SQL Server Data Services: Good news, bad news for partners

Microsoft's plan to parcel out cloud-based SQL Server Data Services intrigues some partners, worries others.

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Microsoft's plan to parcel out database services from its own infrastructure intrigues some partners, and worries others.

The vendor touched on SQL Server Data Services (SSDS) briefly at its Mix 08 conference two weeks ago. It plans to dribble out services to gauge reaction and gather feedback, said Niraj Nagrani, senior marketing manager for SQL Server.

First out of the chute will be storage and query processing services. Over time other new services could include such database-related stuff as stored procedures or binary large objects (BLOBs), full-text imaging or full text search.

"It all depends on what people want," Nagrani said.

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Value-added resellers (VARs) or others will be able to query the data using Microsoft's language-integrated query tool or LINQ, and the data services will support the common SOAP and REST protocols.

At Mix 08 the company said it was opening up the limited beta, and registrants should soon be getting sample material. Then Microsoft "will look at the usage patterns and workloads and what features they're using and assess their needs," Nagrani noted. In the second half of 2008, the company will open up the beta widely. The services are based on the current SQL Server 2005 release. SQL Server 2008 is due later this year.

There are several possible use scenarios. Small companies without big IT budgets might use such services to store and manage data they don't want or need to keep in house, and the user wouldn't need to know the arcane ways of SQL to query them. These vendor-hosted services, which keep data off-site and use the Internet to connect to users, are often referred to as "cloud-based" services.

"Catalogs, photos and data files, reference catalogs are all things that could use these services. Or in an enterprise scenario, where most data stays in your four walls but there may be a limited amount of public data, or if you're a manufacturing company that wants to collaborate on data sheets with suppliers and buyers -- these services would be helpful," Nagrani said.

Some of the older, nonprivate data that a company keeps could go into the "cloud" -- the type of data a company might once have archived to tape backup or SATA disks, for example.

The new generation of Web 2.0 applications -- including mashups, where input from various data sources is combined -- would also be a natural area to use these data services.

Microsoft says it's too early to talk about partner opportunity or roles, but it clearly views SQL Server Data Services as a platform for third-party development of additional applications and capabilities.

Solution providers and partners of all kinds should be watching these data services developments carefully. What Microsoft is doing with SQL Server Data Services, and what Amazon.com is doing with its nascent SimpleDB, could end up being a boon to development and consultant partners, or a direct threat to partners in the managed services or hosting worlds.

Microsoft's and Amazon's moves toward cloud-based data services are analogous to what Salesforce.com did in vendor-hosted and -managed customer relationship management (CRM). Some partners view it as a frontal assault; others see opportunities for new services that tap into the cloud.

Robert Ginsburg, chief technology officer of Version3 Inc., a longtime Microsoft allied solution provider specializing in collaboration and directory services, is happy with what he hears.

"It's like they're finally getting it …these services would make sense for all types of B2B [business-to-business] collaboration scenarios. There have been a number of simple file storage options on the Web for a while, so it is a natural evolution of storage to make it 'smarter' and better suited for decision support systems," Ginsburg said via email.

But other solution providers in the managed services game look at such vendor-supported infrastructure with suspicion, if not downright hostility.

"[These efforts are] competitive to us, because we want to architect the solution, sell the license and, in my case, I want to manage it afterwards," said Ron Zapar, CEO of Re-Quest Inc. in Naperville, Ill. "There's a lot of direct competition there, and it's hard enough when the vendor owns the product, but when they own the data too, it'll be impossible."

Zapar and other partners make money not only from software license sales, but from recurring services implementing and supporting that software. "I see probably 30% revenue drag in project work from managed services. If I have a customer paying me $10,000 a month, over a years' period I'll probably see another $30 or $40 thousand in project revenue that has zero cost of sales because I'm already in the account."

But with vendor-hosted infrastructure in the mix, account control shifts heavily back to the vendor. "They don't want to give you the keys. Even if you're supposed to manage or customize [the solution] everything's a change order, a service request. The vendor's in the middle of it all."

Still other solution providers say opportunities will remain in both on-premise and cloud-based implementations and in companies that use a combination of both.

Data services mimic other online services, said Rand Morimoto, CEO of Convergent Computing, an Oakland, Calif. solution provider.

"For some customers it's a good fit and while we have traditionally focused on in-house services, the online and hosted world still requires someone to migrate apps and data, so there's a consulting fit for data migration. Also,kwe have found organizations host a portion of their servcies and still keep other functions in house. And, since they have moved some apps outside, they tend to tighten up internal IT, and this requires more from a service provider like us," Morimoto said.

Will Oracle, Sun/MySQL follow the SQL Server Data Services lead?

Nonetheless, it appears that the Software as a Service (or in this case, Database as a Service) model is taking hold, at least with some customers, and the vendors feel the need to offer it as at least one option.

Dana Gardner, analyst with Interarbor Solutions LLC in Gilford, N.H., said that while Oracle and other database vendors haven't specifically talked up data services, they are bound to take action. (Oracle does offer hosted infrastructure and CRM, but not, strictly speaking, data services.)

"We've already seen aggressive demand by developers and startups with the Amazon offering. Microsoft is covering its bases on this aspect. They see this as a growth area, and it's also a way to play defense against losing database revenue from the traditional license sales model. We'll see something along these lines from Sun now that it has MySQL," Gardner said.

Robin Schumacher, director of product management for MySQL, said the company is investigating this model. "The rumblings are getting a little louder, and now being part of Sun our capability to do that has expanded," he said, adding that he does not know of a specific plan within Sun for database services at this point.

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