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4/21/2008
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Cloud Computing: Microsoft Joins Emerging Database-as-a-Service Market

SQL Server Data Services is a late-but-promising entrant in an emerging market that promises to be a boon to small and midsized firms looking to reach distributed groups of employees, partners or customers while controlling costs.

It's a proverbial warning shot across the bow of "cloud computing" database service providers — most notably Amazon but also others. It's also an attempt to steam ahead of the likes of Oracle and IBM. But most of all, Microsoft's recent beta release of SQL Server Data Services (SSDS) provides an intriguing and potentially exciting opportunity for small and large businesses that are making a foray into the rapidly evolving Cloud Computing and Web 2.0 environment.

SSDS falls into the relatively new category of Database-as-a-Service” (DBaaS). Here is how it works. Let's say you're building a social Web site where visitors can post their high school prom photographs and share them with friends and relatives. On a conventional site you would need to procure and deploy a database to hold all the related data — names, addresses, photographs, reader comments etc. That could be expensive even without the ongoing maintenance and support costs. With SSDS, the site's database needed could be taken care of by the online SSDS Web data store. You provide the Web application and the data definitions, and Microsoft provides the Web-based database and the maintenance.

Analysts expect DBaaS to grow rapidly on pace with the cloud computing trend. The approach is expected to appeal particularly to small and midsized companies looking to serve widely distributed communities, but it also faces the inevitable security, availability and performance questions faced by software-as-a-service providers.

What's In a Name?

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been providing databases for years, so what’s new in DBaaS? The difference is that with the ISP model, your application is collocated with the database: in essence, you're simply moving the application deployment platform — the full stack — from your premises to the ISP’s premises. With DBaaS, the stack is dismantled, and your application does not (and typically will not) be collocated with the database. The database is truly a service, with all the benefits and drawbacks of a widely distributed service oriented architecture.

There's already plenty of DBaaS competition, with stalwarts as well as startups jostling for spotlight. Force.com, the Salesforce.com platform-as-a-service, includes a database component, as does LongJump, a start-up competitor to Salesforce.com. EnterpriseDB, another start-up, has an offering based on the open source PostgreSQL database and Amazon S3, and offered through Amazon’s portfolio of cloud computing services. Trackvia and Intuit QuickBase offer their own variants of cloud databases.

It's important to dispel any confusion between DBaaS and the closely related concepts of Data as a Service (DaaS), Storage as a service (to avoid confusion, let's not call it "SaaS"), and Information as a Service (IaaS). DaaS is the broadest concept, ranging from simple storage providers (such as GoogleBase and Amazon S3) and low-complexity database services (such as Amazon SimpleDB and Microsoft SSDS) to Web services providers (like StrikeIron, an IBM partner in supporting mashups) and value-added data services (such as Kognitio, which offers on-demand data analytics).

DBaaS focuses on one part of data services: The ability to support potentially complex data models by offering, quite literally, (relational) databases on the Web. Storage-as-a-service operates at a lower level and is the equivalent self-storage on the Web: You rent a volume of space and not much else is included by way of value-added features. Information as a Service (IaaS), like DaaS, is a more diffused and general-purpose concept. According to Forrester Research analyst Noel Yuhanna IaaS can be defined as “a comprehensive strategy for the delivery of information obtained from information services, following a consistent approach using SOA infrastructure and/or Internet standards such as RSS,” and the latest Forrester Wave report on the topic identifies BEA, IBM and Oracle as offering the strongest IaaS platforms.

Think of IaaS as SOA infrastructure with built-in information/data management capabilities and geared towards offering information services to applications. It's tempting to imagine IaaS as something that happens within the confines of an organization, but this is inaccurate since there is nothing that inherently excludes the use of cloud computing.

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