Fall is usually considered conference season for SQL Server and related technologies and there’s a wealth of conferences to choose from. Of course, you first have to decide if you’re even interested or able to attend a conference, but I hope you’ll at least consider attending a conference. There are as many reasons to attend as there are people attending, but there are also differences of opinion as to what makes an event a conference.

If a local user group brings in four speakers to a publicly-accessible venue and each speaker talks for two hours about their area of expertise, is that a conference? What if there’s only one speaker scheduled for the whole day? Or two simultaneous speakers and attendees can choose between them? Does it make a difference if the conference is free, or if there’s a substantial fee? Would it make a difference if the conference is only half a day, or five days?

Most people seem to agree that to be a conference there should be a variety of speakers on a variety of topics, and most likely simultaneous sessions so that if you’re not interested in one topic, there might be a more interesting session at the same time that you can attend. Of course, the downside of having simultaneous sessions is that you have to make a tough choice if you’re interested in multiple sessions offered at the same time!

Conferences are usually thought of as being at least a few days long, and in addition to the opportunity to learn about your favorite products from experts, you can also meet others trying to accomplish the same kinds of things that you are. For many people, the socialization aspect is as important as the educational aspect. And of course, a good conference has to include good swag, provided either by the conference organizers or vendors.

There’s no question that some of the major SQL Server events are conferences. The two big conferences in the United States in the fall are the PASS Community Summit (http://www.sqlpass.org), which will be held November 18-21 in Seattle, and the SQL Server Magazine Connections conference (http://www.devconnections.com/shows/FALL2008SQL/default.asp?s=122), which will be held November 10-13 in Las Vegas. Although these conferences follow the same basic scheduling format, they are very different.

Almost all the speakers at Connections are recognized SQL Server experts, and the speakers each present multiple sessions. The speakers and the sessions are thoroughly vetted, and quality is pretty much assured. In addition, Connections is held twice a year, on opposite sides of the United States. For PASS, which is held once per year, anyone can submit a proposal to speak and almost all the speakers present only one session. Some of the speakers have never spoken in public before and the quality varies widely. Microsoft fully supports both Connections and PASS and provides speakers for many sessions on many areas within SQL Server.

There are several reasons to avoid big conferences and attend small or regional events. Some of the best speakers choose to speak only at small events. In fact, several of my colleagues have mentioned that the smaller conferences seem to treat the speakers better, so the best speakers are more likely to want to speak at those events. There are many regional conferences that can make it easier on your travel budget. Of course, that’s only true if you live in the region in which the event is being held. Several of the regional conferences are calling themselves “Code Camps,” such as the Colorado Code Camp (http://www.coloradopasscamp.org), which was held in March, and the SQL Down Under Code Camp (http://www.sqldownunder.com/SDUCodeCamp/tabid/100/Default.aspx), which will be held October 10-12 in Wagga Wagga, Australia. However, the name Code Camp seems to imply a developer focus, so if you’re more of a systems person, or are a non-programming DBA, you might want to look at other events. 

There are also several conferences in Europe. Held just outside of London, SQL Bits (http://www.sqlbits.com) is presenting its third conference this Saturday, September 13. In Sweden, a four-city tour called the SQL Summit (http://www.expertzone.se/sql2k8/) will be held October 6-9.

And finally, if the social aspect of conferences isn’t that big of an issue for you, you should consider attending an online conference. The SQL Server Virtual Conference, presented by SSWUG.org, is happening in just a few weeks. And because it’s a virtual conference, there are no travel reservations to make, so it’s definitely not too late to sign up for it.

I know there are many other events out there, both big and small. (Feel free to mention other conferences in the reader comments section of this article page.) However, I couldn’t find any websites that provided a comprehensive list of SQL Server conferences. As an international user group, PASS would be the likely provider of such a list, as it could benefit all SQL Server users, but the group seems to promote only official PASS events. A truly comprehensive list of all events, big and small, worldwide, could be a very useful resource.