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A sneak peek at SQL Server 7.0

Not satisfied with terrorizing its database competitors, Microsoft is now also targeting data analysis software makers.

Not satisfied with terrorizing its database competitors, Microsoft (MSFT) is now also targeting data analysis software makers.

The company today gave developers at a Los Angeles conference a sneak peek at SQL Server 7.0, a new version of the company's database server, and at a new online analytical processing server, code-named Plato. Microsoft also distributed documentation and beta code for the products, Jim Ewel, a product manager at Microsoft, said.

SQL Server 7.0, developed under the code-name Sphinx and due in the second half of the year, will vault Microsoft into more direct competition with Oracle and other database makers for control of departmental-sized applications, analysts said.

"Microsoft is laying the groundwork for moving up the enterprise ladder," said Phil Sutherland, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group. "Some features directly target the higher end, like query optimizer, parallelism, and row-level locking."

The update will improve SQL Server's scalability, manageability, clustering support, and replication abilities, according to Ewel. It will also, for the first time, support row-level locking, a feature needed to support third-party business applications from companies such as SAP and PeopleSoft.

Plato, an OLAP server, is based on multidimensional OLAP database technology acquired by Microsoft in October 1996 from Panorama Software of Tel Aviv, Israel. Plato will connect to SQL Server and to other databases to perform complex data analysis. Microsoft also will provide a data access API (application programming interface) to access Plato from other Windows-based applications.

Ewel said specialty OLAP software vendors, such as Arbor Software, shouldn't be worried about Plato's debut from a competitive standpoint. "They shouldn't be worried. Arbor has a high-end product. They also have client software that works with Plato," he said.

But Arbor, along with Oracle's Express division and companies such as MicroStrategy and Information Advantage, clearly do not relish the thought of Microsoft entering their markets.

Analysts expect Microsoft to use cut-rate pricing and potential bundling with SQL Server to work its way into the OLAP market, which has proven to be quite lucrative.

"Everyone tells their own story about how they will outpace Microsoft in the OLAP space. Arbor says they won't hurt us. Business Objects, Cognos say they have advantages over Plato. But everyone agrees on one thing ?- Microsoft is resetting the price point," said Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research. "You can use Excel, which everyone has, to tap into 400 gigabytes of data, or whatever Plato will support.

"Is it enough to redefine the whole market? Probably not. People want to do more than slice-and-dice in Excel," said Schadler.

SQL Server 7.0 also will include an all-new Windows 9.x desktop version of the database aimed at mobile and disconnected users. The small-footprint version of the database will be identical to the Windows NT-based SQL Server, allowing developers to write applications to one API and run them on either platform.

Microsoft will revamp SQL Server's current replication tools to include support for multimaster replication, also known as symmetric replication, which allows two sites to maintain and update separate copies of the same database while the replication software keeps both copies in sync. Also new will be support for disconnected users, so mobile users on laptops can receive database updates on the road via a dial-up connection.

Ewel said the Windows 9.x version of SQL Server 7.0, the Enterprise version for supporting larger systems and user loads, the Standard SQL Server edition, and Plato will all ship in the second half of the year.

The products will debut separately, before Microsoft's planned BackOffice 4.5, slated to ship in mid-1998. BackOffice 4.5 will include SQL Server 7.0 and a new version of Exchange, code-named Platinum. The updated bundle will streamline internal communications between applications and make management of applications more integrated, according to Microsoft.

While both SQL Server 7.0 and Plato will ship before Windows NT 5.0, a much-anticipated update to Microsoft's enterprise-class operating system, both products will be ready to take advantage of new NT services, such as additional memory support and the company's Active Directory services, Ewel said.

"SQL Server 7.0 is targeted at Windows NT 4.x. There is one feature, 64-bit memory support, that is keyed to Windows NT 5.0. But SQL Server will determine if NT 5.0 is installed and will take advantage of that," Ewel said.

The company also is readying a future release of BackOffice, labeled version 5.0, to coincide with the release of Windows NT 5.0, now due either late this year or in 1999, sources said.

No pricing or final packaging details have been announced for either SQL Server 7.0 or Plato.