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Microsoft SQL Server 2014: Final Countdown

Microsoft steps closer to delivering in-memory performance with a second beta release of Microsoft SQL Server 2014. Here's a peek at what's coming.
Microsoft's in-memory database project formerly known as Hekaton took a step closer to general release on Wednesday as the company introduced a second community technology preview (CTP) of Microsoft SQL Server 2014.

Hekaton is now known simply as In-Memory Online Transaction Processing (OLTP). As a built-in feature of the database, In-Memory OLTP will let administrators move selected tables into main memory, thereby delivering dramatic performance improvements without having to touch the applications running on the database. That could be custom-built applications or packaged applications from Microsoft itself or third-party vendors including Oracle, SAP and thousands of others.

SAP was an early proponent of in-memory technology with Hana, now an extensive data-management platform that spans database, application server and other functionality. Oracle recently joined the in-memory bandwagon by announcing an In-Memory Option for the Oracle 12c database, but it didn't announce preview or release dates, other than to say it would arrive "in calendar year 2014." It's unknown whether that will be a beta or a general release.

Microsoft introduced SQL Server 2014 and its In-Memory OLTP option in its usual methodical way, starting with the announcement last November and CTP 1 in June. That first preview release has seen more than 36,000 downloads, according to Microsoft, and at least 100 customers have worked closely with Microsoft on tweaks and new features introduced in CTP 2.

[ Want more on Oracle's promised in-memory database option? Read Oracle OpenWorld: 5 Rants And Raves. ]

The list of early CTP1 early adopters included SQL Server customers TPP and Ferranti Computer Systems. TPP is a clinical software provider in England that handles 30 million patient records and as many as 72,000 concurrent users. TPP reported a seven-times improvement in overall system performance with selective use of In-Memory OLTP as compared to its previous deployment on SQL Server 2008 R2. The key difference was faster access to patient records, which will give doctors and nurses more time with patients.

Ferranti implemented CTP 1 and in-memory optimization in hopes its software, used by energy and utility companies, could keep up with exponentially faster and larger smart-meter workloads. Where mechanical utility meters were read once per month, smart meters take readings every 15 minutes. As a result, Ferranti's software will have to go from handling 5 million measurements per year to processing 500 million measurements per day. The software wasn't keeping up with smart-meter workloads running on SQL Server 2012, but Ferranti reports that In-Memory OLTP made it possible to process and store the data as quickly as it's sent by the smart meters.

The short list of improvements in CTP 2 includes broader SQL compatibility and support for additional index types. New tools have been introduced to help administrators access database performance and data-access patterns so they can determine which tables would most benefit from in-memory optimization. The in-memory feature has also been integrated with the SQL Server Always-On high-availability feature, a sign that users can count on continuous operation.

With CTP 2, Microsoft said it expects to see tens of thousands more downloads of the software and further refinements to what will become the final, general release of SQL Server 2014. The exact date of that release is still sketchy: set vaguely in the first half of 2014.

But Microsoft's coming release is far more tangible than Oracle's promised in-memory option. There have been tens of thousands of downloads of CTP 1 and lots of detailed blogs and white papers about what's coming.

In contrast to SAP Hana's all-in-memory approach, Microsoft is not proposing moving everything into memory. That means it's not doing away with aggregations or conventional disks or proposing the "dramatic simplification" of infrastructure that SAP is touting. Nor do the promised performance gains sound quite as dramatic as SAP's claims.

On the other hand, SQL Server 2014 can run on existing servers -- assuming available DRAM is in line with the scale of the workloads customers want to run in memory. Most reassuring of all, Microsoft is promising that if it runs on SQL Server 2012 it will run on SQL Server 2014.

Of course, we'll have to wait for general release and for third-party software providers to certify on SQL Server 2014. But given that this is the most deployed database in the world (Oracle is the market leader in terms of license revenue), the promise of performance improvement without disruption is palpable.