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Microsoft SQL Server Features

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

In the section entitled "Microsoft SQL Server Defined" I explained that SQL Server is an engine that stores and processes data to present to your users. But SQL Server provides several other features that you can use in your organization to work with your data. This is a departure from other platforms that ask you to purchase these features separately — with SQL Server (at least in the Enterprise Edition) you get everything right in the box. You might use SQL Server as the data platform for your organization, but you can also install just the features for Business Intelligence, or perhaps the data movement and processing features. I’ve seen this done at several locations — even purchasing SQL Server for one of these features alone is often less expensive than a competing product that only provides a single feature.

SQL Server 2000 has features that will import, transform and export data from multiple sources, from Oracle to text files. It can also act as the backbone to your Business Intelligence infrastructure, as an XML processing tool, or even to process natural language queries. It has the ability to be "clustered" so that it can automatically fail over to another system in case of a catastrophe. It can also serve as a reporting server front-end for your users.

SQL Server 2005 enhances all of these components, with the exception of the natural language service (English Query), which it removed. But Microsoft has added many more features, including native XML data processing services, the ability to act as a back-end in a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), more encryption, and multiple improvements in speed and security.

SQL Server 2008 rounds out many of these features and adds completely new ones, such as Policy Based Management, PowerShell for SQL Server, the Management Database Warehouse, and much more. They also enhanced the speed and many of the capabilities of the previous features. Microsoft did remove one feature, however — Notification Services (more on that below) is now gone.

In the hundreds of articles on this site, I'll describe how to administer and program these features, as well as show you some practical uses for them. In this section of the guide, I'll introduce you to the features so that you can decide when and how to use them. If I don't specify a version, then the feature exists in all versions. I'll also call out the features that are only included in a particular version of SQL Server.

All versions of SQL Server include excellent documentation, with references, tutorials, examples, and much more. Starting in SQL Server 2005 the format and presentation tool was changed, and all content are also available on the web.

Let’s take a look at the various features and what you can use them for. I’ll link each section to a more in-depth review later in this guide. Each version adds more Transact-SQL language extensions, more backup and encryption options and so on, so I’ll just focus on the major features external to those improvements in this list. The articles that follow will have a lot more detail on the improvements. I’ll start with the features that the database engine provides:

  • Clustering Services, which is actually a server operating system feature that SQL Server leverages, allows you to recover instantly from one system to another. Starting in SQL Server 2005, Database Mirroring is also included for another level of redundancy.
  • Replication Services keeps data in synchronization between SQL Server databases and other systems such as Oracle, Microsoft Access, handheld devices, and more. You can use replication to send data to multiple systems as data changes, on a scheduled basis,
  • Extensible Markup Language (XML) documents can enable data transfer between heterogeneous programs or data sources. SQL Server 2000 provides basic XML capabilities and SQL Server 2005 and higher pushes full support by adding native XML storage and processing, and support for the XQuery language.
  • SQL Server 2008 adds a new Policy Based Management system to SQL Server, which allows you to report on and enforce a specific configuration for just about any database object.
  • SQL Server 2008 also adds a central Management Data Warehouse feature, which can track performance and other data in a central location and report on it.
  • Starting in SQL Server 2008, Microsoft includes a SQL Server “Provider” for PowerShell. PowerShell is a shell that allows you to run and save script programs, not just for SQL Server but for Windows, Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft Office and just about anything covered by the .NET application programming interface. The SQL Server provider treats SQL Server Instances, Databases and Database Objects as drive letters, and lets you work with them in a very intuitive way.

As an add-on to the engine features, SQL Server provides other services you can use for data retrieval and transfer:

  • Notification Services is a (free) add-on to SQL Server 2000 (it's built in to SQL Server 2005 but removed in SQL Server 2008) that can expose your data in even more ways. If you’ve ever used Microsoft’s MSN Messenger to alert your cell phone of traffic problems in your area or access stock information from it on your mobile device, then you’ve possibly already used Notification Services.
  • In SQL Server 2000, the Natural Language Processing (English Query) feature allows you to tie English phrases to be automatically converted to Transact-SQL (T-SQL) statements. That way, your users don’t need to know the table structures or how to program in Structured Query Language (SQL) to get the data. They can type (or say) the words "How many sales did my group make today?" and the server will provide the right data.
  • Full Text Services allow you to search for large and inexact text strings within text columns and any binary-ready system your server has installed, such as Microsoft Word.
  • The Service Broker in SQL in Server 2005 and higher is a tool you can use to create a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) that enables disconnected, disparate systems in your entire organization.
  • Data Transformation Services (DTS) provide import and export capabilities to SQL Server 2000. Not only can DTS import data from another SQL Server, but also from Microsoft Access, text files, Microsoft Excel, Oracle, FoxPro, and any other data source that has Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) drivers. DTS imports and exports data, but it can also change the data along the way. Not only that, but DTS is also fully programmable — and the transformations and data transfers can be stored in packages that can be reused, edited, and copied. Here’s the kicker — you can use DTS to transfer data between any data source and any data destination. For instance, you could transfer data from an Oracle database to a text file — and change every third field to uppercase if you wanted to. This whole process can be scheduled to happen at any time.
  • SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) is the replacement for DTS in SQL Server 2005 and higher. Although you can still run DTS packages in Integration Services, you have a completely new programming model that you can use to automate much more than just import and export operations in Integration Services. Both DTS and SSIS are often used as the Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) system for Business Intelligence systems, such as those included with SQL Server.

There are other features that SQL Server provides that allow you to report on and analyze data — even if the data is on other platforms such as Oracle or DB2, or even in mainframes:

  • Analysis Services provides a full set of Business Intelligence capabilities in SQL Server 2000, and in the higher versions this service provides a robust set of tools to truly be considered a full part of a Business Intelligence landscape. Analysis Services provides data cube functionality and more, and also has its own query language so that you can access that data from a programming language such as C# or Visual Basic, or even a web page or Microsoft Office products.
  • Reporting Services allows users to see and work with SQL Server data directly in their browsers. It's an add-on to SQL Server 2000, and comes built in to SQL Server 2005 and higher. It's often used as the visual representation of Business Intelligence data, making SQL Server a platform that can extract data from various systems, transform and cleanse it, process it into multi-dimensional analysis, and present it to users to work with. You literally don't have to buy anything else.

It's important to understand that many of these features don't require you to install the engine in SQL Server — they stand alone. For instance, Reporting Services can be used without the SQL Server engine.

In the sections and tutorials that follow, I'll introduce these features, and in the other areas of this guide I'll show you how to administer and use them.

InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters

You can read a little more about these features in the introduction to Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Unleashed.

Books and eBooks

The aforementioned Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Unleashed, also available as a downloadable eBook and online in Safari Books Online.

I cover most all of these features in my book, Administrator's Guide to SQL Server 2005.

Online Resources

The full list of features in SQL Server is available at the Microsoft SQL Server site.