In this column, I typically present my commentary and opinions about SQL Server and Microsoft data management in general. But lately, I've been spending a bit of time discussing Microsoft Office, spreadmart, and related topics that are clearly connected to data management, but aren't my usual meat-and-potatoes relational database discussions. I promise to get back to my "real" database roots soon, but this week, I can't help but opine about the intriguing ideas and products that are part of Microsoft's recently unveiled Unified Communications road map. As part of my discussion of Unified Communications, I also want to examine Microsoft's revised plans for WinFS, the long-awaited next generation Windows File System, which relies on core aspects of SQL Server. So in way, maybe this week's article really is about SQL Server.

First, let's take a look at the thoughts of Bill Gates, which he released to customers in a recent executive email titled "The Unified Communications Revolution" ( http://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/execmail ).

The irony is that rather than making it easier to reach people, the proliferation of disconnected communications devices often makes it more difficult and more time consuming. And in an age when business success increasingly depends on how quickly people can share information, this is a critical issue.

In the coming years, unified communications technologies will eliminate the barriers between the communications modes--email, voice, Web conferencing and more--that we use every day. They will enable us to close the gap between the devices we use to contact people when we need information and the applications and business processes where we use that information. The impact on productivity, creativity and collaboration will be profound."

You really should read the entire interesting, thought-provoking message. Of course, your first reaction might be like mine, along the lines of, "Wow, sounds like a great idea. But I'm not sure how easy or practical solving the problem of disparate communications will be." But heck, people used to laugh at the idea of a PC on every desktop. As modern communication technologies push us 10 steps forward and 9 steps back, maybe Microsoft can create a magic pill to manage those technologies. I also suggest you read the Microsoft Press Pass article and product road map at http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2006/jun06/06-25UCGRoadmapPR.mspx .

How does WinFS tie in? Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or a DBA) to figure out that the communications strategy that Microsoft is outlining will create the potential need for vast, almost unimaginable amounts of storage. Much of the metadata could lend itself to traditional database solutions, but much of the unstructured voice and communications data will not. WinFS sure would be a clean way to think about solving the problem.

Alas, the further delays and repositioning of WinFS cause me to wonder whether Microsoft will ever get this technology to market in a timely manner. Microsoft seems to be positioning Microsoft Exchange and new technologies as the core data-storage engines behind the Unified Communications roadmap. WinFS might have been a great solution. But as you might already know, Microsoft recently announced that WinFS would be delayed again and will not ship as a standalone offering. Plans for a Beta 2 of WinFS have been cancelled. Microsoft is positioning this cancellation as "no big thing" and says that the more mature parts of WinFS are simply being added to the Katmai CTP (no announced dates for that yet). But the fact remains that this delay is a major setback for WinFS--and for the entire concept of creating file systems integrated with Windows that rely on core aspects of SQL Server.

For a more detailed Microsoft-based perspective about what the WinFS changes mean now and in the future, see Quentin Clark's blog at http://blogs.msdn.com/winfs/archive/2006/06/23/644706.aspx .