I’ve been involved in the SQL Server community since 1990. I’ve played many leadership roles in various SQL Server conferences since the late 1990s, including being a member of the founding board of directors for PASS and acting as the SQL Server Connections conference chair for about eight years. I’ve also been a speaker at dozens of SQL Server events around the world over the past decade. So I’ve seen a lot in the conference and event space. There’s a lot that I love about conferences, but there are also some aspects of traditional conferences that I don’t love quite as much. I often wondered when and how virtual conferences of various kinds would eventually take off. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think traditional “in-person” conferences will ever go away, but for some time it’s seemed inevitable that technology and user appetites would evolve to the point that more virtualization and remote content delivery would eventually take root in the conference space.

As you might know, two virtual SQL Server conferences will be launched in early 2008. SQL Server Magazine, Solid Quality Mentors, PASS, and Microsoft are partnering up to offer “Get Ready for SQL Server 2008” on January 24. Also, the SQL Server Worldwide User’s Group (SSWUG) is offering the SSWUG Virtual Conference over three consecutive half days February 19–21. You can learn more about “Get Ready for SQL Server 2008” at http://events.unisfair.com/index.jsp?eid=157&seid=291. For more information about the SSWUG Virtual Conference, visit http://www.sswug.org/conference/.

I don’t intend for my commentary this week to be an ad for either event. I think that both events will offer rich educational experiences, and you should probably review the content being offered at both events to see if it’s of interest to you. “Get Ready for SQL Server 2008” is free and offers six sessions, and the SSWUG Virtual Conference costs $100 and offers 27 sessions. Instead of an ad, this week’s commentary is more or less me thinking out loud about what the future of virtual conferences holds for us and how virtual conferences might impact more traditional in-person events.

These aren’t the first virtual events that have been held in the SQL Server space. A tremendous amount of SQL Server-oriented online multimedia content, including Web seminars of various flavors, has been available since the Internet became a dominant form of content delivery in the SQL Server space more than a decade ago. But this is the first time that I’m aware of two major online SQL Server events being offered in such close proximity and from leading industry players. In this case, the events go beyond a more traditional Web seminar by offering experiences that attempt to mimic aspects of more traditional live conferences. Are virtual events the wave of the future?

Learning something in a virtual event is just as good learning something in person, if in fact the information gets burned into our synapse the same way. Live events will always have benefits largely related to the social and networking aspects of meeting in person. But let’s be honest, do we really like to travel to events? Do we really need anymore box lunches and conference bags? And who likes sitting in the back or on the floor during the most popular and potentially overcrowded sessions if you get there a bit late? However, I sometimes have the attention span of a minnow. (For the record, I don’t actually know the attention span of a minnow, but I would presume it’s quite short.) I can’t imagine sitting at home, watching hours of content in a compressed time frame without missing the entire event because I was busy answering email messages.

I suspect that old-fashioned, in-person conferences and newfangled virtual conferences will both prosper and mature in various ways. I suspect that virtual events will try to mimic the best parts of live events and that the live events will consider the benefits of virtual events and remove some of the less than ideal aspects of live conferences, as well as eventually offer their entire show content in a virtual manner after, or perhaps even concurrent, with the live event.

Only time will tell. Either way, there will be a ton of great educational material available to the SQL Server community, and I suspect my great-great-grandchildren will still be stuck with the ubiquitous box lunch from time to time.

What do you think?