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SQL Server Books Online

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

You have at your disposal one of the best references on SQL Server that you could ever obtain. I'd love to say that I'm referring to this guide (which I am quite proud of, mind you), but I'm talking about SQL Server's Books Online, or BOL. Books Online is the set of documentation that comes with SQL Server, and you may not be aware of how valuable it really is. In this tutorial I'll explain what Books Online is, how it is organized, and how you can use it to discover everything you need to know about SQL Server, whether you are a beginner with database technology or a seasoned Business Intelligence professional.

You may be surprised to see an entire tutorial on documentation, but by the time you finish this article, you will realize that Books Online is much more than just a reference manual. Learning to use this resource is a central part of your database professional career.

Creating Books Online

Like most software Organizations, Microsoft has several writers working on documentation. Books Online, however, has dozens of people in multiple countries working to author the content, respond to user requests, and "localize" or translate the content into more languages than any other database product — even more than open-source systems that boast a huge community of people working on their documentation.

Writers work at Microsoft to create the topics based on the way users need to see the information. They work directly with the development staff, not just as writers, but as database professionals. All of the writers, editors and managers in the Books Online group are Database Administrators, Developers or Database Architects. Some have long careers in Business Intelligence and other database-related fields.

The writers for Books Online travel to TechEd, PASS, and local user groups to find out what other users want in the documentation and other parts of Books Online. At the bottom of each page in Books Online you can rate the content you are reading, and you can also point out errors or make other comments that each writer sees every morning. Writers respond to these requests based on the severity of the issues or the frequency that they see a particular topic come up. They also attend "usability labs," where DBAs and Developers are brought in to solve problems. The writers watch the users interact with Books Online and make notes about how to improve the documentation.

Even though the writers have their own ideas about the best layout for Books Online, the overall arrangement is governed by something called the “Universal Content Model”, or UCM. The UCM is an attempt to ensure that an administrator or developer of one product (say Microsoft Exchange) can read the documentation for another product (such as SQL Server) in the same layout, so that they are more productive.

The reason this consistency is important is that based on research at Microsoft, they have found that many of their customers work exactly this way — a Database Administrator (DBA) does far more than just database work. They have to know about the operating system, networking and more. So it makes sense that the documentation for those products look the same.

Of course, those products are not always the same — so some sacrifices are made. I’ll come to that shortly.

Obtaining and Installing Books Online

You can install SQL Server Books Online from the SQL Server media. When you pick "Client Tools" from the install menu, you'll get Books Online. You can also drill down and get Books Online all by itself. At one time, Books Online was tied to the edition you had, such as MSDN or Express. At the date of this tutorial, Books Online is a single document for all Editions. That's a bit of a departure from other RDBMS documentation, which often includes a separate download for each platform or release.

Books Online is a "living" document. That means that even after the product is released, Books Online goes through multiple changes. I've already mentioned that the writers see feedback right from the pages of Books Online through the mechanism at the bottom of each topic.

But that isn't the only time that changes are made. The documentation goes through a constant review to ensure that it is accurate and complete. Any time a Service Pack or other significant change occurs, Books Online is updated. It's actually updated more often than that — and you can download the latest version at Microsoft's site. You can find that download here for the current version, and there’s a list at the bottom of the page for other versions.

So with all these changes, it's important that you keep your copy up to date. You can tell which version of Books Online you have by looking in the top left-hand corner of title bar when you open Books Online. If your version is more than a few months old, you should check the Microsoft SQL Server downloads site to make sure you've got the latest. You can also use this location to install Books Online all by itself.

You can also read Books Online without installing Books Online. You can find the entire set of documentation on the web at this location. Although you don't have all of the navigation helps I'll show you, the same material is available. You can find the current version of Books Online for SQL Server here, and it points to other versions.

Starting Out — The Personas

When you first open Books Online, you'll notice that you have several tabs available, and multiple ways to navigate all the content. If you're just starting out with SQL Server, it can be a bit intimidating to find and read everything you need to know.

There are few places you can start. On the left-hand side (by default) there are a set of tabs you can select for various views. Just like most Microsoft products, you click on an item on the left and something displays on the right.

By default, the first section in Books Online is the Categories view, where the content is divided up largely into the primary features SQL Server offers.

If you need to work with something in the database engine, for instance, when you click that item in the “Categories” view you’re shown information in two ways: By Life Cycle and Role.

The lifecycle view allows you to browse the things you need to know by the way you normally set them up. For instance, you normally start a database project by evaluating the technology you need, then learning what features the product has, then planning and so on.

Microsoft also created a set of tasks grouped by job function. These job functions are called "Personas" and represent the studies done on hundreds of database professionals around the world. The topics, arranged into “Roles,” that each of these personas need to know are grouped by function with easy-to-follow hyperlinks. While these personas don't fit every shop perfectly, they do a great job of grouping the topics together, and make a great place to start.

Browsing the Sections

If you're not a beginner with SQL Server, you probably already know what you are after. Books Online has many sections that you can use to quickly locate what you need to find.

The first section you can use is the Table of Contents. It is also broken out by feature, but also includes things like security and the other editions of SQL Server such as Express and Mobile.

Within the Table of Contents, a few sections stand out. Underneath the entry "What's New in SQL Server <version>" is a section for the changes that Books Online contains for that version of the software. Each and every change to the documentation is tracked so that you can learn the content once, and then watch to see what has changed.

Another useful section is just under the heading of SQL Server Overview. Within this Table of Contents entry are various "maps" that show how the features work. This is a great place to start when you're learning a new feature.

If you're after the meat-and-potatoes of the syntax for Transact-SQL or Multi-Dimension Expressions (MDX), check under the heading of "SQL Server Language Reference." For the same kind of hard information on the graphical tools, look under the "Tools and Utilities Reference" topic.

One of the most popular areas in Books Online is the "How To" section. These topics guide you step-by-step through most of the common tasks in SQL Server. You can find those under each feature such as the topic "SQL Server Database Engine" and then "How To."

Another extremely popular topic area is the Tutorials. Microsoft includes graphical presentations on how to perform some of the most difficult tasks in SQL Server. They get their own heading in the Table of Contents.

Using the Tabs

At the bottom of the left-hand panel in Books Online are a few tabs. So far we've been looking at the "Contents" tab. Clicking the middle tab gives you a full alphabetical list of the index entries. I often use this tab when I'm looking up a T-SQL command.

The last tab allows you to save any page references you've found. Once you're on a page you like, you can click this tab, right click the page and click "Add to Favorites." As an alternative, you'll notice a long string in the "URL" bar at the top of each topic, starting with "mshelp:." You can copy those and send them to someone else, and as long as they have the same version of Books Online that you do they can paste that right in the URL bar and it will take them to the same topic.


The search feature in Books Online has probably taken the most criticism in the product. That's a bit unfair, because a lot of people just don't know how to use it, although it isn’t as intuitive as a web-based search that we’ve all become used to. The best thing to do is try the suggestions below a few times, and then I’ll show you a handy way to search Books Online from the web.

If you click in the "Search" tab at the top of the main panel and type in a search, you'll notice that you have multiple locations to search from. By default, Books Online defaults to searching on line first. I normally change this to "Try local first and then online" by accessing the "Options" menu and then "Online."

The next optimization is to limit the search results. Books Online has legal requirements to fully document the product, including all of the API calls and the like. Most of us don't need that level of detail, and you can trim the results you get back by clicking the small "down arrow" button next to the word "Technology" in the search pane.

Un-checking the topics you don't care about speeds up the search and gets you what you want.

Even with these features, the search features in the “full” client aren’t always perfect. For that reason, the Books Online team (officially called SQL Server User Education, or SQLUE) created a set of macros over the Microsoft Live web search engine. Basically this limits a web search to a certain version of Books Online. I use this function all the time now — in fact, it’s rare that I open Books Online on my desktop.

You can find the Books Online search macro for SQL Server 2005 here.

You can find the Books Online search macro for SQL Server 2008 here.

InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters

You can find out more about the features Books Online talks about elsewhere in this Reference Guide.

Books and eBooks

I cover Books Online again in my Administrator's Guide to SQL Server 2005 (also available as a downloadable eBook and in Safari Books Online.

Online Resources

Nothing — not even SQL Server Books Online — is perfect. If you find an issue or have a suggestion, you can use the feedback mechanism inside Books Online to point out a problem. But you can also interact with the entire SQL Server development process by going here.