This is the second article in a three-part series about the direction of SQL Server Books Online (BOL). In last week's SQL Server Perspectives, The Future of Books Online, Part 1, I introduced David Shank, Microsoft Group Documentation Manager for SQL Server User Education, the team that's responsible for the current and future direction of BOL. As I promised, this week's article covers the growing role of tutorials in BOL. In addition, I share some more insights from David about the future direction of content in BOL.

Related: The Future of Books Online, Part 3

SQL Server 2005 BOL is the first BOL release in which Microsoft has made tutorials a central component of the content. A main chapter heading in the BOL Table of Contents is called SQL Server 2005 Tutorials, and SQL Server 2005 program group even includes a link for tutorials to make it easy to get started. The RTM version of SQL Server 2005 BOL includes tutorials that cover Tools, Analysis Services, Data Mining, SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS), Notification Services, and Reporting Services. The December 2005, BOL refresh added seven new and four modified tutorial topics. (You can easily find these tutorials listed in "New and Updated Books Online Topics.")

I don't want to focus on the mechanics of the tutorials themselves. The tutorials include good content and are a great way to explore unfamiliar product features, so I encourage you to use them. But a more interesting point is that the inclusion of the tutorials shows that Microsoft is thinking about the difference between "syntax-level" knowledge (i.e., content that just describes how the product works) and "how-to" information that helps a customer learn how to use the product. Books Online is part of a team called "User Education" for a reason. Placing how-to information directly within the mandate of the User Education team--to be delivered through BOL--is a wonderful thing.

Providing how-to information through BOL-embedded tutorials is a great direction for the future of BOL, but to some extent, customers might be limited in their ability to use tutorials. You need time and resources to configure your environment and work through a tutorial. Basic tutorials? Sure, you can run through a simple, novice-oriented tutorial on a vanilla, out-of-the-box install. But alas, working through more advanced tutorial concepts often requires more advanced, complicated configurations. Sometimes a novice or intermediate user simply doesn't have time or the right skill set to build the environment necessary to explore more advanced, hands-on exercises. This is especially true with the integration of .NET into SQL Server, which blurs the lines between DBAs and developers.

However, I was excited to learn from David that the User Education team is exploring ways to use Virtual PC-based images as part of the tutorial environment. Very cool. David wouldn't commit to a time when Microsoft will begin delivering on that idea, but I'll have more to say about it in next week's SQL Server Perspectives. Also, as I've discussed in previous Perspectives articles, Microsoft has taken baby steps in this direction by offering Web-based virtual labs for SQL Server and other products, which you can find at http://msdn.microsoft.com/virtuallabs/sql/default.aspx.

In the beginning (well, at least the first version of BOL), content was primarily focused around syntax--definitions and explanations of features. BOL will always be the definitive source for syntax, but tutorials are more about education than about documentation. In that spirit, Microsoft has made some other cool changes in BOL that emphasize education rather than just documentation. Two important changes are integrated Ask a Question links and an integrated ability to search selected community sites.

To be honest, the Ask a Question link is a bit lame; it doesn't include any "smart searching" based on the jump-off point of the currently selected BOL topic. Without that smart search, you might be better off with a direct Internet search. However, the idea of linking the ability to ask a question to the location of a BOL topic is very cool indeed. I'll follow up on that idea in more detail next week.

However, the ability to search important community sites directly from the BOL interface is quite useful. From the BOL main menu, select Tools, Options, Help, Online to quickly see a list of eight major community sites (in addition to MSDN) that you can search for SQL Server content. I mentioned to David that with this feature, BOL is becoming a portal for all relevant SQL Server-related content, and David seemed to strongly agree that was an important direction the User Eduation team was taking BOL.

That's all for this week. This second part of the commentary wraps up the direct feedback gleaned from my interview with David. Next week I'll share some of my own ideas about what I think the long-term direction of BOL should be.

NOTE: David Shank has graciously invited SQL Server Magazine UPDATE readers to email him ideas about what BOL is doing well and not so well. Do you have feedback about what BOL should be? Send it to David at davidsha@microsoft.com. Please send your feedback to me too at brian@solidqualitylearning.com and help me keep my finger on the pulse of the SQL Server community.