice:

You’re upsizing an Access database

SQL Server is the natural extension of upsizing an existing Access database. It work automagically with minimum effort providing that you followed some simple good-design rules from the start.

You’re future-proofing your needs

Because SQL Server comes in many flavours, you know you -or your customers- can upgrade to a more capable (albeit more expensive) version in the future if needed.

Very flexible

As usual with a lot of Microsoft development tools, SQL Server will happily let you shoot yourself in the foot by providing you with a fairly easy way to treat your database as a complete development platform.
It’s good in the sense that you have interesting tools and capabilities included in the server, and it’s bad for the exact same reasons.
I tend to prefer database servers to be just that: data repositories, and I’m not too fond of relying on specific, non-standard features of a particular database system, but what do I know.

Excellent out-of-the-box development support

Deep integration with .Net and Visual Studio, without any effort, Microsoft saw to that of course.
In some cases, such as LINQ to SQL, it’s almost the only real choice, although the other database vendors are working hard at the necessary providers, so that lead should be short-lived.
There is something to be said about developer productivity: you have to give credit to Microsoft for making their tools well integrated and usable from each-other. What it means is that for small developer shops there is much to gain in surrendering to this “ease of the default”.
Of course, it’s a double-edged sword, but having a complete development infrastructure work out of the box is certainly a big help, and if you don’t like it, you’re still free to chose something else.

Lots of tools

With SQL Server Advanced Services, you also get Server Management and Reporting Services. These are great tools made available for free.
The only missing one for SQL Server is the Reporting designer. While the reporting service means that you can use existing reports, only SQL Server Standard and Enterprise have it.
There is an option for developers though: the (nearly free) SQL Server Developer edition is in fact the same as SQL Server Enterprise, without the license to use in non-developer or tester environment. This means that as a developer, you can create and distribute your reports to be used by your customers who will be using SQL Server Express.

Did I mention it’s free?

db_status.pngAll this is free, as in beer, not as in liberty though.
For commercial applications targeted at small businesses, SQL Server Express is a really good choice: you can distribute it without problem, the customer gets all the tools, can easily find outside support, and they can always migrate to a more beefy version if their needs grow, all that without having to depend on you.
So it sort of offers customers a kind of freedom that they wouldn’t have with other choices.

Of course you can get that with other database systems, although you have to be careful which Open Source one you choose: I recently decided not to use MySQL any longer for the simple reason that it’s too expensive and restrictive in a business environment, at least for the kind of work I do.

Why would you not want to use SQL Server Express?

You don’t want to depend on Microsoft

That can be a good reason enough sometimes. There is nothing preventing Microsoft from crippling SQL Server Express in the future to force users to move to a paying version early.
I suppose that whatever database system you use, even Open Source ones, there is always the possibility that the company supporting its development goes bankrupt, the Open Source projects goes dead or decides to go in a direction that doesn’t suit you..

It’s only supported on Microsoft OS

True, and that’s a good reason to chose something else.
There is a hidden cost in SQL Server Express: it needs to run on a Windows machine, and that’s not free, although SQL Server will work on older Windows 2000 machines and Windows XP which are arguably not expensive.

Your database needs will exceed SQL Server Express specifications

If you think any of your databases will grow beyond 4GB or that it will get busy and you need all the RAM and CPU you can get, then SQL Server Express is probably not for you as it will only use 1 CPU and 1GB of RAM at most.
If your needs go beyond that, then you’ll have to move to a paying version.

Upgrading can be expensive

It’s true that moving to the next cheapest upgrade of SQL Server Workgroup will cost you about US$700 for a 5 user license. The limits imposed on the database are much higher (2 processors, 3GB RAM and no size limit) but if you need more clients / or higher limits, then the expense will grow quite fast, and you’ll have to manage those hateful client access licenses.

Your needs are more modest

We haven’t talked here about single-file/single-user database systems. These databases don’t user resident services and are usually meant for more limited needs, sometimes allowing only a single user to be connected.
The footprint of these non-server databases is a lot smaller, typically only requiring a single dll or a handful of files to be installed.
They are extremely useful for desktop application that do not really require multi-user support or advanced security features.
Here again, Microsoft offers SQL Server Compact, which, despite the name, doesn’t have much to do with the other SQL Server editions. This one is also free, but has a limited feature set and only allow single-user access as it is meant to be a lightweight database and works well in limited memory environments such as those found on mobile devices.
SQLite logoOf course, here again there is a lot of competition: Thunderbird, SQLite, MS Access and VistaDB (for embedding into .Net applications, not free) to name a few.

These are pretty good times when it comes to databases: we get more choices now than we ever had.
As usual, choosing a database as a back-end for your products isn’t easy: you need to consider cost, licensing, support and the future.
There isn’t a single database system that will meet everyone’s needs for all types of use, so choose carefully.
SQL Server Express is a very good contender in that market. It should not be dismissed out of hand because it’s from Microsoft, in the same way that PostgreSQL shouldn’t be dismissed because it’s Open Source.
Just use the tool that best answers your needs for your particular circumstances.


Add comment January 30th, 2008

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