It hardly seems possible, but SQL Server 2008 R2 is almost ready. Like most R2 releases, SQL Server 2008 R2 builds on the functionality of the base SQL Server 2008 release by improving scalability as well as BI features. Here are five of the most important features you should watch for in SQL Server 2008 R2:

5. Support for 256 logical processors

Organizations pushing the high end of scalability will want to take advantage of SQL Server 2008 R2 support for up to 256 logical processors (which requires Windows Server 2008 R2). This is a big improvement over the previous maximum of 64 processors.

4. Improvements in multi-server management

SQL Server Management Studio (SSMS) has always been great for managing SQL Server. However, SSMS was really for single server management and wasn’t strong in the area of multi-server management. New wizards, dashboards, and enhancements to Policy Based Management will boost SQL Server 2008 R2’s multi-server management capabilities.

3. Master Data Services

Almost all large organizations face the problem of multiple data definitions where the same data is defined and used differently in various locations. SQL Server 2008 R2’s new Master Data Services (MDS) feature provides a central portal from which administrators can create and update master data members and hierarchies, with the goal of ensuring data consistency across the enterprise.

2. Geospatial visualizations in Reporting Services

Building on the geospatial data types in the base SQL Server 2008 release, SQL Server 2008 R2’s Reporting Services will support reports with visual geographic mapping. New geospatial features include visualizations for mapping routine and custom shapes and support for Microsoft Virtual Earth tiles.

1. Self-service BI with Project Gemini

Project Gemini is the core feature of the SQL Server 2008 R2 release. Its goal is to enable organizations to more easily adopt and take advantage of SQL Server’s BI capabilities. It provides self-service BI through a powerful Excel add-in and integrates with SharePoint for centralized management. Project Gemini will require Excel 2010 and SharePoint 2010. For more about Gemini, check out Sheila Molnar’s interview of Microsoft’s Donald Farmer.