Taking Microsoft into database big league with SQL Server 2005

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says SQL Server 2005 should eliminate users' 'last bit of hesitancy' over whether Microsoft's database is suitable for high-end use. In this interview with Carol Sliwa, Ballmer discusses databases, licensing and Google

Many large companies have been hesitant to use SQL Server as an enterprise-class database. How do you get through to that segment?

I think enterprises do take it seriously. The question is: can we eliminate all hesitancy with this set of releases? If you take a look at the database benchmarks, at the app platform benchmarks, at the SAP benchmarks, at the customer references, I really do think we can change not only the reality with this set of releases, but I think we’re in a position to change what I’ll call the last bit of hesitancy in the perception [of SQL Server’s scalability], at least relative to Unix. I think when people look for mainframe migrations, they’re going to be hesitant about moving off mainframes to anything because they’ve got a lot of legacy built up.

Compared with Oracle, has it been a question of scalability, stability, features or something else?

I would argue it’s been a question of perception, not of any of the above. We hope to not only be better with this set of releases but to have people understand that we are better. And we’ll see.

You had a five-year cycle between SQL Server releases. What did you learn from the experience? And do you feel you lost some sales opportunities?

I want to have more rapid releases but we’ve been gaining market share this whole period of time. Now that we’ve got the new release, woo baby! I think we’re in a great spot. It was more important for us to get .Net integrated into the SQL runtime [than to ship the database sooner]. I do think we should have had the ability to release some of the other features while we were still cooking and baking that. We batched everything up and therefore we did a very long release cycle. But if you take a look at the BI stuff, there’s this set of things that we could have brought to market in a shorter time frame.

So, I’m telling our teams there’s some stuff we’re going to be doing that’s coming on a six- and nine-month cycle, whether it’s service packs or whatever. There’s going to be stuff that’ll ship on a two-year cycle, and there’s stuff that will probably ship [on] a four-year cycle, when it’s really big, hunky, thorny stuff.

Some SQL Server users who signed three-year contracts for your Software Assurance programme may not have got an upgrade before the contracts expired. Is there any chance you’ll guarantee a product release as part of a licensing deal?

Certainly for our desktop products, people are anticipating a release. But we’re very clear. We’re going to try to give a value proposition that doesn’t have an upgrade commitment. There’s all kinds of complexities — legal complexity, accounting complexity — associated with that proposition.

At the server level, the biggest part of the value proposition for Software Assurance frankly isn’t the upgrade. If you really take a look, do most people go back and upgrade a legacy server application? The answer is no. But they do want to make sure that they have the kind of support, patching [and] fixing to keep that thing in production and up and running.

The Enterprise Edition of Windows Vista will be available only to users who have Software Assurance. Some customers have said they’d like to get access to its full volume encryption feature, for instance. Is it possible that you’ll change your mind about that?

No. I think we like the decision that we’ve made. And the customers we talked to seem to like the decision. Essentially, what we’re saying is there’s a set of technology that is an extra-price option, and because that is a class of customer, the enterprise, that will care about that technology but will also care about Software Assurance, we’ve put that together in an interesting sort of integrated value proposition for the customer. I’ve heard essentially no significant negative feedback about that.

You mentioned at a financial analyst meeting that there will be a premium edition of Office. What’s that going to be like?

You’re right. You’ll have to wait until our Office guys are prepared to talk about that. We’re trying to do value-add versions.

Is there any chance you’ll support the Open Document Format for Office Applications, which the Massachusetts government’s IT division is adopting as its standard?

We’ve announced support today for the PDF format, which is one of the interoperability formats the state of Massachusetts has indicated. We have our own formats for doing kind of bridge documents of our own styles. So I think that’s where our energies are focused right now.

Never say never?

That’s where our energies are focused.

Much of the Google discussion has centred on consumers and small businesses. Do you see an element of your competition with Google having an impact on corporate IT?

I think, over the long run, it would be naïve for everybody to not see that ‘software as a service’ is a corporate play. Google right now is a company that knows how to make money selling advertising. But I don’t think corporate IT shops are going to think about that as the fundamental way in which their mission-critical applications get paid for. I just don’t think that’s going to be, ‘Hey, let us look through all your databases so we can put ads up’. I just don’t think that’s going to be the way the world works. There are two different questions implicit there. Is this notion of live software and software as a service going to be important to enterprises? We would say ‘Yes.’ Do we think Google emerges necessarily as any kind of interesting player for that kind of enterprise software? It depends on where Google goes in the future. It’s certainly not anything Google seems to be working on.

If you could go back in time, would you have done anything differently knowing what you know now about how the Google situation has played out?

Google didn’t invent search. Yahoo did it before them, AltaVista — I mean, let’s face it, they’re not the innovator in search. What they really innovated in was advertising as a business model. That’s their — and look, that’s not a discredit, that’s, ‘Hey, way to go’ — that’s the thing they did better than AltaVista did if you really get right down to it. And, I think really understanding and appreciating the value of an automated ad sales model, and what that could bring. I wish we’d gotten there earlier.

I think we fully get it. We’re working hard on that now. We’re working hard on the algorithmic search. But, hey, power to them. They got it right. The good news for us is people still don’t generally find what they’re looking for and don’t find it very fast, and they’re going to look for things on the internet. So, this feels like sort of a breakthrough. But, when we look back ten years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘Oh, how pathetic were those search engines of the year 2005? None of them did what the search engines will do for the year 2015.’

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