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Microsoft marries Web, database

Microsoft gets ready to beta test an update of its SQL Server database that will use the Net to get information to mobile users.

Microsoft (MSFT) is getting ready to beta test a pair of technologies that will rely on the Internet to get information to mobile users.

By June, the company will begin beta testing a new release of its SQL Server database, code-named Sphinx, that will include parallel processing features for better performance, better support for off-the-shelf applications, new mobile computing features, and expanded data replication capabilities.

The software giant has also begun testing its Microsoft Message Queue Server (MSMQ) software, formerly code-named Falcon, for helping applications communicate with each other across networks.

On the feature list for Sphinx, which most likely will be labeled SQL Server 7.0, is a new feature that will for the first time let users replicate data and administer databases across the Internet, according to Dan Basica, a SQL Server product manager at Microsoft.

The Net replication is being released in conjunction with version s of SQL Server for Windows 95 and Windows NT Workstation. The idea is to provide better support for laptop and notebook users by letting them log into central corporate databases and get updated copies of database information over the Net.

Replication allows identical copies of databases distributed among multiple sites to be updated with the latest changes. For instance, a company can distribute multiple copies of a sales database to branch offices and keep all databases up to date with the latest customer information by replicating data from headquarters to each office. The trick is keeping all the copies matching or "synchronized" even if the information changes constantly.

Using the Net to distribute replicated databases makes it easier for users who travel to get up-to-date information or for users in far-flung sites that may not have private network connections to the corporate headquarters.

The combination of a SQL Server running on Windows 95 with Net replication gives Microsoft a potent competitor to other mobile databases, such as Sybase's SQL Anywhere and Oracle's Personal Oracle Lite, said Evan Bauer, an analyst with Giga Information Group.

But Net replication is probably not going to be used for mission-critical applications. Companies most likely would not want to put high volumes of data across the Net, Bauer added. "It's sort of interesting for low-volume stuff, and it will be useful for mobile computing." Products such as Sybase's Replication Server are better suited to high-volume data replication, he said.

Microsoft hasn't decided if the new Net replication will make it into the first beta or a subsequent beta release, according to Basica, but it is high on the feature list for Sphinx.

Another major feature planned for Sphinx is row-level locking, which will allow SQL Server to better support business application software from market leaders, such as SAP and PeopleSoft. Row-level locking will also make application development easier, according to Bauer.

"That's the most important piece of Sphinx," he said. "Microsoft is starting to catch up to other database makers with row-level locking support and the beginnings of parallel query processing." The lack of both has "really had them one down vs. the competition for mid-level apps."

Basica said Sphinx will be shipped to between 100 and 200 customer sites by June, to be followed by a wider second beta release later this year.

Still unclear is when the final release of Sphinx will ship. Basica said users "should not expect a short beta cycle. For the scope of work we are doing, we need a four- to six-month minimum beta cycle." The last major release of Microsoft SQL Server, version 6.0, underwent a seven-month beta test cycle.

Basica also said that Microsoft has not committed to shipping the software in this calendar year. "We will know more about the ship date later this year. This is a fairly ambitious release."

Microsoft is farther along with its MSMQ messaging software, which went to more than 200 beta testers last week, according to the company.

MSMQ allows developers to write applications that communicate via queuing middleware, making them usable by mobile, occasionally connected users with laptops, for instance.

Corporate developers could, for example, use MSMQ to write an order entry application for insurance sales personnel. Orders entered into a sales representative's laptop during the day are queued by MSMQ and then could be transferred to corporate databases at headquarters at night when sales personnel dial in to check email.

The software solves the problem of communications between applications that are running at different times or are not always on line, Microsoft said.

MSMQ is expected to ship by midyear but Microsoft hasn't set exact pricing and packaging details.