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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.

'Bin' There, Done That

At first sight, Microsoft SSDS seems to be going up against Amazon's S3 (Simple Storage Service) and SimpleDB. The former is nothing more than a flat object store — an uncomplicated storage bin without structure or rules. SimpleDB adds structure and metadata to S3 so you can define items (organized into domains); each item has a number of properties, and each property has one or more values. SimpleDB works with S3, so this is incremental (or differential) value for application developers.

Microsoft SSDS is similar to SimpleDB. You can define containers (think database tables, loosely speaking) containing entities (the rows in the table). Entities possess properties that have sets of name-value pairs. Two similar entities need not have the same set of properties; some books, for example, may have an associated movie name while others (that have not inspired movies) don't have to have this property. Security and billing for the database-as-a-service are organized through concepts such as customers and accounts.

Despite this competition and Microsoft's late arrival to the party, SSDS has an edge in its tie to the SQL Server platform — an edge others may find it hard to compete against, at least until the Oracles and IBMs decide to show up, too. Whereas cloud database providers like Amazon are largely limited to relatively simple data models (basic bin-like storage, simple name-value pairs, spreadsheet-like tables and so on), Microsoft has the might of the SQL Server platform behind its offering.

Old Wine in an Exciting New Bottle

DBaaS is indeed a step forward for Web 2.0, and the possibilities are exciting. SSDS, for example, is only the tip of the iceberg of what Microsoft could offer. Given its development portfolio, Microsoft could go beyond a full-service database solution — in itself a significant offering — into areas such as dashboards in the cloud or, throwing BizTalk into the mix, Processes as a Service. The possibilities for mashups and cloud computing solutions are endless, but will necessarily be tempered by the realities around business risk and value.

Not surprisingly, DBaaS faces several challenges, beginning with the angst over data privacy and security. Database (and hence data) availability and performance considerations come a close second; in these days of fierce competition and flighty customers, any downtime or perceived slowdown can lead to a lasting or even fatal loss of customer confidence. Finally, there are various operational difficulties working with DBaaS: defining and maintaining the data model, technology and application upgrades, integrating with non-collocated data sources and so on.

More surprisingly, DBaaS is already approaching commoditization in terms of capabilities, choice and pricing. Even as vendors are cautiously surveying their competitors pricing schemes, they are finding it difficult to diverge widely in their own — an indication, perhaps, of their inability to distinguish themselves from the crowd. One presumes that technology-rich companies like Microsoft will have a clear advantage in their ability to provide value-added features and services, but the winners will be the vendors that can demonstrate the sheer solidity of their offering in terms of data privacy/security, availability and performance.

A Bright Future

Things are going great, and they're only getting better
I'm doing all right, getting good grades
The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades
— Timbuk 3

As cloud computing picks up speed, DBaaS is expected to follow along. Analysts see it as a viable platform for small businesses and midsized organizations that may find it too expensive and burdensome to manage database environments. Forrester estimates the current DBaaS market size at $20 million and forecasts a rapid rise to around $400 million by 2012.

DBaaS will be most valuable for businesses seeking to deploy what might be called distributed communities — systems addressing widely distributed groups of employees, partners or customers using the Internet to reach wider audiences while controlling costs. These businesses will have to be willing to risk locating their data outside of their own physical control, although SaaS providers such as have to some extent already led business down that intrepid path.

Businesses considering DBaaS should keep in mind that the concept is evolutionary not revolutionary, and is here to stay (and grow). DBaaS in its simplest forms will be increasingly commoditized and hence will remain affordable, but unanticipated or hidden costs — for example, related to manageability and a need for higher service levels — could be another story; security, availability, performance and manageability will be critical success factors. Businesses will be best served by setting a long-term plan for cloud computing, ensuring that the DBaaS vendor has immediate or promised capabilities to support the long-term growth path.

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