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Microsoft Upgrades Azure SQL Database Service

Microsoft cloud-database service nears parity with on-premises Microsoft SQL Server with support for larger databases and in-memory performance.
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Microsoft announced Azure SQL Database upgrades on Thursday that promise to bring the cloud-based database service close to lock-step parity with on-premises Microsoft SQL Server capabilities.

Database services are only growing in adoption, with many companies now preferring database-as-a-service to the more labor-intensive route of deploying and administering database instances on cloud infrastructure.

The parity-with-SQL Server story boils down to supporting larger database deployments and higher performance than previously possible on the Microsoft's cloud. Tests show the new version of Azure SQL, V12, delivers a 5X boost in query performance as compared to the previous version. The service also now offers in-memory columnstore technology -- introduced as In-Memory OLTP in SQL Server 2014 last year -- that offers up to a 100X boost in transactional performance, according to Microsoft.

[ Want more detail on service capabilities? Read Microsoft Bolsters Azure SQL Database Services. ]

"After running both a benchmark and some close-of-business workloads, which are required by our regulated banking customers, we saw significant performance gains, including a doubling of throughput for large blob operations, which are essential for our customer’s reporting needs," stated Azure SQL customer John Schlesinger in a Microsoft blog. Schlesinger is chief enterprise architect at Temenos, a banking services firm that previewed the new service.

The latest version of Azure SQL service went live in Europe this week. It will roll out in the US on Feb. 9 and will reach the rest of the world by March 1. Microsoft says general availability pricing will take effect on April 1.

Microsoft is also beefing up Azure SQL security with new security features including Row-Level Security, Dynamic Data Masking, and Transparent Data Encryption. Complementing Azure SQL auditing capabilities, the new features are aimed at meeting corporate and industry compliance policies. Row-level security, now available in public preview, supports fine-grained access control over rows in database tables so admins can limit access at an atomic level.

Dynamic Data Masking, which is "coming soon" according to Microsoft, will support policy-based masking of selected data fields, such as credit card or Social Security numbers, so non-privileged users won't see that data along with other information in a larger query. Transparent Data Encryption, which encrypts data at rest, not just in transit, is also coming to Azure SQL Database V12. The row-level, masking, and encryption features will be available with Basic, Standard, and Premium Azure SQL Database service tiers.

Microsoft hasn't forgotten those who prefer to run SQL Server directly on Azure cloud VMs (rather than using Azure SQL Database services). Administrative improvements also announced Thursday simplify availability, setup, backup, and patching for SQL Server running on an Azure VM. New auto HA (high-availability) setup capabilities, for instance, quickly provision AlwaysOn VM clusters to meet HA and DR requirements. This advance shines in hybrid scenarios where on-premises SQL Server workloads might failover to cloud resources, according to Microsoft.

In a move aimed at better performance on cloud infrastructure, Microsoft has introduced Azure G-Series VMs, which it says are ideal for large SQL Server OLTP workloads. They're especially well-suited for SQL Server's In-memory OLTP feature, as the G-Series VMs offer up to 32 CPUs with 448 GB of available memory (6.59 TB on local SSD). In short, the VMs offer plenty of memory so you can make the most in-memory OLTP performance.

Microsoft has plenty of company in supporting SQL Server deployments in the cloud. Rackspace, for one, supports more than 10,000 compute instances running Microsoft SQL Server on its private and public clouds. This week Rackspace introduced support for Microsoft SQL Server 2014 In-Memory OLTP and AlwaysOn HA and DR capabilities.

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