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  2. Microsoft: A Late Player to the Game in Database Terms
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Microsoft: A Late Player to the Game in Database Terms

Like Oracle Corporation, Microsoft Corporation started from a very paltry beginning, and has grown to be the largest independent software company in the world! This section takes a look at Microsoft's history, focusing on the SQL Server product and how it came to be a core product in the Microsoft arsenal.

Microsoft is the world's largest independent software company, and hails a number of key successes in its 27-year history. At the head of the company is William H. Gates, better known as Bill Gates, who has aggressively driven Microsoft to greatness. (Bill is a college dropout—he never actually graduated! This shows that determination and drive, rather than diplomas, are keys to success.) Microsoft started from a simple vision in 1975 that revolutionized the world. And I believe that today they have fully realized their vision.

Microsoft Fast Facts

  • World headquarters: One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399

  • Founded: 1975

  • Employees: 48,000+

  • Nasdaq symbol: MSFT

  • URL: http://www.microsoft.com

Microsoft began with an informal arrangement between two visionaries—Bill Gates and Paul Allen—known as Micro-Soft. In 1975, Paul and Bill utilized a very new programming language known as Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC), originally developed by John Kemeny and Tom Kurtz, two professors at Dartmouth College, to run on the first personal computer, an Altair 8800. Bill and Paul envisioned a computer on every desk and in every home. In those days, when PCs were for hobbyists and mainframes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, this really was a very entrepreneurial vision. And many people scoffed at the thought of computers being small enough to reside on a desktop.

From these very early beginnings, the two knew that they had a very marketable product. Paul Allen went on to work for Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS) as the director of software development, while Bill Gates focused on selling and licensing BASIC to a number of organizations, including Citibank, NCR, and General Electric, while of course still enrolled at university.

In 1977—ironically, the same year that Oracle v1 was developed (though not released to the market)—the pair formalized their partnership and Microsoft was born. However it wasn't all clear sailing for the dynamic duo; they had to fight for their marketing rights to the BASIC language, in what seems to be a recurring theme throughout Microsoft's history.

By 1979, BASIC was going nuts. Every minicomputer sold on the market had BASIC aimed at it; Bill really was pushing the product forward, and Microsoft was experiencing tremendous growth. By now, Oracle v2 had been publicly released, and although Microsoft was peddling the BASIC programming language they still had no other products. Microsoft made a strategic decision at this point to branch their software development to include other products, so that they could realize their very early visions.

In 1980, Microsoft released their first-ever spreadsheet application, called Microsoft SoftCard (thankfully, their names got better over the years). The software was developed for the Apple II minicomputer, and allowed users to run CP/M-80 applications.

The signing of a key contract with IBM in 1980 allowed Microsoft to develop Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) for release on the IBM PC. With that, Microsoft's foray into the operating system market began. The negotiation of this contract left Microsoft free to market the product to other hardware manufacturers; this really was the foothold that they needed.

The year 1983 saw the announcement of a 16-bit graphical user interface (GUI) for the PC, called Microsoft Windows. However it wasn't until a little later that the product actually became a reality. By this time, Microsoft had become an international company, and really gained momentum. With the announcement of Microsoft Windows, people began to sit up and take notice. Microsoft Windows was publicly released in 1985, and though others doubted the idea of a GUI for a PC, sales were booming and the company was experiencing remarkable growth, in fact, the company was preparing to go public.

On March 13, 1986, one day after Oracle Corporation, Microsoft Corporation released shares to be purchased publicly. With an initial share price of $21 per share, everyday people purchased shares in this burgeoning software company. Later the same year, Microsoft entered into talks with Sybase to license DataServer, a core Sybase product that ran on a UNIX platform.

By 1988, Microsoft began development of SQL Server, in conjunction with Sybase. This release was formally known as Ashton-Tate/Microsoft SQL Server 1.0, and wasn't even released for the Windows environment. In fact, the database was designed for the IBM OS/2 platform. SQL Server 1.0 was jointly marketed by Ashton-Tate (the PC database leader of the day) and Microsoft. Even in these very early days, Microsoft realized that Sybase's database technology was very good, and saw the raw potential of the RDBMS.

Microsoft's involvement in the product was in a very limited capacity: providing administration tools, client software, and programming libraries. The core database engine at the time was owned solely by Sybase, and Microsoft developers had no access to the source code! All bugs and enhancements that were reported had to be dealt with by the SQL Server team at Sybase. However limited, though, Microsoft's SQL Server was born.

In 1989, the first version of Office (for the Apple Macintosh) was released. Prior to this, only Microsoft Excel had been released. This was another dramatic change for Microsoft; it publicly signified the company's desire to move from the operating system market to providing applications.

By 1990, Microsoft was ready to ship Windows 3.0, and the company invested a staggering $10 million in marketing for the product. Windows 3.0 was a phenomenal success, and set the standard for graphical computing. Hard work and investment in the product really paid off for Microsoft; they sold a whopping 4 million copies of Windows 3.0, shipped to 24 countries and released in 12 different languages.

Probably the biggest event in SQL Server's life, however, was the announcement of Windows NT Server. (By the way, in case you were wondering what NT stands for, it stands for—nothing! Unlike most acronyms in the IT industry, NT and CE don't actually stand for any shortened name.)

From early successes with Windows, Microsoft realized the importance of integrating their products. With the release of Windows NT Server in 1992, the road ahead was paved for SQL Server. Up to this point in time, Office and Windows were Microsoft's only fully-owned core components. Their own venture into the database market was with Access 1.0, which, compared to Oracle, was like comparing a 1992 BMW 320i with a 1969 VW Beetle!

The year 1993 saw the release of SQL Server 4.2 for Windows NT 3.1. This was still a joint development with Sybase, but Microsoft took responsibility of the future direction of SQL Server for the NT platform. SQL Server 4.2 leveraged the core strengths from Sybase's version of SQL Server (4.2), which ran on the UNIX platform. While a first-version product for NT, this was a real milestone in the history of SQL Server. It provided Microsoft with the first commercial database for the Windows platform, and a strong direction for the future.

The prospect of an easy-to-use interface with a high-end relational database proved to be very successful, and SQL Server and Microsoft enjoyed fantastic growth. By 1994, Microsoft and Sybase terminated their partnership, and Microsoft took sole ownership of the core SQL Server product, including the database engine.

The year 1995 marked yet another major milestone for SQL Server. Microsoft released SQL Server 6.0, which included a major rewrite of the core database engine, providing specific performance improvements and better manageability.

By 1996, SQL Server 6.5 hit the shelves, and Oracle was beginning to take notice. Oracle's decision to move into the NT space showed that Oracle saw Microsoft's promising product as a threat, and decided to act on it. By no means was SQL Server 6.5 as robust as Oracle 7.1 (almost 8 by this time), but the product was featuring on the TPC performance benchmark sites, and offered would-be buyers a much cheaper alternative to Oracle's core product.

In 1998, SQL Server 7.0 was released with yet another significant rewrite to the core database engine. This time the fundamental data storage, query analyzer, and backup mechanisms changed, allowing for better performance, online backups, and point-in-time recovery, as well as making the product easier to manage. While this feature was supported but not easily implemented, you could cluster an installation of SQL Server 7.0, allowing organizations to scale out the product, without the huge cost associated with clusters at the time.

SQL Server 7.0 also saw a change to the way the product interacted with other products. SQL Server became more integrated into the operating system, and included native support for all 32-bit Windows operating systems. A single database could be backed up and restored from a Windows 98 machine to a Windows NT 4.0 Enterprise Server. Perhaps one of the single biggest key developments for SQL Server 7.0 was the out-of-the-box decision-support services. SQL Server 7.0's support for building data warehouses and decision-support services broke through the Oracle barriers set at the time. Organizations could now purchase and develop data warehouses easily, effectively, and more cheaply than ever before. But that wasn't all; the key changes to the underlying data engine allowed SQL Server to move from an online transaction processing (OLTP) database only to a scalable, enterprise enabled online analytic processing (OLAP) database.

Year 2000, and the world was still here! We hadn't seen the predicted crash of all the computer systems around the world. SQL Server was going strong, and this time the release was titled SQL Server 2000, though the core internal versioning referred to the release as SQL Server 8.0. The product had not undergone a dramatic rewrite, as was the case from version 6.5 to 7.0, but everything was improved: performance, reliability, scalability, TOC, and ease of management. SQL Server 2000 now scales out very easily. You can implement active/active and active/passive clusters, a maximum of 8 processors, 64GB of memory, and very large database (VLDB) support. SQL Server 2000 is a force to be reckoned with. Not only this, but SQL Server 2000 holds some of the best TPC performance records available. No wonder Oracle and Microsoft go head-to-head!

So what about the future? While the next release of SQL Server is still a little way off, SQL Server 2000 64-bit version is currently in beta, and new services are being developed for SQL Server, such as Notification Services (also in beta). Microsoft have enjoyed phenomenal growth with SQL Server over the years, and they're not about to stop. With the beta release of "Yukon" (the next version of SQL Server) only a few months away, I'm sure that we'll really begin to see the future direction of this very popular RDBMS.

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