As I was listening to the keynote and other presentations at the TechEd 2013 conference in New Orleans, I couldn’t help but think that Microsoft might be getting too far out in front of its customer base. As you would expect, Microsoft pushed its cloud technologies (e.g., Cloud OS, Windows Azure, Windows Azure SQL Database), but perhaps more importantly for database professionals, the company also moved ahead with another major release of SQL Server: SQL Server 2014.

Related Video: Is Microsoft Getting Too Far Ahead of Its Customers?

Most businesses already have a problem keeping up with the newest releases and typically lag behind the latest Microsoft releases. This is true for all enterprise products, but it's even more true for relational databases that support the organization’s mission-critical applications. There’s a lot of risk involved in enterprise database upgrades, which means a lot of development and QA resources have to go into rolling out each new release. That risk—and to a lesser degree the out-of-pocket costs required to upgrade—is the main reason why there are a lot of businesses still running the SQL Server 2008 and SQL Server 2005 releases.

Accelerated Release Cycle & Cloud-First Development Model

That situation might be exacerbated even more as time progresses. There’s no doubt that Microsoft has accelerated its release cycle and adopted a cloud-first development model. This mirrors its shift toward becoming a services-focused company, but it's a big change from the company's historical precedence of developing for its box products first and then later pushing them to the cloud. Now, development for the cloud comes first, and then technology is later incorporated into the boxed products. Although this cloud-first strategy might be what Microsoft wants, I’m not so sure it’s what businesses want. The cloud-first development strategy allows Microsoft to release new technologies sooner, but clearly one of the major thrusts with this strategy is to push companies away from an on-premises infrastructure toward a cloud or hybrid cloud infrastructure, and businesses were already having trouble keeping up with the old release cycle.

Microsoft’s cloud-first approach might be putting too much distance between its technology and its customers. Interest in the cloud is growing, but it’s still in its infancy. Most businesses are just now somewhere between the "learning about the cloud" phase and the "toe dipping" phase. Clearly, some Microsoft cloud products are gaining traction. Office 365 in particular has been getting a good reception among businesses. However, unlike tier 1 database applications, Office is a low-risk proposition. For core business applications, the private cloud will probably be where most organizations will begin moving toward cloud technologies. Even that’s in the future for most organizations.

Focus on Being at the Cutting Edge

Microsoft has been working on the cloud for some time and has a tendency to focus on the next thing—forgetting that most companies aren't very far along on this path to cloud. To be fair, you really have to expect a technology company like Microsoft to be at the cutting edge. Customers really do look to companies like Microsoft to have a vision for the future of IT and technologies that can help make that vision a reality. Microsoft has to keep working in this direction, or it will be outflanked by its cloud competitors.

There’s no doubt that a lot of businesses will be excited by some of the features in the SQL Server 2014 release. Certainly the new In-Memory OLTP Engine could be worth the upgrade all on its own. But I wonder how many are ready for a new major release so soon. And then, down the road, how will businesses keep up with Microsoft’s cloud-first development methods? Adopting cloud technologies might be the only way to keep up. With the cloud, you don’t have to worry about upgrading your own infrastructure, but are businesses really ready to get off the sidelines and start adopting the cloud? Or will the cloud create a gulf between businesses and Microsoft? With all the new technology on the horizon this year, it looks like it’s shaping up to be a critical year for Microsoft and the cloud.

Is your business ready for a new release of SQL Server? Are you ready to adopt a private or hybrid cloud strategy? Let us hear what your take is on the new development cycle, and I’ll share some of your thoughts in the next column.